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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Dismemberment - The victim's body has never been recovered
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 7, 1985
Date of birth: 1955
Victim profile: His wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, 29
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Manhattan, New York, USA
Status: Sentenced to 20 years to life in prison on November 29, 2000

Robert Bierenbaum is a plastic surgeon who has been convicted in October 2000 of murder in the strangulation death of his wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum. The death occurred in their Manhattan apartment on July 7, 1985.

Bierenbaum, a licensed pilot, took a two-hour flight in a Cessna 172 from Essex County, New Jersey over the Atlantic Ocean on the day that Gail had vanished. He failed to mention this fact to authorities during their initial questioning.

The prosecution stated that Bierenbaum discarded his wife's dismembered body in the ocean. The victim's body has never been recovered.

Despite a witness testimony for the defense who stated that he saw the victim in a Manhattan bagel shop during the time that Bierenbaum took his airplane flight, Bierenbaum was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison in New York. He appealed, but the conviction was upheld in the New York state Supreme Court 2002.


The Bierenbaum case was the subject of the 2001 New York Times non-fiction bestseller book The Surgeon's Wife. It was also one of the stories in the television show Dominick Dunne: Power, Privilege, & Justice on Court TV.

In the ISBN database, the summary of the book includes:

"...Robert Bierenbaum, a prominent surgeon and certified genius... Gail's parents had been thrilled to learn she was marrying Robert Bierenbaum. He seemed to be the perfect match for their daughter. he was from a well-to-do family, a medical student who spoke five languages fluently, a skier, and he even flew an airplane."

"...Robert had tried to choke Gail because he caught her smoking, she filed a police report. She also alleged that he tried to kill her cat because he was jealous of it."

Bierenbaum has been referred to as The Lady Killer. It has been said in Vanity Fair and New York magazine, that women still find him attractive, even though he has been convicted of murdering his first wife.

Legal precedent

People of the State of New York v. Robert Bierenbaum was a landmark case, setting precedent on upholding Physician-patient privilege even when a Tarasoff warning is invoked: "Neither a psychiatrist issuing a Tarasoff warning nor a patient telling his friends he's in treatment constitutes a waiver of a patient's psychiatrist-patient privilege."

The case was also used as precedent in the California case of Glyn Sharf, where the accused was charged of murdering his wife, even though the victim's body was never found.

Medical status

As a result of the New York state Medical Licensing Board's misconduct review following the court case, Bierenbaum surrendered his License to Practice medicine in November, 2000. In September 2002, New Jersey also revoked his medical practice license.


Doctor Gets 20 Years to Life For the Murder of His Wife

By Katherine E. Finkelstein - The New York Times

November 30, 2000

A Manhattan judge sentenced a plastic surgeon convicted of murder to 20 years to life in prison yesterday, saying that he used his elite background and medical knowledge in dismembering his wife, squeezing her body into a duffle bag and dumping it from an airplane.

Saying before a packed courtroom that she did not know what the fair sentence was, Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder of State Supreme Court in Manhattan gave Dr. Robert Bierenbaum a sentence that fell halfway between the minimum and maximum guidelines.

Dr. Bierenbaum, who has maintained his innocence, did not speak at the sentencing. But his lawyer, Scott Greenfield, requested the minimum sentence of 15 years to life, saying, ''He is no threat to society and doesn't need rehabilitation.''

In the 15 years since his wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, disappeared, Dr. Bierenbaum remarried, had a baby girl and built a thriving medical practice in Minot, N.D. He also devoted time to charitable causes.

Mr. Greenfield, who has represented Dr. Bierenbaum since he first fell under suspicion in 1985, said that over 15 years, his client's life had been marked by ''caring, compassion, charity.''

But in her statement in court yesterday, the victim's sister, Alayne Katz, asked for the maximum sentence, 25 years to life. ''He shall remind this court that he was a productive citizen, a doctor,'' she said, but added that he used his ''wealth, intelligence and education'' to discard her sister's body.

