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Did Dr. Robert Bierenbaum Really Kill His Wife Gail Katz?
Manny and Sylvia Katz had high hopes for their oldest child, Gail Beth Katz but was a free spirit who marched to the beat of a drummer only she could hear.
Even though Gail’s grades had been good enough to graduate high school a year early, she soon discovered college wasn’t for her. She preferred drugs, parties, and chasing men to books, pencils, and lectures.
Manny and Sylvia were devastated when Gail dropped out of college. They now could only hope their daughter would marry a wealthy Jewish man who would take care of her. Sylvia, a medical receptionist, was adamant a doctor husband was what her daughter needed.
Her parents’ frustrations grew after multiple suicide attempts by Gail. It would seem one more of their dreams for their daughter were fading away – after all, what man would want to take on Gail and all of her problems? (Or deal with her overbearing, demanding parents?)
Robert “Bob” Bierenbaum loved planes from the moment he came to understand what one was. Although he followed in the footsteps of his father Dr. Marvin Bierenbaum by becoming a surgeon, he never gave up his dream of becoming the first Jewish astronaut.
In high school, college, and medical school, Bob was devout in his studies and excelled in his classes, but not without damage to his social development. Bob was often awkward around large groups of people and his date life was essentially nonexistent. Although, for a short while, Bob was engaged but it didn’t work out.
When Bob told one of his friends the only thing he wanted in a woman was someone who was “pretty, bright, and interesting,” she immediately thought of Gail.
Gail was interesting, but she would become more overwhelming than interesting to Bob.
A Mother’s Dream, A Marital Nightmare
Bob and Gail hit it off immediately. She loved the adventures that Bob’s pilot license afforded them. Bob, in turn, loved how impressed Gail was by his hobby as well as his career.
But that is where all ended. Gail was high maintenance with her need for high drama; Bob was a laid back kind of guy, who preferred to work then unwind at home. Gail was a college drop out; Bob was a strong believer in education. Outside of their love of flying, the couple was as different as daylight and dark.
Friends were a little shocked after Gail, who had began to complain about not being satisfied sexually and Bob’s conservative personality, accepted his marriage proposal. Sylvia, on the other hand, was ecstatic. Her dream of having a Jewish doctor for a son-in-law was going to become a reality.
Sylvia was completely unaware her daughter continued to have flings on the side. Gail’s mom believed she finally settling into adult living.
Pushing Buttons, Pushing Limits
Gail had doubts about marrying Bob, but she didn’t want to disappoint her parents so she went forward with the wedding. From the very beginning, however, the marriage was nothing but one long, never-ending argument. Gail felt neglected because of the long hours Bob worked at the hospital; Bob was sick and tired of spending all day saving lives only to return home to a nagging wife. Gail too was disappointed Bob was not yet making a salary that would allow her to spend money as she felt a doctor’s wife should, believing the ability to spend money would curb her restlessness.
Gail was somewhat appeased when, in January 1983, Bob’s parents offered to rent them a new apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side at 185 East 85th Street – the same building used for the opening of the high-rated 1970s television show The Jeffersons.
At Bob’s urging, Gail returned to school; ironically with a major in psychology. For a short while, with the glamorous apartment and schooling to keep Gail occupied, it seemed things would work out for the newlyweds.
It was only a temporary reprieve. As the neighbor below the Bierenbaums’ apartment would tell police, she knew it was Sunday without looking at the calendar because the couple had knocked-down drag-out fights like clockwork each week on Sundays – it was the only day they were home at the same time.
The fights became more and more dramatic. Gail ranted and raved, Bob only added to the insanity when he resorted to drastic measures to calm his wife; such as the time he grabbed a kitchen knife and held it to his stomach, threatening to kill himself. In turn Gail, knowing how much Bob despised smoking, would light up cigarettes in the apartment, filling it with secondhand smoke, as she sat back and laughed at his ridiculousness.
Gail returned to (if she ever quit at all) what she knew best: chasing men. Several men were spotted coming to the apartment when Bob was at work. She even told several friends about her extramarital affairs; going on and on about the talents of her lovers, even comparing them to Bob.
One evening after Gail had been in the company of one of her boyfriends followed by several hours studying, she went out on the apartment terrace to smoke. Before she could hide the cigarette pack and butts, Bob returned home. He was infuriated to find his wife smelling of smoke. Once again, he began lecturing on the risks of smoking and Gail began taunting him with all the things she hated about him. Before Bob realized what he had done, he had rendered Gail unconscious with a Judo move to her neck. When she came to, Bob was over top of her crying and repeating, “I’m so sorry. I’ll never do it again.”
Gail would repeat, over the next several days, the “choking” story to several friends and her sister Alayne Katz. At their insistence, Gail finally reported the incident to police but, because of the delaying in her reporting and the fact that she willingly continued to live with Bob, police simply filed it away. It was, after all, 1983 and domestic violence wasn’t given the same attention it is today.
