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Feds Say Smooth Con Man Masqueraded as Physician Since 1970s

April 18, 1996

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ He was the image of a good doctor, a knowledgeable professional with a soothing bedside manner and a rapport with patients.

Now authorities say Gerald Barnes was a fake, a failed pharmacist who took a real doctor’s name, and off and on since the 1970s examined patients, prescribed drugs and diagnosed illnesses _ at least once with deadly results.

Even through two previous arrests and an 18-month stint in prison for manslaughter, Barnes always found a way to slip through the cracks in the system and pick up his ruse where he had left off, authorities said.

``He’s a very good con man,″ said Frank Heckl, a retired investigator for the California Medical Board who previously has arrested Barnes. ``He has very good patient rapport, better than most doctors.″

Barnes, 62, who held the post of chief physician at a prominent downtown clinic, was charged Monday in federal court with fraud and practicing medicine without a license.

He had been at the Executive Health Group, where he did contracted physicals of senior executives at dozens of large corporations, as well as determine whether officers were fit for duty at the FBI and the California Highway Patrol.

His story began in Illinois, where under his given name _ Gerald Birnbaum _ he received a pharmacology degree and worked in a Chicago medical clinic as a pharmacist.

But in the mid-1970s, his career as a pharmacist ended when Illinois regulators revoked his license amid allegations of Medicare fraud.

He then moved to California and legally changed his name to Gerald Barnes _ the same name as a real physician in Stockton. He asked for _ and received _ copies of the real doctor’s license documents from California medical regulators.

Armed with those documents, he obtained a job at a clinic in East Los Angeles, and later a better-paying job at a medical center in Irvine.

The charade began to unravel in 1980, according to court papers, when Barnes sent home a 29-year-old patient after failing to recognize the man’s complaints of dizziness, thirst and weight loss as classic symptoms of serious diabetes. The man drank a soda at home and died, and Barnes was imprisoned after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

But once he got out of prison, he resumed his act. He was convicted again in 1984 of grand theft and forging prescriptions while posing as a doctor at two Los Angeles County clinics.

At his latest clinic, Barnes had conducted five to 20 physicals a day. Court papers show that Barnes is believed to have performed medical examinations on hundreds of workers at the Los Angeles office of the FBI, including special agents, which is probably the reason the investigation has led to federal charges.

Like all good con men, Barnes was careful ``not to get in too far over his head,″ Heckl said. ``Normally, he’d recommend a difficult case to another doctor.″

It was unclear how Barnes was able to go undetected, since his latest employer claimed to have done an extensive background check.

Paul W. Frankel, who owns Executive Health’s New York-based parent, Life Extension Institute, said his company’s investigation included a review of Barnes’ medical license, driver’s license and Social Security card. It also had four letters of recommendation and had a criminal background check done by a private investigator.

``We’re dealing with a turn-of-the-century cottage industry of licensing doctors,″ Frankel said. ``This is an example of system failure.″

Even Barnes’ wife, Lisa, told investigators she had no idea her husband was a fake. At his court appearance, she appeared shaken and was choking back tears.

Barnes appeared frail before the magistrate, telling her in a barely audible voice, ``I have diabetes and prostate cancer.″

When he was confronted with the allegations of impersonating a doctor last weekend, he tried to kill himself with an overdose of pills, according to court papers. He was ordered held without bail and is under a suicide watch.

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