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Did Father Know Best? : Paul Fleiss Was Everyone's Favorite Baby Doctor and the Perfect Dad of Six of His Own. So How Did He End Up Facing a Federal Rap With His Daughter Heidi?

April 09, 1995| Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer who broke the story of Heidi Fleiss' call-girl ring in 1993.

Despite his popularity, the doctor was occasionally the object of complaints. Court records show that of five malpractice complaints filed against him, two ended in out-of-court settlements. (The rest were either dropped or won by Fleiss.) In one case that was settled, the parents contended that Fleiss was so insistent that they breast-feed their infant, despite the mother's difficulty in producing milk, that the child eventually became dehydrated and went into hypertensive cardiac arrest. The baby ended up losing a kidney, said the lawyer who represented the family.

In the other case, a Burbank couple charged that Fleiss had been too lax when their 3-year-old developed a fever. The doctor, they said, told them it was nothing to worry about. Then the child suffered a seizure resulting in irreversible brain damage.

Lawyers for Fleiss--who admitted no guilt in either settlement--say that in the first case, factors other than the breast-feeding problems had led to the kidney loss. In the second case, according to Fleiss and his lawyer, the toddler's seizure was caused by a virulent infection that would have caused brain damage even if it had been diagnosed earlier.

Medical malpractice experts characterized his record as fairly typical for a veteran pediatrician. Less typical is the devotion of his patients, who use words like angelic and saint when they talk about him. "Finding Dr. Fleiss was like finding a treasure," says Kelli Way, a 30-year-old mother of six. "He's one of the sweetest men I have ever met."

As a father, he was also committed, even though there were "a lof kids, and difficult family dynamics," according to one old friend. Kim may have been the eldest, but charming Heidi dominated the pack. It was Heidi, they say, who organized the games, plotted the escapades, tied the shoelaces of the younger kids. To be with Heidi was to be where the fun was, and to watch her talk her way out of trouble was to see a master at work.

"Heidi was my mom's favorite," sighs Shana Fleiss, now a shy and fragile adult whose struggle with drugs has landed her in a rehabilitation program, according to court transcripts. "I mean, I knew (my mother) loved me, but she and Heidi, like, had their own language." Shana says she resented the situation.

Kim Fleiss, now 32 and a veterinarian in Florida, wonders whether it was Heidi's curse. Kim bounced between the Fleisses and her natural parents, for several years before she was adopted by the Fleisses at age 8. "For me, coming into this family that was so generous and open-minded--it really turned me around. But for Heidi, having a lot of leeway--well (when she misbehaved), her actions were considered not wrong, but witty or cute instead."

If the household itself was easygoing, the metropolis surrounding it--Hollywood--was no-holds-barred.

"Our house was the house on the block where everybody went because they knew our parents (were flexible about) what time we came home," Shana says. "So our friends would say, 'I want to stay at Shana's,' and their parents would think, 'Well, the mother's a schoolteacher, the father's a doctor, there shouldn't be any problems,' and then we'd just go stay out at night going to clubs. My parents didn't have a clue.

"By the time our parents started talking about curfews, it was too late. We were, like, 15 or 16. I had been going out doing things since I was 12 years old."

But the Fleisses say they were not completely in the dark about their kids' activities. "Shana makes it sound like they were just allowed to run loose, and that certainly was not the case," Paul Fleiss says.

Still, at about age 14, Heidi began getting into trouble--petty shoplifting, truancy, plummeting grades. She'd cut class and go to the racetrack. When her report cards reflected the absences, she has said, she would change the grades and forge her parents' signatures. Semesters passed before they caught on.

Neither parent wanted to make too big a deal about Heidi's tendency at that time to be "easily diverted" in class. The doctor notes: "Picasso was always looking out the window, too." But as her problems became more apparent, her mother says, they "were really at odds on how to deal with her."

"He figured it was a passing stage," she says. "He said, 'Basically, she's a good girl. Don't have this kind of adversarial position in this delicate position in her life.' (But) when kids are teen-agers, you have to be able to confront them."

At 17, in a family that revered education, Heidi received permission to drop out of school. The plan, her father explains, was for her to get her equivalency degree and enroll in junior college and then a university.

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