Realizing things were getting out of hand, Bob and Gail agreed to get counseling. The first counselor they met with was Dr. Shelley Juran. After her first session with Bob, the psychologist became alarmed and insisted Bob return home and have his wife call her. She later testified she feared that Gail was already dead. Dr. Juran was relieved when Bob called and Gail got on the line. With Bob listening in, Dr. Juran warned Gail about Bob’s volitale personality and strongly urged her to leave. Gail thanked her for her time and concern, but insisted she would be okay.
Dr. Juran didn’t feel capable, or even particularly comfortable, in counseling the Bierenbaums and referred them to Dr. Stanley Bone of Manhattan. When it was obvious Dr. Bone’s and Dr. Bob’s schedules would never match up, Dr. Bone referred them to Dr. Michael Stone.
Dr. Stone would soon make a name for himself for analyzing wife and child killer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald after only listening to audio recordings made by the doc but for now he agreed to see the Bierenbaums, separately and together. However, after only a fifteen minute session Bob, Dr. Stone declared the man a danger to his wife and, in both a letter a verbal notification, recommended that she terminate the marriage lest she risk being murdered. Again, Gail ignored the advice.
The Bierenbaums continued life, complete with their loud screaming matches and Gail’s infidelity. It would almost seem that Gail was still suicidal, but like the person too afraid (maybe after so many unsuccessful attempts) will commit suicide-by-cop, it seemed Gail intended to commit suicide-by-husband.
Missing or Murdered?
On the evening of July 6, 1985, the months of bickering, insults, and psychotic behaviors would would come together to create the fiercest storm the couple had ever faced. One of Gail’s boyfriends told her he had a received a hang-up call. Gail realized that Bob probably knew of her infidelity.
it was time to finally take that step she had been dreading. Gail told Bob she wanted a divorce. She told him she still loved him, but was not in love with him. In and of itself, a divorce didn't make Bob happy but he would get over it but when Gail said she wanted him to support her with half of his yearly earnings while she finished school, she went too far. When Bob balked, Gail pulled out the letter from a therapist she had been seeing. She had told her therapist about his abuses, Gail told Bob, and if necessary, she would use the therapists' letter to force the alimony out of him in Court. Gail also told Bob she had “information” she was sure to ruin both Bob and his father’s career.
The atmosphere of the Bierenbaum home the next morning was cold and frosty. When a friend Gail hadn’t spoken to in a year called the apartment asking for a surgical recommendation from Bob, Gail flew into a rage. After screaming at her friend and slamming down the phone, Gail turned her anger on Bob. She began waxing about her multiple lovers, including one with an Arab man who was very open about his anti-Semiticism. Then she put the final nail in the proverbial (or not) coffin when she told Bob she loved another man and had never loved him.
The downstairs neighborhood reported later she heard Bob scream, Gail screaming back, the clack of heels on the floor, and the slam of a door. Peaceful silence had finally arrived. Bob would tell police later that his wife had said she was leaving, probably going to Central Park for a while to cool off.
Gail never returned.
At the urging of others, Bob reported Gail missing a few days after she failed to return home. He told the police of Gail’s history of suicidal attempts and their divorce talk, but he didn’t mention the warnings to leave the marriage issued to Gail by a couple of psychiatrists.
Initially police believed Gail was another runaway wife in a city of millions and put her name alongside thousands of other missing persons in NYC. However, Gail’s family continued to insist Gail had been murdered by her husband. Over and over they called and demanded that the investigation be treated as a homicide instead of just a missing person. When they told Detective Tom O’Malley about the letter from Dr. Stone - the one Gail had waved in Bob's face just before she disappeared, he perked up. Police procedures prevented him from officially declaring Gail’s case a homicide, but his investigating methods became those focused on solving a murder.
In the years that followed, O’Malley remained convinced Gail was dead but he couldn’t prove it. Bob had stuck with his same story of visiting his sister’s home on the day of Gail’s disappearance for his nephew’s birthday party and then returning home alone. Bob had also lawyered-up once he realized he was being looked at as a wife killer versus a man whose wife was missing, but he’d allowed a cursory search of his home, nonetheless, and it had turned up nothing.
Within a couple of months, Bob began moving on. Dating as a doctor was much easier than when he was just a medical student. Ironically, and to his determent years later, Bob would become a two-timer like Gail – although the ladies were only girlfriends rather than wives.
Bob never rid his apartment of Gail’s things and frequently explained about his missing wife to the women who stayed over. Additionally, he also had to explain the messages on his machine left by Gail’s family where they would scream “Murderer!” into the phone and the letters Alayne, Gail's sister, sent to hospital staff members and passed around the apartment building in which she toed the legal line in accusing her brother-in-law of murder.
