Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
After Susan left I put on a pot of coffee and took a hot shower while it was brewing. I stood under the steaming spray for a long time, letting it beat down on the back of my neck and shoulders, letting it wash away the tension of the past few days.
Susan was facing death with more guts than I’d been showing. I decided to change that. If she could go toe-to-toe with the Grim Reaper without fear I could damn sure do the same with Marc Cronenburg and Adrian Zoebel.
I poured myself a mug of coffee and left it black. I took it to the kitchen table where my laptop and the memory stick were waiting. I took a careful sip and set the cup aside and picked up the memory stick. I stared at it for a minute. I knew all l I had to do was stick it in the slot on the side of the computer and my world would never be the same. I felt a little like Aladdin about to rub the lamp. Or perhaps more appropriately, like Pandora about to open the box she thought held her dreams; only to discover the nightmares within.
I slid the memory stick into the computer. The little window popped up and asked me what I wanted to do. What do I want to do? I want to call Susan and tell her that I will be there to hold her hand when the time comes. I want to call Reuben Morales and tell him I have the evidence he needs to put away Adrian Zoebel. I want to call Nancy Grace and tell her to kiss my ass. What do I want to do? It’s a very long list.
I took a deep breath and held it as I clicked to open the files. Susan had everything neatly organized. There were fifteen folders; one for each of the twelve who died in the hospital, and the three who died at home. Each folder was labeled with the name of one of Zoebel’s dead patients. Anderson, June. Bailey, Samuel. Bradford, Hansel. Carmichael, Katherine. Emerson, Andrew. Fulton, Noreen. Hamilton, Oliver. Hughes, Patrick. Kilpatrick, Rebecca. Lewis, Henry. Monroe, Vera. Peterson, Olga. Quincy, Walter. Vance, Charles. Waters, Mary Beth.
Inside each patient’s folder was another folder labeled Medical History. That folder contained digital copies of the patient’s medical records, hospital charts, a list of drugs prescribed, images of x-rays, even Zoebel’s handwritten consultation notes. Susan went so far as to include a READ ME text file in each folder that summed up, in layman’s terms, exactly what I was looking at.
The READ ME file for Vera Monroe read, “Name: Vera Louise Monroe. Age at the time of death: 74. Diagnosis: Stage IV colon cancer. Date of Diagnosis: 11/12/11. Prognosis: Terminal, 3 to 6 months to live. Date of death: 4/23/12. Cause of death: Cardiac arrest brought on by a lethal dosage of Seconal. Location of death: Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Attending physician: Dr. Adrian Zoebel. Attending nurse: Susan Harris.
The file went on to detail exact dates and times of office visits, treatments and drugs prescribed, dates and duration of hospital stays, names, addresses and phone numbers of next of kin, and finally, a copy of the death certificate.
Each patient’s folder also contained another folder labeled Photographs. Inside were half dozen or so photos of Zoebel and the patient; candid shots taken during office visits and hospital stays; I assume taken by Susan. The patients were smiling and hugging Zoebel as if he were a close family member.
Something struck me as odd about the photographs. It took a minute, but I finally realized what it was: it was the look in Zoebel’s eyes, the sincerity of his smile, the warmth of his face. His eyes were sparkling, animated. His smile was broad, genuine, full of compassion and caring. I almost didn’t recognize him. I realized I was looking at the old Adrian Zoebel; the pre-Cronenburg Adrian Zoebel, the Adrian Zoebel that Susan Harris and his patients loved.
I finished going through the patient folders and clicked to get back to the stick’s main directory. There was the video Susan had mentioned. She had titled it: susanharris_truth.mpg4. It was Susan Harris’ version of the truth. I positioned the cursor over the file and let it hover there for a moment. I didn’t notice at first, but my breathing had grown heavy. My hand resting on the mousepad twitched. I sat back for a moment, blew out a few deep breaths, then leaned in to tap the mousepad to start the video.
