“In the summer of 1985, in his exclusive Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, Robert Bierenbaum, a prominent surgeon and certified genius, strangled his wife Gail to death. He then drove her body to an airstrip in Caldwell, N.J., and dumped it into the Atlantic Ocean from a single-engine private plane. The next day he reported her missing.” (Kieran Crowley, Author, “The Surgeon’s Wife”)
It was 15 years ago this week in the city of New York that a superior court jury convicted a physician of murdering his wife, and then tossing her body from a small airplane somewhere out off the darkened Atlantic coastline.
And some people wonder why a Paramedic might become a heretic.
Doctor Robert Bierenbaum, age 45 at the time of the trial, had been under investigation since his 29-year-old wife Gail disappeared in the first week of July, 1985. Gail Katz-Bierenbaum’s body was never found.
Although Bierenbaum, a cosmetic surgeon, was the primary suspect in the case for many years, detectives doubted more than once that they would ever gather enough evidence to prove what had all the hallmarks of a perfect murder. Gail had gone missing with scarcely a trace of evidence, and Bierenbaum did what physicians generally do after serious crimes – he simply crossed a few state lines and established a new clinic in North Dakota. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Presto! A brand new life.
He remarried – this time a to a lady doctor – and his new wife had a baby girl, all as New York state investigators in Manhattan worked what was rapidly becoming a very cold case.
But because of their unrelenting efforts, pieces of the puzzle finally started to come together. And when they discovered that a small local airport over the bridge in Sussex County New Jersey, still had paper flight records boxed away in archives, they proved that on the night of July 7, Bierenbaum had flown a Cessna 172 alone, out over the Atlantic Ocean. During routine questioning regarding his whereabouts on the day of Gail’s disappearance, the doctor had given a detailed explanation of where he had been – and what he had done. But not once did he ever mention he’d flown an airplane. Why hide that particular fact?
Detectives came to the conclusion that the murder had probably occurred in the couple’s apartment. They recalled how odd he had behaved when the subject of a search of the house had come up. They believed he methodically dismembered her body; placed her into a large, canvas utility bag and within two hours, tossed the bag from the plane high above the ocean. Details of his secret flight; contradictory statements he had made to multiple girlfriends; and the fact that he’d sent a house carpet out for cleaning the day after the murder, were sufficient evidence to bring a human butcher to trial.
The case was circumstantial, and it was damning.
Not long before Gail went missing, for example, Bierenbaum had actually consulted three different psychiatrists about his violent outbursts. He admitted he had once strangled her until she went unconscious. He confessed to the psychmeisters that he’d once tried to drown her cat in the bedroom toilet, because he knew how much she loved her furry little pet.
Just what you want in a doctor.
All three psychiatrists had warned Gail that she was in danger and at least on wrote in a letter to her, advising that she should leave the marriage. Gail had confided all of this and more to her sister and close friends. The prosecution was able to successfully argue to the jury that the doctor killed his wife in a rage during an argument about her threatening to expose the psychiatrist’s letter.
”The jury was unanimous,” said Jason Hauf, one of the jurors. ”We were pretty much in agreement. All the facts, in totality, drew us in the direction of guilt.”
Telling the packed courtroom that she did not know what a fair sentence for such a monstrous crime might be, Judge Leslie C. Snyder sentenced the doctor to a 20-years-to life state prison term.
Note to judge: how about lopping off his head beneath a guillotine?
Bierenbaum’s new wife, Doctor Janet Chollet, decided not to be present at the final hearing.
Here’s another look: