Fugitive doctor appears in court

March 1, 2010 Dr. Mark Weinberger of Merrillville disappeared in 2004 after he was accused of overcharging patients and Medicare for unnecessary surgeries and for services not rendered.

Monday was Weinberger's first appearance in court in Indiana after being captured in the Italian Alps.

"I was so glad that he is back, and he can face us. I don't know how he sleeps at night," said Lyndsay Ponda, Weinberger patient.

Ponda is a former patient of Weinberger, the 46-year-old known as The Nose Doctor, until he disappeared six years ago. Back on U.S. soil Monday, he was a federal prisoner. He faces 22 counts of fraud for allegedly billing insurance companies for never performed surgeries or in Ponda's case, unnecessary surgeries.

"I went in for headaches and came out with a heart problem and sinus problems and worse headaches," Ponda said.

She is one of 300 former patients with similar stories. Six years ago, Weinberger vanished while on vacation in Europe. He disappeared after attorneys filed civil suits against him.

"Dr. Weinberger was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars every month, actually more than $100,000 a week doing these surgeries, by some accounts, $200,000. He and his wife lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous with chauffeurs and yachts," said Kenneth Allen, who represents plaintiffs.

Weinberger was captured in December living in a tent on the mountainside near the Swiss border. Back in Indiana, he faced a federal judge, sporting a shaved head and orange jump suit, the former sinus surgeon appeared without an attorney. He answered to the judge's questions but seemed confused at times.

"It appears he is setting up a defense, whether it is insanity or mental duress, I don't know, said Allen.

Ponda said she hopes Weinberger never lives as a free man again.

"He needs to be a man and not take the cowardly way out," she said.

If convicted on all 22 counts, Weinberger faces a maximum of more than 400 years in prison. He will return to the federal courthouse in Hammond Thursday for an arraignment and detention hearing.

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