Fraud trial for pediatrician, researcher heads to jury

A federal jury late Tuesday began deliberating the fate of a Henderson pediatrician and an 86-year-old medical researcher charged with defrauding chronically ill patients through an experimental stem cell implant procedure.

Ralph Conti, 51, who has been practicing medicine here since 1990, and Alfred Sapse, a Romanian-educated physician not licensed in the United States, are facing conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud charges in the courtroom of Senior U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson.

After four weeks of testimony and five hours of closing arguments, the jury received the case a little after 4 p.m. and left about an hour later. The panel is to return at 9 a.m. today .

The criminal case became public in July 2010 after federal authorities arrested Sapse and accused him of duping patients into undergoing the procedure.

Conti was charged months later.

Sapse paid Conti $60,000 in 2006 to perform the procedure on 30 patients with serious illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, knowing the procedure wouldn’t work, prosecutors alleged.

Both Conti and Sapse testified during the trial that the procedure resulted in dramatic improvements in several of the ailing patients who received implants.

The procedure involved surgically implanting placental tissue in the abdomens of the 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.

But federal prosecutors described the defendants’ claims about the procedure as a ruse that ended up taking money from the ailing patients and dashing their dreams of a better life.

“These people were easy money,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre told the jury.

Myhre called Sapse the “pitch man” and Conti the “delivery man” in the scheme and said the case boiled down to the “lies” of the defendants.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Crane Pomerantz told the jury that Conti, a widely known medical professional, created a “facade” during his defense that he was a caring physician. But in reality, he did the implants for the money and made little effort to track the progress of the procedures.

Pomerantz said Conti shed “crocodile tears” on the witness stand when he insisted he still believed in the procedure.

Sapse ran the scheme out of his Las Vegas apartment and did no research or testing before getting Conti to practice on patients, Myhre said.

Some of the tissue was taken from placentas cleaned in the kitchen sink of a midwife and stored in her refrigerator, prosecutors argued. The defendants had no idea who had donated the placentas and whether they came from mothers with any infectious diseases, prosecutors said.

Defense lawyers argued that Conti and Sapse were motivated by compassion, not greed, and that all of the patients knew beforehand that the procedure was experimental.

Oakland, Calif., attorney Dennis Roberts, who represents Conti, said the pediatric community here sees Conti as the “No. 1 guy” in the field.

“You don’t become that No. 1 guy if you’re defrauding people,” Roberts told the jury. “You can destroy a man’s career, his reputation, by the wrong vote. Save his reputation.”

Daniel Albregts, who represents Sapse, said his client had no intent to defraud the patients.

“He had a belief,” Albregts said. “He wanted to provide that hope to those who needed it.”

Albregts described Sapse as a “visionary,” someone who thinks outside the box in the interest of advancing medicine.

“Give Dr. Sapse back what’s left of his life,” he told the jury.

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