Dr. Bierenbaum sought the ultimate advantage over his wife, Ms. Katz said, ''to prevent her from exposing him as a violent and twisted man.''

Justice Crocker Snyder seemed to echo this in her statement before imposing the sentence. Given the ''hours and hours'' that he spent cutting up his wife's body and dumping it, she said, ''the portrait that emerges of this defendant is one that needs a psychiatrist'' to sort through.


Robert Bierenbaum Trial

Defendant: Robert Bierenbaum
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Scott Greenfield, David Lewis
Chief Prosecutor: Daniel Bibb
Judge: Leslie Crocker Snyder
Place: Manhattan, New York
Date of Trial: October 2-24, 2000
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 20 years to life

SIGNIFICANCE: Fourteen years after the disappearance of his wife, a prominent New York City doctor was tried and convicted for her murder, although her body was never found.

Dr. Robert Bierenbaum moved after his wife's July 7, 1985, disappearance from their New York City apartment—first to Reno, Nevada, in 1989, and then in 1996, to Minot, North Dakota. Fourteen years later prosecutors would charge that Bierenbaum had murdered Gail Katz Bierenbaum, packaged her body, and then dumped it from a Cessna 172, flying over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Montauk, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey.

After Gail vanished, her husband told police that she had left their apartment on East 85th Street in Manhattan following a fight, stating she was going to Central Park to calm down. A friend would later testify that Bierenbaum had speculated that his wife had been abducted or murdered by drug dealers with whom she was acquainted. As all their friends knew—and Bierenbaum acknowledged then and would later—their relationship had been a troubled one.

In Nevada and in North Dakota, by all accounts, Bierenbaum led an exemplary life. His medical practice flourished and, from 1990 on, he frequently flew his own plane to El Fuerte, Mexico, to perform free reconstructive surgery on poor children with cleft palates. He remarried and his new wife, Dr. Janet A. Chollet-Bierenbaum, praised him as a caring and loving husband. Friends believed that the first time around he simply had had the misfortune to marry a tormented, manipulative, and suicidal woman.

Growing Suspicions

Police investigators and Alayne Katz, Gail's sister, never bought into the picture of Robert Bierenbaum as a put-upon husband. They suspected him of murder from the beginning, even if there wasn't much evidence or even a corpse. Immediately after Gail's disappearance, Alayne launched a campaign against him, writing letters to his New York neighbors and to hospitals where he worked, and would take credit for driving him from New York. In 1989, she believed that a female torso washed ashore on Staten Island was that of her dead sister. However, in 1997, when Alayne and her brother Steven had the body exhumed, a DNA test revealed the body was not Gail's.

Alayne told reporters that her sister had confided to her that Bierenbaum once dunked her cat in a toilet boil and was often violent. Indeed, on November 12, 1983, Gail had filed a police report claiming that her husband had choked her until she lost consciousness. Later, police investigators traveled to Las Vegas where they questioned acquaintances of Bierenbaum, some of whom fed their suspicions with hearsay comments. But what finally convinced police and prosecutors they had enough evidence to make a murder case was what Bierenbaum hadn't told them—that he had taken an airplane out for a two-hour flight on the day his wife disappeared. Moreover, although airport records later verified the trip, it appeared he had attempted to alter the flight log. Brought back from North Dakota, Bierenbaum was arraigned in New York City on December 8, 1999, and freed on bail to await trial.

The Trial

When the trial opened on October 2, 2000, the press was focused on how the prosecutors would solve the problem of the "missing body." Basically, the law demands that the prosecution of any crime must pass the corpus delicti test, which refers to the "body of the crime," not a human corpse, proving that the crime actually took place. Normally, the prosecution does base a murder case on a dead body, or on other physical evidence, but legal history is replete with murder convictions won by prosecutors who built the "body of the crime" without such traces, effectively demonstrating that a crime had taken place by circumstantial evidence. Although there are always obstacles to such a presentation, the prosecution built that argument brick-by-brick in the Bierenbaum case.

