I dated a handsome, sought-after surgeon who I thought was 'perfect' – I had no idea he was hiding a deep, dark secret | The SunAugust 6, 2023
WHEN Carole Fisher dated sought-after surgeon Bob Bierenbaum, she had no idea he was hiding a deep, dark secret – one that she and his other ex-girlfriends would use to bring him to justice.
Looking across the restaurant table at her handsome date, Bob Bierenbaum, Carole Fisher felt a surge of excitement.
As well as being perfect on paper – he was a renowned plastic surgeon, spoke five languages and was a licensed pilot with his own plane – he was also very charming.
But when she asked him about his past, he became visibly uncomfortable.
“What did you do, murder your wife?” Carole, then 36, joked.
But Bierenbaum wasn’t laughing. Recalling her first date with the 40 year old in 1995, Carole says: “His face visibly paled, then he said he’d tell me, but that I couldn’t tell anybody.”
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He revealed to Carole that, 10 years earlier, on July 7, 1985, his wife Gail Katz had gone for a walk to cool off after they’d had a heated argument at their New York apartment, and she’d never returned.
“He painted a picture of an unstable woman who partied a lot and was a drug addict,” she says.
Bierenbaum went on to explain that he assumed Gail had either killed herself or had gone off partying, met somebody and never returned – before dropping the bombshell that he’d been falsely accused of her murder.
However, he added that, after being investigated, he’d been cleared and had moved to Las Vegas four years later for a fresh start.
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“His story sounded plausible and I felt sorry for him,” recalls Carole.
“I also fancied him, and having burned through two marriages, leaving me a single mum to my nine-year-old daughter, there was no way I was going to pass up dating a doctor with his own plane!”
Indeed, since his arrival in town, many local single women over 30 had wanted to date the handsome eligible bachelor.
He’d previously dated Carole’s close friend Mindy Shapiro, and Stephanie Youngblood, who later became friends with both Carole and Mindy.
Stephanie, then 31 and a distinguished chiropractor, was the first of the three women to date Bierenbaum, after meeting him at a New Year’s party in 1990. They got engaged, before breaking up three years later.
Mindy, an intensive care doctor in her 30s, became friends with him while they were both working at the same hospital. After he split with Stephanie, she briefly dated him.
But hearing he’d been telling other doctors about their dates, and even calling her his girlfriend, she was put off and ended things.
However, she told Bierenbaum that she thought he would really get on with her friend Carole – and she set them up on a date.
Bierenbaum was admired by all who knew him.
Carole recalls how they couldn’t go out in Las Vegas without somebody praising him and mentioning his work in Mexico where he treated children with cleft palates free of charge.
But what people didn’t know was that he was hiding a deep, dark secret – he had, in fact, murdered his wife, strangling her after their argument and disposing of her body by throwing it out of his plane into the Atlantic Ocean.
In May 1989, nearly four years after Gail’s disappearance, a torso washed up on Staten Island.
Adequate DNA forensics did not then exist, and investigators used old spine X-rays to compare it to Gail’s, concluding it was the missing 29 year old.
She was laid to rest by her family, and that could have been that, if it hadn’t been for the suspicions of Carole, along with Bierenbaum’s other exes, and a detective on the verge of retirement.
Carole was one of many of Bierenbaum’s girlfriends to witness his rages.
In the beginning, their relationship had been incredibly romantic, but as time wore on, she saw a different side to him.
During their six months together, he threatened to kill Carole’s dog and erupted in fury at her when she broke one of his glasses.
Carole’s mum had always wanted her to marry a doctor, but when she introduced him to her mum and stepdad, they thought he was odd and didn’t like how he claimed to be an expert in every topic they discussed.
Then, during a weekend away to attend a medical conference, out of the blue, he angrily accused Carole of having an affair and giving him syphilis after he developed a rash on his hands.
Feeling unsafe, she called both her mum and Mindy, who told her to come home.
Bierenbaum was eventually diagnosed with contact dermatitis, a common condition in surgeons, but he didn’t apologise.
His relationship with Carole never recovered, and he ended things with her a few weeks later in 1996.
Afterwards, Carole met Mindy at their favourite restaurant The Mayflower, where over noodles and wine, she revealed what Bierenbaum had told her about his wife.
Mindy, a true-crime buff, insisted they had to get to the bottom of it.
“Mindy was like a dog with a bone,” remembers Carole. “It was 1996, and back then you couldn’t just Google things, so Mindy meticulously went through library archives, eventually finding a newspaper article about Gail’s disappearance.
The headline read: ‘Parents of a surgeon’s wife who disappeared 11 days ago after walking out of her apartment fear she’s dead.’”
The women continued to meet at The Mayflower and had a code name for their meetings – The Harriet The Spy Club, named after a book Mindy loved.
Carole says: “I talked about Bob’s irrational anger, the time he made me sit on his knee at a work party and how he’d once wanted to kill my dog.
"I didn’t believe then that I’d dated a murderer. It was just nice to trash a man who’d treated me badly.”
But when Carole visited other women Bierenbaum knew – including Stephanie Youngblood – in order to gain insight into his character, she discovered all of them had witnessed his frightening rage.
Stephanie described their first year together as “perfect”, flying to Argentina for skiing trips and meeting each other’s families, but she said there were a few incidents when he lost his temper – and it terrified her.
Stephanie joined Spy Club and the women began to form theories, cementing their belief Bierenbaum had something to do with Gail’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, Bierenbaum had met and married obstetrician-gynecologist Janet Chollet, and the couple had moved to North Dakota to start a new life together, eventually becoming parents to a baby girl.
Around the same time, detective Andy Rosenzweig would soon be retiring from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and was looking into cold cases that still haunted him, including Gail’s.
He’d always suspected Bierenbaum had thrown Gail’s body from his plane into the Atlantic Ocean. However, there was not enough evidence to press charges and the case was dropped.
When Rosenzweig retired, his colleagues at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, prosecutors Steve Saracco and Daniel Bibb, took over and began investigating.
They knew the spine X-rays used to identify the torso back in 1989 were a weak form of evidence, which could be used against them in court, and they wanted to find absolute proof of the identity of the torso.
In 1998, Daniel called Gail’s sister, persuading her to exhume the body by explaining that now improved DNA tests were available, they could conclude once and for all whether it really was her missing sister.
DNA tests ruled the torso was not Gail – to this day, her body has never been found.
Investigators decided to re-interview everyone from the case, as well as women Bierenbaum had dated, including Stephanie and Carole.
During these interviews, The Harriet The Spy Club ladies revealed Bierenbaum’s incidents of rage, allowing prosecutors to paint a picture of what he was really like.
Detectives were also able to compare the story he’d told Carole of Gail’s disappearance with what he’d told other girlfriends, noting the inconsistencies.
He told one ex he’d hired a private detective who’d found Gail in California waiting tables, and said she’d left home without wearing any shoes.
Another ex-girlfriend said she was with Bierenbaum when he got a phone call from NYC police, saying they thought someone had found Gail. He said he would call them later, before saying to her: “I doubt it’s Gail.”
Roberta Karnofsky, who’d dated Bierenbaum a few weeks after Gail disappeared, told Steve and Daniel that she’d found his flight log and discovered he’d altered it – he had flown on the day of Gail’s disappearance, not the day after, as he’d said during the initial investigation.
Coupled with the ex-girlfriends’ statements, all this allowed investigators to move forward with their case. In December 1999, Bierenbaum was arrested, and in October 2000 a jury found him guilty of Gail Katz’s murder.
He was sentenced to life in prison at Otisville Correctional Facility, New York, where he remains today. Carole and Stephanie gave evidence at the trial, playing a major role in his conviction.
Bierenbaum had always maintained his innocence, but at a parole hearing in December 2020 – 35 years after Gail’s disappearance – he suddenly confessed to her murder, shocking everybody involved in the case.
He said: “I wanted her to stop yelling at me and I attacked her.” He said he’d strangled his wife to death because he was “immature” and “didn’t understand how to deal with anger.”
Three years after Bierenbaum’s confession, The Girlfriends podcast was created in partnership with the charity No More, to raise awareness about justice for domestic abuse survivors, with Carole as interviewee and host.
In the podcast, Gail’s sister Alayne, 65, a family lawyer, reveals how she knew the moment she heard her sister was missing that Bierenbaum had killed her.
She tells how he had been incredibly controlling and recalls how Gail once called her crying hysterically, because he’d tried to drown her cat in their toilet.
Despite this, Gail went through with their wedding, saying: “I’m smart. I’m loving. My love will cure. This is going to work out.”
Over time, her friends and family members noticed the marriage was becoming toxic.
One night, Bierenbaum caught Gail smoking, which he hated, and he choked her into unconsciousness. She reported Bob to the police, but nothing came of it.
Gail eventually convinced him to see a therapist, who wrote her a letter suggesting she should get out of the marriage, because they were concerned Bierenbaum might kill her.
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Alayne explains how Gail brushed it off for a while, before telling her sister she was planning on leaving him.
Gail’s best friend, Denise Kastenbaum, told reporters that the night before she disappeared, Gail had told her she was planning to ask for a divorce over dinner that evening – but she was never seen again.
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