Jury foreman hopes Desai verdict sends message

The foreman of the jury that convicted Dr. Dipak Desai and nurse anesthetist Ronald Lakeman in the hepatitis C outbreak says he hopes the medical community learns a big lesson from the verdict.

“I hope it sends a strong message that this sort of behavior won’t be tolerated,” James McIntosh said Tuesday. “People have to be held accountable to a certain standard of care.”

McIntosh, deputy chief financial officer for the Clark County School District, said jurors found it painful to hear about the shoddy operations of Desai’s now-closed main clinic, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

“Everybody was very unhappy with what they heard and saw regarding the clinic,” McIntosh said. “It’s pretty scary when you hear this kind of testimony. You think of yourself and your family and how you take for granted the care you get.”

McIntosh said he found the experience of serving on the jury the past two months “grueling,” but added, “I’m glad I got to be a part of it, and I think we did the right thing.”

Jurors convicted Desai, 63, of all 27 counts related to the 2007 outbreak, including second-degree murder in the death of infected patient Rodolfo Meana, 77.

Lakeman, 66, was acquitted on the murder charge and other charges tied to Meana’s 2012 death, but found guilty of 16 other counts.

Both defendants potentially could face the rest of their lives in prison.

“This is one of the most important cases this community has seen in many, many years,” District Attorney Steve Wolfson said. “Our prosecutors will seek a stiff sentence, including significant prison time.”

According to Wolfson, Desai by statute faces a potential sentence of 34½ years to life in prison and Lakeman could receive a sentence of 15 to 69 years behind bars.

District Judge Valerie Adair will have the final word when she sentences both defendants Sept. 5.

Adair on Monday ordered Desai and Lakeman detained while they wait to be sentenced. Desai, who has suffered strokes in the past, is being held in the isolated medical unit of the Clark County Detention Center. Lakeman is in what jail officials call “open booking,” waiting to be assigned a cell.

Keith Mathahs, 77, a nurse anesthetist who pleaded guilty late last year, is expected to receive a lighter punishment than his co-defendants because of his cooperation with prosecutors. Mathahs, who is free on bail, faces 28 to 72 months in prison under a deal worked out between his lawyer and prosecutors. His sentencing date has not been set.

Monday’s verdict brought an end to one of the largest and most complicated investigations undertaken by Las Vegas police.

The investigation was launched in March 2008 after health officials disclosed the outbreak and urged some 64,000 patients to get tested for blood-borne viruses.

“This community and the affected patients in particular, can now have some sense of closure in this chapter of sub-standard care that was allowed to go on by so many people because of the power and influence of a single individual,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Staudaher, the lead prosecutor in the case.

“The jury’s verdict in this case has hopefully sent a message to health providers, from nurses to doctors, that if you compromise patient care and well being to keep a job or to line your pockets with cash, you will be held accountable.”

Sheriff Doug Gillespie said Desai was a prominent member of the medical community before he was indicted in June 2010.

“Whether you’re prominent or not, you’ve got to follow the rules,” Gillespie said. “If you choose not to do that, like in this case, and it rises to criminal conduct, we’re going to step in and do our job and do it thoroughly.”

The criminal charges, which also included criminal neglect of patients and insurance fraud, focused on the hepatitis infections of Meana and six other patients at Desai’s endoscopy center on Shadow Lane.

Prosecutors portrayed Desai during the trial as a penny-pincher who ran his clinics like an assembly line, recklessly churning out procedures at the expense of patient care.

Unsafe injection practices involving the sedative propofol led to the outbreak, prosecutors contended. The combination of double-dipping syringes into propofol bottles used on multiple patients spread the virus from source patients infected with hepatitis C.

McIntosh said jurors bought into the prosecution’s theory of how the deadly virus was transmitted early in their two days of deliberations, which began Friday. When it came down to reaching a verdict, there was never any doubt about Desai’s guilt, he said.

Jurors had trouble agreeing whether Lakeman should be held accountable for Meana’s death because he didn’t participate in Meana’s colonoscopy, and ultimately found him not guilty in the death, McIntosh said.

But overall, McIntosh said, he thought prosecutors did a good job of presenting their case.

Robert Whiteley, the lead detective in the investigation, said he’s glad the case is over after more than five years of painstaking work.

“I feel satisfied,” he said. “It’s good to be done.”

Whiteley, 43, who has spent the past eight years in the Criminal Intelligence Section of the Metropolitan Police Department, said it took a “team effort” and a close working relationship with the district attorney’s office to obtain the outbreak convictions.

Investigators poured over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, including records from 100,000 patient files, and did more than 100 interviews of witnesses, many reluctant to provide information, Whiteley said.

“Everybody was kind of scared to talk because their professional licenses were on the line, or they were worried about being sued or prosecuted,” he said.

But in the end, Whiteley explained, roughly a dozen former Desai partners or staffers ended up receiving limited immunity from prosecution to cooperate in the investigation.

Whiteley said he has no regrets limiting the dragnet in the investigation to Desai and the two nurse anesthetists.

“I think we concentrated on the right people,” he said. “They were the powers directly involved in the infections.”

Whiteley said it was tough emotionally dealing with the families of the hepatitis C victims, especially Meana’s, during the investigation.

“The hardest part was setting up an autopsy prior to somebody passing away, which is something that doesn’t happen too often in criminal investigations,” he said.

Meana died of complications of hepatitis C in his native Philippines, and police sent an officer and county medical examiner there to observe the autopsy.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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