Alfred Sapse, an unlicensed physician described as a “modern-day Dr. Frankenstein,” was sentenced to 17 ½ years in federal prison Tuesday in a scheme to defraud chronically ill patients through an experimental stem cell implant procedure.
Senior U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson, calling the 87-year-old Sapse’s conduct “abhorrent,” also ordered him to pay roughly $1.1 million in restitution.
Dawson remanded Sapse into federal custody and U.S. marshals handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom. He asked about his blood pressure medication, as he was taken away.
Earlier, Sapse remained defiant, telling the judge he was the victim of a government vendetta and a “kangaroo court.”
He said he expected to die in prison.
Dawson was not impressed with Sapse’s attitude, suggesting he showed no remorse and still was advocating false claims of stem cell implant benefits.
“What I’m hearing now is that you still believe in this quackery that you promoted,” the judge said in handing down the stiff prison term. “What you did was abhorrent without regard for the individuals you were treating.”
Dawson also scolded Sapse for a last-minute attempt to fire his attorney in what the judge called a “ploy” to delay his punishment.
A jury in November convicted Sapse and his late co-defendant, longtime Henderson pediatrician Ralph Conti, of conspiracy and fraud charges in the implant scheme.
The procedure involved surgically placing dead placental tissue in the abdomens of ailing patients. The theory behind the implant was to allow stem cells in the tissue to migrate to damaged areas of the body and repair them.
Conti, 51, who had been practicing medicine locally since 1990, and Sapse, a Romanian-educated physician who is not licensed in the United States, both were found guilty of conspiracy and fraud charges.
Three weeks after the guilty verdicts, Conti died following surgery at Desert Springs Hospital and Medical Center. His death remains a mystery.
Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said his office, which did extensive tests on Conti, issued a rare ruling of “undetermined” in his death.
“We could not find a definitive cause of death,” Murphy said.
In a sentencing memorandum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Crane Pomerantz described Sapse as the “mastermind” behind the implant scheme.
“Sapse committed a grotesque fraud in which he convinced incurably sick people to undergo ineffective and potentially dangerous medical procedures for his own enrichment,” Pomerantz wrote.
The prosecutor said federal probation officials “aptly described” Sapse as a “modern day Dr. Frankenstein, who allowed the dead placental tissue to be implanted into his patients knowing the procedure did not work.
“He sold hope to patients who had none,” Pomerantz wrote.
Sapse made $1 million off the scheme and gambled away a large share of it at local casinos. Pomerantz, added.
During the four-week federal trial, Pomerantz alleged that Sapse paid Conti $60,000 in 2006 to perform the phony procedure on 30 patients with serious illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
Both Conti and Sapse testified the procedure resulted in dramatic improvements in several ailing patients who received implants. Most of the patients weren’t from Nevada; one came from South Africa.
But prosecutors argued the defendants’ claims were a ruse that took money from the ailing patients and dashed their dreams of a better life.
“Using purported medical practices and procedures to steal from vulnerable persons who are ill is disgusting and wrong,” Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said in a news release after the sentencing.
Sapse ran the scheme out of his apartment and did no research or testing before getting Conti to practice on patients, prosecutors argued during the trial.
Some of the implanted tissue was taken from placentas cleaned with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water in the kitchen sink of a midwife and stored in her refrigerator.
Prosecutors contended that the cleaning process actually killed the tissue before it was implanted.
The defendants had no idea who donated the placentas and whether they came from mothers with any infectious diseases.
Defense lawyers argued Sapse and Conti were motivated by compassion, not greed, and that all of the patients knew beforehand that the procedure was experimental.
Sapse insisted during his trial that the criminal proceedings against him were part of a campaign by the government to prevent him from developing a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
While testifying in his own defense, he took credit for developing the anti-aging drug Gerovital and getting it legalized in Nevada in the 1970s when Food and Drug Administration officials wouldn’t approve it.
Sapse also testified that a federal raid at his Las Vegas apartment during the stem cell investigation traumatized his bedridden, 88-year-old wife and led to her death in 2009.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal investigations.
Contact reporter Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-8135. Followhim on Twitter @JGermanRJ.