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Death, Probe of Dermatologist Shake California Beach Town

December 28, 1992

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ Most folks along this stretch of the Pacific coast know the cancer risk of tanning in the sun.

″At one time or another everybody wants a good dermatologist,″ said resident Donna Folger.

That’s why Mrs. Folger and others were shaken to hear about Orville Stone, one of the most popular skin doctors in town. He was being investigated for diagnosing cancer in healthy patients so he could collect more insurance money.

Stone, 61, died on Dec. 3, the day he found out about the investigation.

After talking with state investigators who searched his office, Stone drove to the desert east of Palm Springs, got out of his car and stepped in front of a tractor-trailer, authorities said.

Suicide, said the county coroner. No way, said Stone’s family, friends and patients.

Before Stone’s death, state medical board investigator Steve Rhoten had taken complaints from five former Stone employees, all fired earlier in the year. Their affidavits formed this scenario:

Last March, Stone began hoarding samples of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. After excising healthy skin samples from patients, he substituted cancerous tissue and sent it to the lab, diagnosing carcinoma when it came back.

What was in it for Stone? About $100 each time, the difference between what the insurance company would pay for cancer treatment and what it would pay if the lab tests showed healthy tissue, Rhoten said.

″He had a very successful practice and could have retired years ago on the amount of money he made,″ said Gary B. Ross, a lawyer for the Stone family. ″It’s ridiculous to suggest that he would have jeopardized an international reputation for the difference between $50 and $150.″

Stone never told his patients they had cancer when they didn’t, Ross said. Rhoten acknowledged that patients probably hadn’t been physically harmed.

Stone treated 40 to 50 patients a day. He was recognized mostly for his work with fingernail and toenail ailments. He headed the training program in dermatology at the University of California, Irvine, and published extensively in medical journals.

He certainly knew that basal cell carcinoma hardly ever spreads to other parts of the body. It’s one of the easily treatable cancers. Doctors usually just cut it away.

Ross and former patients suggested the fired employees tried to get the doctor for revenge.

″I don’t think there are any better dermatologists in the state, maybe the nation,″ said Jim Blodgett, a patient who recalled talking many times with Stone about his own work as a medical malpractice attorney.

Stone had a history of minor strokes. He was accustomed to taking long drives when he was upset and hadn’t slept for 30 hours on the night he died, Ross said.

Stone had just been confronted with the worst allegations of his life and his wife told Ross he hadn’t taken his hypertension medicine. The family theorizes that he became disoriented on a highway near Indio and was trying to flag down the 16-wheeler that hit him.

The employees who made the allegations weren’t listed with the phone company. Rhoten wouldn’t put a reporter in touch with them. He said he would probably close the investigation after the first of the year.

Mrs. Folger, a patient for nine years, said she had referred her husband, relatives and at least a half dozen friends to Stone.

″In no way do I believe he would have ever done anything like that,″ she said. Stone had steered her away from surgery that turned out to be unnecessary, she said. ″And I don’t believe he took his own life.″

Stone’s wife, Marti, declined to be interviewed.

The family has hired a private investigator and an accident specialist to clear the doctor’s name, Ross said.

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