Black Gloves, Brown Camry, Bad Case.
The Orange County District Attorney's office has declined to prosecute a Santa Ana health care activist for a bizarre case of road rage. Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, a mild-mannered whistleblower who had criticized patient care at Santa Ana's Western Medical Center, was arrested two weeks ago for waving a loaded gun during a traffic altercation as he drove to work. He was in a celebratory mood this afternoon, just hours after the DA refused to charge him.
"I believe this vindicates my statements that I am innocent and I appreciate the fact that the DA accepted that, or seemed to understand that this was not a crime committed by me," he told the Weekly today.
But did the DA really drop the case? "We sent it back for further investigation," said DA spokesperson Susan Kang Schroeder. "Right now, we don't have enough [evidence] for a filing."
Schroeder's purposefully vague statement--she refused to say whether her office believed Fitzgibbons had committed a crime or, as he alleges, was actually set up by someone in retaliation for raising concerns about patient care at Western Medical Center--only deepens the mystery surrounding the murky road-rage incident.
Santa Ana police arrested Fitzgibbons June 28, after finding a loaded handgun and pair of black gloves in his car. They charged him with possession of a loaded weapon, carrying a concealed gun, and brandishing a firearm. From the beginning, Fitgibbons, who says he's never owned a gun and doesn't own a pair of black gloves, has asserted his innocence, claiming he was set up by someone unhappy with his outspoken criticisim of Integrated Health Care Holdings, IHHI, which owns Western Medical Center.
When the Costa Mesa holding company first proposed purchasing the hospital from Tenet Healthcare Corp. in 2004, Fitzgibbons testified at public hearings by State Senator Joe Dunn that IHHI's principal investor, Dr. Kali P. Chaudhuri, had a record of buying financially troubled hospitals, only to close them and sell the real estate at a handsome profit. In May 2005, after the sale went through (without Chaudhuri, who was forced out of IHHI) he sent other hospital doctors an email saying the hospital's financial situation was "ominous." IHHI sued him for slander, but on June 14, a judge threw the case out of court. (To read more about Fitzgibbons and his lawsuit, see "Now With Less Chaudhuri," and "Shut Up, Doc.")
Despite Fitzgibbon's clear record as a whisteblower, at first the road rage case seemed like a slam dunk. According to police, the incident took place just two blocks away from Fitzgibbons Santa Ana office, at 2 p.m., at the exact time Fitzgibbons acknowledges he was driving from his office to the hospital. They learned of the alleged crime thanks to a 9-1-1 caller who gave a perfect description of Fitzgibbons brown Camry, including his license plate number, and said he was wearing black gloves. Sure enough, when police tracked his car to the nearby Western Medical Center, and after Fitzgibbons happily sumbitted to a search of his car, they found the gun and gloves.
Assuming the cops indeed have a witness--whoever made the 9-1-1 call, for example--and given the fact they found the incriminating evidence in his vehicle--what further investigation would be required for the DA to slam Fitzgibbons with official charges? One possible explanation might be that whoever made that 9-1-1 call did so anonymously. That would leave the DA with a suspect, but apparently no identifiable witness, much less a victim, to the alleged crime.
Fitzgibbons, for one, is convinced a crime did occur--and that he was framed. He believes the gun and gloves were planted in his car by a person or people unhappy with his recent court victory--presumably the same person or people who made that 9-1-1 call.
"It's a fairly complex crime," Fitzgibbons said. "It involves some planning and forethought and obviously it is a crime that someone paid for. I don't think that the people that actually did the crime had any interest in me personally. I think they were just hirelings to carry it out."
Fitzgibbons says he told Santa Ana cops that he found scratches on his car door that he thinks show someone broke into his vehicle shortly before the crime occured. The cops responded that they had already completed their investigation. When they failed to return further telephone calls from Fitzgibbons, he filed a report the Irvine police, claiming that whoever broke into his car probably did so at his Irvine house.
"The Irvine [cops] pretty much blew me off too," he said. "They said they would take a statement from me but nothing more, and that I had waited too long to tell them about it. I told them I've lived in this community for 24 years, pay my taxes and have never been arrested. I'm just trying to find out who did this."