Susan was sitting cross-legged on a couch. It wasn’t the couch in her room at the Santa Rosa center, so I assumed it was at her apartment across town. She was wearing green scrubs under the same heavy cardigan. She was wearing white socks with no shoes. A black scarf was tied around her head. She used the webcam in her computer to record the video. The lighting was not great. The video was grainy, but clear enough. She appeared to be waving smoke away as the video began.
She looked into the camera and gave me a little smile. “Hi, Matthew. I hope by the time you see this things are better for you. Please give this to Detective Morales after I’m gone. I’m counting on you to set things right.”
She picked up a water bottle from the couch next to her and took a drink. She put her hand to her lips and cleared her throat. She looked into the webcam and took a deep breath. “My name is Susan Harris. Three years ago I was Dr. Adrian Zoebel’s nurse, his friend… his lover…”
My mouth fell open. In our brief time together I had never pressed Susan about the depth of her relationship with Zoebel. She said they were friends, but I always suspected otherwise. She said that whatever relationship they had ended when Grumman threw her under the bus in an effort to clear Zoebel’s name, but she’d never defined what that relationship was. Now I knew for sure: they were lovers, after all. The thought made me nauseous.
“I met Adrian five years ago. He was my mother’s oncologists. We became good friends during my mom’s treatment. When she passed away we continued the friendship, then I became his nurse, then we became involved. I spent almost every minute of the day and night with Adrian. He was a wonderful doctor, a warm, caring human being whose concern for his patients went far beyond his duties as a physician. He was more than a physician. He truly had a gift. He was a healer; not just physically, but spiritually as well.”
I started chewing at the inside of my cheek, wondering where this was going. The only thing I’d learned so far is that she slept with Adrian and thought he was the salt of the earth.
She tugged a tissue from the sweater pocket and held it between her hands in her lap. She stared down and picked at it as she spoke. Her voice dropped. I had to turn up the volume on the laptop. She said, “One night I woke up and Adrian wasn’t there. I found him at the kitchen table. He had been drinking. There was a prescription bottle there; Ambien, sleeping pills. He was upset, crying.”
“Poor baby,” I said. The bastard would get no sympathy from me.
She looked into the camera. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She said, “I asked him what was wrong. He said he was giving up medicine. He said he felt like a failure as a doctor. He said no matter what he did, most of his patients would die. He said there was no point in going on.” She looked down again and started tweezing the tissue. “My heart broke for him.”
I watched her cry for a minute. She said, “I tried to comfort him. I told him there was no one better at comforting patients who were dying. He helped make the life they had left better. He wouldn’t listen. He started drinking. He scared me. The pills, the alcohol, he knew not to mix them. He said he didn’t care anymore.”
“Holy shit,” I said. I held the laptop by the sides and pulled it closer to me. “Was he going to kill himself and you stopped him?”
“We got into an argument. I took the pills and poured them down the sink. That made him angry. I threw the bottle across the room and screamed at him…” She held the tissue to her nose and looked into the camera. “That’s when he told me what he’d done…”
I held my breath.
“He said he couldn’t stand to see them suffer anymore. He said their pain was too great. Their pain had become his pain.” She stretched her neck and looked toward the ceiling. She closed her eyes and said. “He told me he helped them die.”
The breath I was holding burst from my lungs. I slammed my fists on the table and laughed out loud. There it was, after all these years, the confirmation that I’d been right all along. Adrian Zoebel was a murderer. He admitted it to Susan. I thought my heart would beat out of my chest.
She covered her face with her hands and started sobbing uncontrollably. For the next five minutes I watched her cry; her thin shoulders going up and down; her chest heaving. I wanted to reach out and comfort her. I almost picked up my phone to call her, but I knew that wasn’t what she’d want me to do. All I could do was sit and watch and wait.
She finally took her hands from her face and fanned herself with them. She wiped her eyes with the tissue. When she looked back to the camera she spoke through the tears.
