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Prison Doesn't Cure Need to Play Doctor

Crime: A man serving his fourth term for impersonating a physician is caught in the act again, officials say.

September 29, 2000|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gerald Barnes, serving a 12-year term for impersonating a doctor, was such a model inmate that he was given bus fare and allowed to travel unescorted from a federal corrections camp in Taft, Calif., to another minimum security facility in Marion, Ill.

Big mistake.

Barnes never showed up.

After a monthlong search, U.S. marshals tracked him down Wednesday in a North Hollywood medical clinic with a stethoscope draped around his neck, apparently up to his old tricks.

The 67-year-old Barnes, who was trained as a pharmacist, has been imprisoned four times since 1981 for masquerading as a medical doctor.

When last sentenced in 1996, a federal prosecutor described him as incorrigible.

"He's been living a lie for 20 years," the prosecutor told Los Angeles federal Judge J. Spencer Letts. "He's a serious danger to the community. He's a pathological liar. He's someone who can't stop himself."

But at the Federal Correctional Institution at Taft, executive director Terry Craig said Thursday that Barnes was a sterling inmate.

"We were all extremely shocked when he failed to report to Marion," Craig said.

The federal facility at Taft is operated by a private corporation under contract to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Barnes lived in an unlocked dormitory for low-risk inmates in a camp-like setting. He was transferring to a similar facility in Illinois to take part in a special vocational training program.

Inmates like Barnes typically are allowed to travel unescorted from one camp to another because they are considered highly reliable, Craig said.

Barnes checked out of Taft on Aug. 29. He was supposed to catch a bus from nearby Bakersfield to Illinois, arriving at Marion by noon on Aug. 31. When he failed to show, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

When taken into custody at the North Hollywood medical clinic, he was still going by the name of Gerald Barnes, the same name he lifted from a Northern California physician two decades earlier.

Barnes' first conviction came in 1981, when he was sentenced to three years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter in the death of a diabetes patient whose condition he misdiagnosed while posing as a doctor at an Irvine clinic.

Released after 18 months behind bars, he resumed practicing medicine at clinics in East Los Angeles and West Covina. His cover was blown when a receptionist who had worked at the Irvine clinic recognized him and tipped off authorities.

After pleading guilty, he was sent back to state prison for a term of three years and four months. He was released early for good behavior. By 1989, he was back in prison again, this time for passing himself off as a doctor at a medical clinic in San Bernardino County.

Despite his criminal record, Barnes had little trouble again getting work as a physician once he got out.

Five years passed before federal authorities finally caught up with him in 1996. Barnes admitted using the name and medical registration number of the Northern California Dr. Barnes to get work at numerous medical clinics in the Los Angeles area.

At one clinic, he performed examinations on hundreds of state and federal law enforcement officers, including FBI agents. One physician who hired him described him as charming, personable and seemingly knowledgeable, but another said he let him go because he was incompetent.

Barnes' closest legitimate connection to medicine occurred in 1958, when, as Gerald Barnbaum, he graduated from the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy in Chicago. In 1976, he and 10 others were indicted on federal Medicaid fraud charges. He was stripped of his license by the Illinois pharmacy board, but was acquitted by a jury.

He then moved to California, where he changed his name to Gerald Barnes.

On Thursday, he answered to that name when he appeared before a federal magistrate in Los Angeles, who ordered him transported to Illinois to face a charge of escaping from federal custody.

This time, he will not be traveling alone.

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