And an Even Worse Husband
(“Bad Medicine,” Forensic Files)
The Forensic Files episode about Dr. Anthony Pignataro isn’t in heavy rotation in my area, so I’ve only caught it a couple of times on TV. I’ve rewatched it on Netflix streaming, though, because it’s such an interesting tale.
But really, all one needs is a single viewing to remember it forever.
“Bad Medicine” tells of how an egotistical cosmetic surgeon accidentally kills a patient, then deliberately poisons his wife.
Overconfident. And here’s the part that’s pretty much impossible to forget.
Years before his crimes, Anthony Pignataro made a name for himself as the inventor of the snap-on toupee, which attaches to a man’s head via bolts surgically implanted in the skull.
Pignataro started losing his hair at age 23 and was his own first customer.
I’m not sure whether it was the hairpiece or not, but Pignataro thought an awful lot of himself. Once he opened his own plastic surgery facility, he didn’t see the need to hire an anesthesiologist or a qualified nurse to help him.
Those deficiencies eventually led to prison time and the loss of Pignataro’s livelihood. For this week’s post, I looked around to see what Pignataro, who was released in 2013, is doing today.
Summer love. But first, here’s a recap of the episode, along with other information culled from internet research as well as Ann Rule’s book about the case, Last Dance, Last Chance.
Deborah Rago, born in 1957, came from a close, financially strapped family in Williamsville, New York.
In 1978, when Debbie was working as a pharmacy technician, she met Lehigh University student Anthony Pignataro, who Rule described as almost 6 feet tall with “classic, balanced features.”
One night, they fell in love on the dance floor to the Donna Summer hit “Last Dance.”
The son of Ralph Pignataro, a respected surgeon in Buffalo, Anthony wanted to follow his father into the profession. The mainland U.S. medical schools he applied to rejected him, however, so he enrolled at the San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Puerto Rico.
None-too-impressive. Debbie waited for him to finish, and they finally married in 1985. Within the first year, a concerned party tipped her off that Anthony was cheating on her.
She took her father’s advice to “forgive once” and decided Anthony deserved another chance.
The professionals at the hospitals where the young surgeon worked, on the other hand, didn’t think the guy merited any chance as a physician.
They figured out pretty quickly that the arrogant doctor in their midst had some scary gaps in his knowledge.
But incompetent people rarely get kicked out of their fields right away.
Pignataro eventually opened his own plastic surgery practice in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca, New York. He made a fortune doing breast implants and other cosmetic procedures.
Moneybags. To widen his profit margin, Pignataro skimped on overhead costs. He hired a licensed practical nurse (instead of a registered nurse) and a high school student to assist him.
The Pignataros had a son and daughter by this time and lived in a big house in West Seneca. Anthony and his toupee cruised around in a red Lamborghini.
Meanwhile, he made some bad surgical mistakes. After performing an abdominoplasty on a patient named Teri LaMarti, he allegedly left her with open bleeding wounds, then yelled at her when she complained.
But back in those pre-Yelp days, word didn’t get around fast enough, and the practice continued to thrive until tragedy struck.
Utter fraud. In 1996, a 26-year-old mother of two from Depew, New York, stopped breathing during a breast augmentation operation. Pignataro’s facility didn’t have a ventilator, and Sarah Smith died.
The investigation that followed laid bare the incompetence of Anthony Pignataro for all the world to see.
It turned out that he wasn’t a board certified plastic surgeon or even a qualified plastic surgeon. He hadn’t administered Sarah Smith’s anesthetic properly. The New York state health board ended up charging him with 30 counts of professional misconduct in all.
Anthony pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and received six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, and community service. He lost his medical license. Judge Ronald H. Tills noted that Pignataro would “never practice medicine again — anywhere in the world.”
And there wasn’t any fancy legal footwork to delay jail time. The judge had Pignataro taken directly from the court room to a prison cell, while Debbie Pignataro “sobbed in the back row,” according to a 1998 AP story.
Loyal wife. After his release, Anthony had trouble finding another job, but Debbie stood by him. His well-to-do mother, Lena Pignataro, helped out the family financially.
Anthony had another affair, and Debbie took him back again.
But soon, emotional anguish was the least of her problems.
In 1999, Debbie started feeling ill with nausea and numbness of the limbs and severe pain elsewhere. The symptoms came and went. When they were bad, she had to stay in bed.
Debbie began having memory loss and needed to use a wheelchair at times.
Anthony told her the answer was to have her gall bladder removed, but her doctors vetoed that plan; they said surgery would kill her in her weakened state.
Finally, one of her doctors did a hair test and figured out what was wrong. Debbie had consumed 29,580 milligrams of arsenic.
Convoluted idea. Anthony suggested that the family of Sarah Smith, the patient who died, was poisoning Debbie to punish him. But the arsenic was traced to some ant insecticide the good doctor had purchased himself.
He was sneaking arsenic into his wife’s food, investigators determined.
The prosecution found evidence suggesting that Anthony hoped the arsenic poisoning would cause Debbie to die during surgery so that the medical establishment would see it was normal for operations to kill people sometimes — and he would thus be absolved for Sarah Smith’s death.
Anthony Pignataro ended up pleading guilty to charges related to the arsenic poisoning. Judge Mario J. Rossetti labeled the former surgeon’s life “a charade of misrepresentation,” called him self-centered and manipulative, and said he showed “disrespect for the value of human life.”
Despite his guilty plea, Anthony at various times claimed that Debbie Pignataro poisoned herself in a suicide bid, a claim ridiculed by Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita.
Back at it. Debbie, who appeared on Forensic Files, remarked without bitterness that a) she would never harm herself and b) her ex-husband should be forced to ingest arsenic himself.
She has also stated that her former spouse will never take responsibility for attempting to kill her.
But universal disdain and a second stint behind razor wire couldn’t crush Pignataro’s ego. Not long after his release in 2013, he returned to the Buffalo area, changed his name to Tony Haute, and opened a business called Tony Haute Cosmetique LLC.
He sold a line of skin-care creams, including a system formulated from “one’s own DNA-derived plasma.” His website referred to him as a doctor.
Log off, dude. The Erie County District Attorney subsequently opened a criminal investigation into Pignataro’s new venture, and the ex-convict ended up taking down his website, according to a 2017 story by Charlie Specht of Buffalo station WKBW.
I didn’t have any luck finding out how Debbie Pignataro is faring with the after-effects of the poisoning today. I didn’t look too hard because she already cooperated with Forensic Files and true-crime author Ann Rule and probably prefers privacy at this point.
The show stated that much of the damage to Debbie’s health is irreversible. On the bright side, the book said that she has found nice people to help her in her daily life.
Her former husband will probably reinvent himself as something or other, but let’s hope the only person he’ll ever incapacitate is himself.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR