Gerald Barnes is an actor, but his most daring role was never on a stage. For 25 years Barnes managed to fool both patients and physicians alike into thinking he was a doctor.
"I did some terrible things," he says.
Barnes pulled off one of the biggest cons in modern medical history. He didn't have a medical diploma, or a medical license. Erin Moriarty reports on this incredible story.
He says he didn't need a medical license, at least not when he began at a walk-in clinic in the Los Angeles area.
He even did minor surgery, which he says is a "piece of cake." He says he learned by practicing on a chicken.
The story begins when Barnes was a young man living in the Chicago area. He dreamed of becoming an actor.
Instead, he became a pharmacist. But in the mid-1970s, he had lost his license after the clinic where he worked was accused of defrauding the Medicaid system. Disgraced and out of a job, he decided to go back to his first love: acting. So at the age of 43, he moved to Southern California to take on a new role: pretending to be a doctor.
"I knew I was better than a lot of them out there," says Barnes. He says he got a lot of training by going to seminars and by learning as he went along.
Barnes says that in 1976, he got his first job with a fake resume. But he knew that if he wanted to continue practicing medicine, he had to have more credible credentials. So he got a list of doctors who were practicing in California, and found one with the same name: Gerald Barnes.
Impostor Barnes borrowed the real doctor's identity. All it took was a call to the State Medical Board. "I told them I had a big fight with my wife. And she burned up all my credentials. And the woman on the phone had such compassion, she sent me the whole thing." The imposter managed to get copies not only of Dr. Barnes's medical license but also of his medical degree from the University of Wisconsin.
"The guy is clever," says the real Dr. Barnes, who is an orthopedic surgeon. At the time, he was living and working in Stockton, more than 300 miles north of Los Angeles.
Two years after he got his first job, Barnes was recruited by a more upscale clinic in Irvine, California. "He had a lot of self-confidence," says Rick D'Allesandro, a physician's assistant who worked closely with Barnes for 2 years. D'Allesandro says that the most skilled work that Barnes usually did was interpreting lab results and X-rays.
D'Allesandro and others at the clinic had doubts about the quality of Barnes's work, especially his suturing methods.
"It became obvious he would close the skin but not close the layer underneath," says D'Allesandro. "That was a dead giveaway that the patient would then have a dimpled skin area, where the skin looked funny. And his sterile technique was nonexistent. I had a suspicion that he wasn't trained properly."
In December 1979, after having worked as a doctor for 3 years, Barnes had fooled so many peoplthat he says he was beginning to believe the lie himself. He saw 30 to 40 patients a day.
One of those patients was John McKenzie, a 29-year-old Navy man who had suddenly lost a lot of weight. He went to Dr. Barnes.
D'Allesandro remembers the case well. "The symptoms were pretty clear," says D'Allesandro. "His chart was filled with a lot of the classic presentations for an adult-onset diabetic."
McKenzie didn't know he was diabetic. Apparently neither did Barnes. He gave McKenzie a blood and a urine test and then sent him home, where McKenzie fell into a diabetic coma and died.
"It was clear that he probably should have been started on some medication or hospitalized," says D'Allesandro. Already suspicious, D'Allesandro decided to investigate Barnes's credentials, and discovered he was a fraud.
D'Allesandro thinks that Barnes killed McKenzie. The local authorities agree, and in August 1980 Barnes was charged with murder. When he was out on bail, he applied foanother job as a physician. He got the job.
The murder charge was plea-bargained down to involuntary manslaughter. Barnes spent only 18 months in prison. McKenzie's family says that Barnes never apologized to them.
Incredibly, Barnes kept on impersonating a doctor for more than a decade.
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