“I’m sorry, Adrian. I can’t keep silent any longer. I have to tell what happened, for your own good. You have to get away from that horrible show. You have to get away from those horrible people. That’s not you, that’s not the man you were! You’re a better person than this.”
Amazing. She was defending him, even after everything he’d put her through. She had wasted her life loving a man who didn’t give two shits about her; a man who thought far more of himself than he did of her. I knew that she would go to her grave still loving him, still worrying about him, still wanting to protect him. I didn’t think it was possible, but I was starting to hate Zoebel even more.
“There were fifteen patients in all. Adrian helped them die by injecting them with lethal doses of Seconal,” she said. “Twelve patients at Cedars and three in their homes. He stole the drugs from the hospital pharmacy and administered them at night when there was no one around. When the patients were found it was just assumed that they had died from their illness, but that wasn’t the case. Adrian killed them all.”
I jotted down the quote “Adrian killed them all” and circled it several times. There was my headline. If I could find someone willing to publish the story I was going to write.
“He told me he did it to ease their pain and suffering,” she said. “When he was arrested I urged him to tell the truth, but then he got involved with Marc Cronenburg and that horrible attorney. It was Cronenburg who corrupted Adrian. It was Cronenburg who convinced him to lie about ending the lives of those people. It was Cronenburg who covered up everything. He paid off politicians and people at the hospital and people in the state investigator’s office. He took a warm, caring, gentle man and turned him into something cold and awful. He’s the one responsible. He’s the one who deserves to be punished. If anyone deserves to go to jail, it’s Marc Cronenburg, not Adrian Zoebel.”
I tapped the mousepad to pause the video and pushed myself away from the table. I stared at her face for a moment, frozen on the screen, so full of pain and sorrow, but not for herself — for him, for Adrian Zoebel. No matter what he had done, she was justifying and defending his actions. She was laying the blame on Cronenburg as if he was the root of all evil, not Adrian Zoebel. Her defense of Zoebel was more infuriating than that of Sierra Simms. Sierra had no proof that Zoebel was a murderer. Susan knew for a fact he was a murderer, but it didn’t matter. She knew what he did, yet defended his actions and laid the blame on someone else.
“Stay objective, Matthew,” I said. “Stay objective.” I pulled myself back into the table and hit the play button.
She said, “When I urged Adrian to move out of Cronenburg’s house he turned on me. That’s when Cronenburg’s attorney came out to the press and accused me of being the one responsible for all those people. They told me that if I didn’t keep quiet things could go very badly for me.” She bit at her lip. A look of fear crossed her face. She looked into my eyes.
“I was afraid they might actually kill me to keep me from talking. Marc Cronenburg sent his security guy to my house. Large, black man; Omar, I think his name was. He had a briefcase filled with cash and he,” she made quotes with her fingers, “suggested that I leave town and never come back. He said if I didn’t leave he might have to pay me another visit sometime in the middle of the night. He scared the shit out of me. He said it would be better for everybody if I just disappeared. So that’s what I did. I disappeared.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said, gritting my teeth.
She stared down at her hands for a moment. I could see them shaking. Then her hands came up slowly and reached behind her head to loosen the knot that was holding the scarf in place. She tilted her head back and with a tug let the scarf slide down into her lap. Her scalp was completely bald. She rubbed her hands over it.
“I don’t have much time left,” she said softly. She closed her eyes. “I didn’t want to die knowing that Adrian will continue doing that horrible show with those horrible men, taking advantage of those poor people. Detective Morales, Matthew, you have to stop him; for his own good. You have to stop Cronenburg from making him do those awful things. Please, please, make him stop.”
She opened her eyes and leaned in to the camera. “Adrian, for your own sake, for the sake of your patients, if I ever meant anything to you, I beg you to stop what you’re doing. Please, before it’s too late. You have to make things right.”
She slumped back on the couch and sat silently for a moment with her head down. She dabbed her eyes with the tissue, then reached toward the screen and shut the video off.