By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Since this was hardly a story I could write for Time, I produced an appropriately dull and thoroughly bloodless article about the growing phenomenon of sexual-reassignment surgery: "Though the first modern medically supervised sex-change operation took place in Europe in 1930, transsexual surgery did not attract wide notice until the transformation of a former GI named George Jorgensen to Christine in 1952 . . ."
A month later, in early January 1974, just as my story was about to appear in print, Brown called in a near panic to beg that I not mention his name. The proposed new clinic had fallen through, and Spence, he said, was now saying all sorts of terrible things about him. As my story didn’t mention Brown (or anything else about that night), I told him to relax. That was the last I heard of him until early this October, when I clicked on the Internet and the following story caught my eye:
SAN DIEGO — A 77-year-old former doctor has been convicted of murder for fatally botching the surgery of a New York man who wanted his healthy leg amputated to satisfy a bizarre fetish.
The story gave the name of the fetish as apotemnophilia — "sexual gratification from limb removal." It said that "only 200 worldwide are known to suffer the fetish." It reported that the victim, 79-year-old Philip Bondy, had paid $10,000 for the operation, after which he died in a "suburban San Diego hotel" from "gangrene poisoning." It said that the unlicensed doctor who performed the surgery could get "life imprisonment for second-degree murder." Although the story gave the doctor’s name as John Ronald Brown, at first it didn’t ring a bell. But after downloading additional stories, I found myself looking at a photograph of a heavyset, pink-complexioned man with thinning, disheveled hair, and suddenly I realized, Hey, I know this man.
Driving up to San Diego County’s George F. Bailey Detention Center, I feel as if I’m visiting some remote outpost in the mountains of Mars. The detention center is located on a desolate brown hilltop two miles north of the border with Mexico; off in the distance I can faintly see Tijuana, shimmering in the heat and haze. There are no people, no birds and no wind. Two faded flags hang limply outside the visitor entrance, which is landscaped with cactus and crowned with long coils of razor wire.
Because Brown is staying in the jail’s medical wing (he’s diabetic), he’s wearing what looks like a surgeon’s standard blue operating smock (the difference is that his is splattered with fat gravy stains). Although cordial and deferential as we talk by phone through the wire-reinforced windows, Brown at times seems anguished, or at the very least distracted, gnawing on his fingernails or swirling his tongue around the corners of his mouth. Sometimes, he turns sideways and lets me talk to his profile while he leans wearily against the concrete wall.
Although I find it hard to hear Brown (a man in the adjacent visitor’s chair is reading religious tracts into the phone), eventually I’m able to get to the heart of the matter: Why, against state law, the Hippocratic oath and, in my opinion, basic common sense, did he cut off that man’s leg?
Brown replies that he was simply doing what doctors are supposed to do — meet the patient’s needs. "In cosmetic surgery we do things all the time for which there is no need. We are constantly rearranging what God gave us."
"But what about your own liability?" I ask. The patient, I point out, was a frail old man, still recovering from pneumonia, with a history of heart disease and bypass surgery. Even in ideal circumstances, his post-operative prospects were far from great. "Weren’t you worried that people would ask questions if he died?"
Brown shrugs. "I didn’t spend much time thinking about it," he says.
Someone who did think about it was Gary Stovall, a homicide detective for the San Diego suburb of National City, who on May 11, 1998, was assigned to investigate the death of an elderly New York City resident found in Room 609 of the local Holiday Inn with his left leg missing and blood oozing from the stump.
Despite the bizarre circumstances, at first it wasn’t completely clear to Stovall that a crime had been committed. A friend of Philip Bondy’s had initially told the police that Bondy had been in a "taxi accident" in Mexico and had required immediate surgery in a clinic there.
But to Stovall that story didn’t make sense. If Bondy had been in an accident, why didn’t his body have any other injuries? If an American citizen had been badly injured in a traffic accident, why didn’t the Tijuana police know anything about it? And strangest of all, why did Bondy have two $5,000 receipts in his room, one for "surgery" and the other for "hospitalization," both signed by a local man named John Brown?
Because Stovall was working on another murder case at the time, he couldn’t immediately go see Brown in person. And besides, says Stovall, a baby-cheeked detective with a deceptively mild manner, "I was still under the impression that he was a good Samaritan."