Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
Aside from the body count and the movie-star-good-looks of the accused, there was nothing particularly special about the Adrian Zoebel case.
He wasn’t the first doctor to be accused of killing his patients and wouldn’t be the last. Even as I was covering the investigation for the Times, I didn’t expect the story to have a very long lifespan. I probably would have been right if Marc Cronenburg hadn’t gotten involved.
Perhaps Zoebel would’ve been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Perhaps he’d have taken a plea, served a few years, then spent the rest of his life selling insurance in the valley.
Or perhaps he would have been vindicated and gone back to work as if nothing ever happened. In each of those scenarios Zoebel would have dropped from the public’s radar as quickly as he had surfaced; never to be heard from again.
Enter Marc Cronenburg, who happened to have the television in his office tuned to Fox News the afternoon Zoebel was taken into custody. He would later tell GQ Magazine, “The Breaking News alert caught my eye, and the rest, as they say, is history!”
Sitting at my desk in the bullpen, the alert caught my eye, as well. There was the handsome cancer doctor being led into the L.A. County Jail, dressed in blue scrubs, with his hands cuffed in the front.
Unlike most people in his situation, Zoebel’s back was arrow-straight and his head held high. His face was stoic. He was doing a good job of keeping it together.
Cronenburg told GQ that the moment he saw Zoebel on his flat screen he knew the good doctor had “IT!”; and no one could capitalize on “IT!” better than Marc Cronenburg. He immediately called Allen Grumman and told him to get his fat ass to the jail and go on record as Zoebel’s attorney. That phone call would change the lives of everyone involved; including my own.
Zoebel spent one night in a holding cell and was never formally charged with a crime. He was released into Grumman’s custody the next morning without posting bail. He climbed into the back of a black Escalade with Cronenburg Worldwide plates and Ahmed Omar at the wheel.
Within a few months, the investigation was over without ever going to a grand jury. Within six months the California legislature passed the “Death with Dignity Act”, making whatever crimes Zoebel might have committed crimes no more. Sure, he could have still been tried since his alleged crimes occurred before the passing of the law, but the chances of that happening were slim to none, especially now that he had the most powerful man in Hollywood on his side.
Zoebel was driven to Cronenburg’s Malibu estate, where he spent the next six months in exile. I remember thinking how odd it was that Zoebel was staying at Cronenburg’s house rather than his own place in Beverly Hills. I assumed there was a prior relationship between the two; though all my digging failed to turn up what the nature of that relationship might be.
I spent the next few weeks trying to come up with something worth writing about. The allegations were simple. Twelve of Zoebel’s patients, all with terminal cancer and less than a few months to live, died in the hospital under his care.
There was no suspicion of wrong-doing (the sudden death of a terminal patient is not unusual) until a nurse named Nancy Kellerman saw Zoebel altering hospital pharmacy records late one night; hours after he should have gone home. She reported him to the hospital administrator, but no action was taken.
Not one to give up easily, Kellerman called the state medical licensing board and that’s when the investigation began in earnest. An inventory of the pharmacy showed a significant amount of Seconal unaccounted for. The question of what Zoebel might have done with the drugs led to a check of his patient records, which showed that over a three month period he had lost twelve patients to sudden cardiac arrest.
The authorities suspected that Zoebel had injected these patients with the missing drugs. Though their suspicions were mostly based on circumstantial evidence (access and motive), a few weeks later they took him into custody.
After Zoebel was released, the investigation ground to a halt. There were no witnesses who actually saw him administer the drugs that were suspected to have taken his patients’ lives.
The families of the deceased refused to allow autopsies. And the hospital, of course, had no comment. After a while everyone lost interest… well, everyone, but me.
I felt in my bones there was more to the story than just a doctor mercy-killing his patients and a Hollywood mogul coming to his defense. So I kept digging. I interviewed everyone I could find who knew Zoebel personally, professionally or socially. Not a soul had anything remotely unflattering to say about the guy except for Nurse Kellerman, who proved to be one of those people who didn’t have much nice to say about anyone.
They all basically said the same thing, “He’s a dedicated doctor and tireless worker… he refuses to quit… he never gives up… he donates to lots of charities… he loves little kids and animals and old people.
The son of one of Zoebel’s patients told MSNBC, “He took great care of my dear mother.”
“Yeah,” I added, “Right up until the day he helped her die.”