Without any trace of her corpse, prosecutors had to prove that there had been no sign of Gail Bierenbaum's existence since the date of her disappearance. That required testimony from friends and family members who claimed not to have heard from Gail since she disappeared. Investigators also explained how they had combed through records across the United States without finding any trace of her. There had been no subsequent activity in her bank, credit card, or Social Security accounts.

Prosecutors also had to present a theory of the case illustrating the circumstances under which the murder could have happened and explaining what the defendant's motive might have been, including evidence of a troubled relationship. Gail Bierenbaum had had affairs with at least two men and had separated more than once from her husband. The prosecution claimed that on the weekend of her disappearance she intended to tell her husband that she was leaving permanently for another man.

Prosecutor Daniel Bibb claimed that Bierenbaum had strangled his wife after she told him she was ending the marriage. The prosecution contended he then placed her body in a duffel bag and put it in the trunk of his father's Cadillac. Next, according to Bibb, he drove to the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, where he rented a plane, flew out, low over the ocean, and disposed of the body. A police reenactment was videotaped and shown to the jury, demonstrating how bags could be dumped from an identical airplane.


The prosecution showed that Bierenbaum had lied repeatedly and had given conflicting versions of specific events. For example, Bierenbaum had falsely claimed that a private detective had spotted his wife as a waitress in a California resort after her disappearance. Another lie was that Gail's psychotherapist, Dr. Sybil Baran, had told him his wife was suicidal. Dr. Baran testified that she had never reported such a thing. Baran also noted that Gail had gone apartment hunting and had bought birth control devices just before she disappeared, hardly the acts of someone contemplating suicide.

But the most damning lie was one of omission—that Bierenbaum had never disclosed to the police a two-hour flight on the day his wife disappeared and then had apparently attempted to cover up the flight by altering the log.

Three psychiatrists had warned Gail Bierenbaum that her husband was homicidal, but Judge Leslie Snyder ruled that they could not testify because of patient confidentiality. The judge said she was distressed that she had to exclude testimony of the three psychiatrists who were impressed by the danger posed by the defendant, but that she had to balance that against the protections afforded by the law to patient-doctor relationships. Prosecutors argued that Dr. Bierenbaum had waived his right to confidentiality by allowing his own psychiatrists to speak about his treatment with his parents and his wife. However, two groups opposing the testimony, the New York State Psychiatric Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association, argued in a brief that the waiver of confidentiality that allows psychiatrists to warn third parties of potential harm by a patient ends when that threat ends. The "goal of warning," argued the attorney for the psychiatric association, "is to protect people, not to prosecute them." Therapists feared that use of such evidence in court would discourage patients from sharing feelings of violence in the future.

The defense strategy was based on shooting holes in the prosecution case, rather than risk putting Bierenbaum on the stand to testify in his own defense. Defense attorney David Lewis claimed the prosecution's case was based entirely on guesswork. There were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence. Lewis admitted that Gail's disappearance with no trace did suggest she was dead, but he claimed no one could possibly know how she died. The defense also pointed to her risky behavior, including her love affairs with drug users. Under the defense's theory of the case, Gail's many threats to leave her husband suggested she might have done so and then met with foul play. Moreover, the defense argued that she had a background of erratic behavior and had once attempted suicide.

After two weeks of testimony and two days of deliberation, on October 24, the jury found Bierenbaum guilty of second-degree murder. State sentencing rules called for a minimum sentence of 15 years to life and a maximum of 25 years to life. On November 30, 2000, Judge Snyder sentenced Bierenbaum to 20 years to life. Bierenbaum's appeal is pending.


The victim

Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, 29.


Dr. Robert Bierenbaum and his wife Janet leave court during his trial for
the murder of his first wife Gail. (AP/Wide World Photos)





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