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A Fountain of Trouble : High hopes for Dr. John Zane's injections made him a hero to some in Palm Springs. Now, he faces trial on various charges--including fraud.

March 24, 1994|MATTHEW HELLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALM SPRINGS — Dr. John Zane arrived in the desert around 1989 with credentials as an attorney and a physician--and a treatment that sounds like something out of the Old West.

He charged up to $1,500 per injection with a serum that would "cure everything from hangnails to cancer," a deputy state attorney general said in a court brief last year. Zane found dozens of customers from the Palm Springs area, many of them socially prominent, some of whom swear by the doctor and his treatment.

By last December, however, Zane had resigned from the California State Bar and his medical license had been revoked. An expert for the state wrote in a report to the Medical Board of California that Zane had engaged in "charlatanism" by peddling a serum that did little more than fuel a brief high.

The Medical Board's investigation, in part, led law-enforcement authorities to charge Zane with two counts of fraud related to his claims about the shots. He is also charged with embezzling from three legal clients, with trial on all five felony counts scheduled for April 25. He has pleaded not guilty; if convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to eight years in prison.

David Kogus, one of Zane's lawyers, said last week his client had declined a written request for an interview with The Times. "He's coming up so close to trial he doesn't want a whole lot of publicity. I think that's wise," Kogus said.

Dan Goldsmith, who investigated Zane for the state Medical Board, said the case points up how even in these supposedly wiser times elderly residents of affluent resort communities can be vulnerable to a skilled salesman promising a Fountain of Youth.

"What's most unique is he was able to convince so many people that this stuff was going to cure so many different things," Goldsmith said in an interview. "And then they paid so much money for it."

Zane, 62, is seeking to have his medical license reinstated. "I never promised to cure anyone," he said in a declaration filed in civil court last year.

"I'm not stupid," he told The Desert Sun newspaper last May. "I'm not about to tell you what I can cure for you." Some patients may simply have mistaken his enthusiasm and optimism for a guarantee, he added.

More recently, a psychologist testified at a Medical Board hearing that if Zane had stretched the truth, it was because he was suffering from a mental illness.

Zane's defenders range from a former congressman and an actor to a bishop and two men who are HIV-positive. They portray him as more New Age than Old West, an advocate of alternative medicine whose treatment really works.

*

Zane, a Polish-American native of Detroit whose real name is Zabinski, sold Cadillacs and storm windows to pay his way through college. He earned a bachelor's degree at Villanova University and then received his medical training at Wayne State University in Detroit, graduating in 1957.

After moving to California as a urology resident, he built practices in family medicine and general surgery in Los Angeles and Anaheim. In the late 1970s, he obtained a law degree from American College in Brea.

While pursuing the two careers, Zane and his wife, Gertrude, who goes by the name Sunny, lived in the South Bay and joined riding clubs in Rolling Hills. They became co-chairs of the Polonaise Ball, an annual Polish-American charity event held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

But in his physician's role, Zane ran into trouble. In newspaper ads, he promoted a test that could "detect cancer risk far faster and far more accurately than any conventional test." The test, the ads said, involved taking a blood sample from the earlobe and putting it through a computerized diagnostic machine.

The state Medical Board was not impressed. Ruling that Zane had "engaged in gross negligence and incompetence," it placed him on probation for seven years, effective in late 1982. Around the time that probation expired, he moved to Palm Springs, where he and Sunny had often spent vacations.

In the desert, he quickly built a legal practice specializing in plaintiffs' personal-injury cases, airing commercials on local radio and TV that emphasized his dual credentials, according to local lawyers. His Yellow Pages ad shows a logo of the scales of justice superimposed on the insignia of the American Medical Assn.

"That's the biggest hook he had," said a former associate who asked not to be identified. "His medical knowledge was supposedly so vast that he could help you on both ends of your case."

The pitch paid off. According to interviews with local lawyers, he captured about a third of the Coachella Valley's total caseload of personal-injury cases. But the work was hardly glamorous and he told one associate that he did not care for it.

"Once he asked me, 'Do you really like this law stuff? . . . I hate it,' " Marsha Ciniello, who was a paralegal in Zane's office, recalled in an interview.

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