The Fugitive

Child psychiatrist Robert Gross claims malicious federal prosecutors unfairly charged him with fraud and forced him to flee to England. Is it the doctor or the judicial system that is out of touch with reality?

For much of the first half of the decade, psychiatrist Robert Hadley Gross felt like a hunted man. Federal agents let the young doctor know he was in their crosshairs, and they were hell-bent on pulling the trigger.

Perhaps no one was more relentless in his pursuit of Gross than Fred Moore, a special agent with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service. Part of Moore's job was to root out fraudulent claims processed by government health-insurance providers.

Every few months, Moore would show up at Gross' Fort Worth office, flash his badge, and demand to see the doctor immediately, even when he was in session with a patient. Then Moore would grill him about questionable billing practices.

How did Gross' name happen to appear on claim forms for patients who weren't his? How could he bill for services he claimed to provide on days he was out of town? Wasn't it true that he received kickbacks for committing his patients to certain hospitals?

Gross had answers for all of Moore's questions. His signatures on the claim forms were forged, Gross insisted, and when the agent questioned him about it another time, Gross even submitted to an FBI handwriting analysis. On the days he was away, therapists, other doctors, and medical students covered for him. And the substantial sums the hospitals paid him weren't kickbacks, but payment on his contracts with the hospitals that required him to do mental-health seminars.

Moore didn't buy Gross' explanations and told him so. In fact, he had no qualms telling Gross, as well as Gross' colleagues and staff he interviewed, that he thought the doctor was guilty of fraud and that he wasn't going to rest until Gross was behind bars.

In the spring of 1996, Moore looked like he was going to make good on that promise.

The U.S. attorney's office informed Gross they believed they had proof he bilked insurance companies by charging for services he did not perform. They wanted him to plead guilty to one count of fraud and spend two years in prison. They also asked him to wear a microphone to help them nab other unscrupulous physicians.

Gross refused, believing the case against him was bogus. The pressure began to mount. First, the IRS subpoenaed his business and tax records for the past six years. A few weeks later, Moore served him with his seventh subpoena in four years, the latest ordering him to produce records for every patient he treated--almost 700 files--plus correspondence with every insurance company he ever dealt with. He had three weeks to hand the documents over to a federal grand jury--a task that required him to photocopy all the files after carefully culling them for sensitive and privileged information. Gross was studying for law-school final exams at the time while still practicing psychiatry part time to support his wife and three children.

U.S. District Judge John McBryde refused to grant Gross an extension on the subpoena. Gross produced the documents five days late, but the U.S. attorney's office refused to accept them. McBryde found him guilty of criminal contempt, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. A federal marshal escorted the doctor downstairs from McBryde's court to be photographed, fingerprinted, and jailed until he could post bond.

Special Agent Moore was waiting for Gross when he arrived at the booking area. He dismissed the marshal, saying he would take it from there. He ordered Gross to grip the cell bars while he frisked him for weapons while they were alone, which is against procedures. When Moore's hands got to Gross' genitals, the doctor says he cupped his testicles for longer than he should have and snickered. In a subsequent letter to federal officials, Gross likened the incident to a sexual assault.

That night, when Gross got home, he was crying and raving like a madman. Neither his wife nor his father, a former college professor visiting from England, could console him. After his encounter with Moore, Gross says, something snapped. He could no longer handle the pressure of the four-year intensive investigation and what he believed was the government's intention to get him by the balls any way it could.

It was then, he says, that he decided to flee. Two weeks later he disappeared.

For the last two years, fugitive Gross, as the federal prosecutors call him, has remained the lone holdout in a massive scandal that changed the way psychiatry is practiced. His is the final chapter of a story that rocked Texas, but his case raises as many questions about the prosecution as it does about the prosecuted. Is Gross guilty or simply guilty by association? A fish trying desperately to wiggle out of the net, or, as he insists, a decent man dirtied by a scandal that tarred an entire profession?

Gross' troubles stem from his four-year affiliation with the Psychiatric Institute of Fort Worth and Bedford Meadows Hospital. The two facilities were part of a national chain of mental-health hospitals owned by National Medical Enterprises, one of the worst offenders in psychiatric scandals of the early 1990s. In 1994, NME pleaded guilty in Washington to various fraud charges and paid a record $379 million in fines and restitution.

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