One of these women to whom Bob made explanations was Roberta Karnofsky. After Bob received a call in the middle of the night from NYPD saying a woman at Port Authority resembled his missing wife and was asked if he would come down and see if he could identify her. Bob, with Roberta awake now at his side, was hesitant to go and asked if it was necessary. They told him no, and the couple returned to sleeping.
Roberta saw this as very suspicious, not taking into consideration the possible awkwardness of the scenario. The next day she called a friend and told her of the incident and, following a lengthy conversation, suggested the friend suggested Roberta snoop around and check Bob’s flight logs. Roberta reported back there was an entry for the day Gail disappeared, but it had been corrected to reflect “8/7″ instead of “7/7.” She knew it was corrected because it had been made in a different color pen.
Instead of contacting police, Roberta confronted Bob with the theory he had killed his wife, loaded her into a flight bag, and then dropped her into a reservoir from a private plane to cover the crime. Bob didn’t confirm or deny her accusations and the issue was dropped. Bob and Roberta would actually continue dating until she caught him seeing another woman.
In 1989, a torso was found in the water on Staten Island. A medical examiner proclaimed it to be that of Gail Katz after matching x-rays. However, based on the doctor's report, the woman to whom the torso belonged could not have been killed prior to November 1988.
It would seem Bob was telling the truth, but it did nothing to sway Gail’s family or Detective O’Malley. They weren’t sure how he had pulled off skewing the estimated time of death, but they just knew he had.
Life Goes On
Bob moved to Las Vegas to practice medicine, hoping to get a fresh start; but kept many of his East coast affairs on the back burner and they frequently flew out to see him – until they discovered one another and dropped him like a hot potato. Although they didn’t say or do anything about it at the time, the women would later talk to investigators and tell them of things said or done by Bob which made them suspect he had killed his wife.
In 1995, Bob met Dr. Janet Chollet, an OB/GYN new to Las Vegas. The couple had much in common and soon was engaged. Bob obtained a copy of Gail’s death certificate from New York. It was the first time Janet learned Gail’s death was considered a homicide. Bob had told her about the missing wife, but he’d never said anything about murder. When she confronted him with the certificate, he explained about Gail’s family and her history. Janet was satisfied and the couple went through with their wedding plans.
Not long after they were married, Bob accepted a job in Minot, North Dakota, and he and Janet made the move there. In 1998, they welcomed a daughter into their family. Bob had always wanted children and now he finally had one. He couldn’t have been happier.
It had been 13 years since Gail went missing. Bob had a new wife, a new daughter, and a successful practice in a whole new state. It would seem as if the past had finally become just that: the past.
Past Becomes Present
After the introduction of DNA in the 1990s, police learned the torso previously declared as Gail’s was not, in fact, hers. That left police back at square one and the investigation was renewed.
While interviewing witnesses a second time hoping to uncover new information, several of Bob’s scorned girlfriends came forward and were now ready to tell police about things Bob had said or done which had made them suspicious he had murdered his wife; including Roberta who told police about her theory of Bob disposing of his wife from an airplane.
That was all they needed, they were certain Roberta was correct in her assumptions and they went after Dr. Bierenbaum with vigor. They subpoenaed the flight log and confirmed Roberta’s claim of a corrected entry.
Presenting, among other things, the letter from Dr. Stone, Gail's last therapist, and the correct flight log, prosecutors procured an indictment against Bob for murder on Monday, December 6, 1999. Bob surrendered, with his attorney at his side, on December 8, 1999.
Unfortunately, Bob drew a female-friendly and hard-as-nails judge. Supreme Court Judge Leslie Crocker-Snyder was nicknamed “The Ice Princess” and was accompanied by bodyguards everywhere she went after being the target of many murder-for-hire plots by defendants she had sentenced in her Courtroom. Bob’s attorney knew the challenges they faced, especially after several rulings were made against him in preliminary hearings. He encouraged Bob to hire a more experienced criminal defense lawyer to come on board as co-counsel.
It did no good, however. The Ice Princess seemed to have deemed Bob guilty before she ever laid eyes on him and, despite the weak circumstantial evidence, she often ruled with favor toward prosecutors; making their job much easier and, in some ways, stronger.
Despite their best efforts, it wasn’t enough. After jurors heard the letter from Dr. Stone detailing Gail's claims of abuse and the corrected flight log, they found Bob guilty of murdering Gail in October 2000.
Robert Bierenbaum was sentenced to 20 years to life and is currently incarcerated at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. He will be eligible for parole in June 2020, when he is 64 years old. His medical license was revoked shortly after his conviction.
Do You Believe Robert Bierenbaum Killed His Wife Gail?
© 2016 Kim Bryan