ABC's '20/20' program to explore story of former Grand Forks surgeon convicted of murdering his wife in New York City
Although under suspicion, Dr. Robert Bierenbaum evaded criminal charges for 14 years due to insufficient evidence and, in part of that time, split his plastic surgery practice between Grand Forks and Minot. '20/20' explores 'Jekyll and Hyde' attributes of successful surgeon and his relationship with his wife whose body was never found.
The story of Dr. Robert Bierenbaum, a plastic surgeon who practiced in Grand Forks and Minot and later was convicted for the murder of his wife in their Manhattan apartment, will air in a two-hour, special “20/20” program beginning at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, on ABC, channel 8 on the local Midco cable system.
Former Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs was interviewed for this program, in addition to family and friends of Bierenbaum’s wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum; attorneys involved in the case; and women who had dated the surgeon.
Why did a handsome doctor, pilot, husband – really kill his wife? The only thing more shocking may be how he tried to cover up the crime. @JohnQABC’s all-new 20/20 premieres Friday at 9/8c on @ABC. Stream next day on Hulu. https://t.co/ZGewRPfd2o pic.twitter.com/hChNN4jYRW— 20/20 (@ABC2020) October 20, 2021
The 20/20 episode is described as a “Jekyll and Hyde” story, according to an ABC news release distributed this week. By all appearances, Bierenbaum seemed to have it all -- he was a surgeon, a skilled skier, gourmet chef, fluent in multiple languages and an expert pilot. However, he had a darker side, which ABC’s news anchor John Quinones explores in the 20/20 special. Those tendencies included violent and abusive behavior. His wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, confided to friends that she was afraid of her husband.
After her disappearance from their Upper East Side apartment in July 1985, authorities suspected him, but insufficient evidence allowed Bierenbaum to evade charges for 14 years. During that time, he carefully crafted a new life across the country, including North Dakota, until prosecutors discovered a doctored flight log from the day Katz-Bierenbaum vanished, and his lies finally caught up with him.
At trial, prosecutors said Bierenbaum probably strangled his wife in the New York apartment after she told him that she was leaving him for another man, according to the AP account. They presented evidence suggesting he dismembered the body, stuffed it into a duffel bag and, piloting a plane, he dropped the bag into the ocean off New York or Long Island.
Bierenbaum, who apparently waited 30 hours before reporting his wife missing, told detectives that after he and his wife argued the morning of July 7, 1985, she went to Central Park to cool off and never came home.
Friday’s “20/20” will feature an exclusive interview with Stephanie Youngblood, who rejected his proposal and now reveals new details about their relationship.
The program also includes an interview with Karen Caruana, who shares memories of dating Bierenbaum just weeks after his wife went missing; as well as an exclusive interview with Barb Cooper, the nanny for Bierenbaum’s child with his second wife.
“ ‘20/20’ has been following this case since the spring of 2000,” Quinones said in an email ABC provided to the Herald. “As part of our new investigation, we speak to a multitude of sources, family and friends of both Gail and Robert Bierenbaum in New York, Nevada and North Dakota. And, as you will see Friday night, we bring to light so many elements of this troubling murder case -- details that never before have been made public.”
“This is a tragic story of domestic violence,” Quinones said. “I spoke with Gail’s sister, Alayne Katz. She opened up about her sister’s toxic marriage and her mission to shed light on domestic violence and help provide others with the resources needed to escape abusive circumstances.”
The TV special also features rare home videos of Katz-Bierenbaum; never-before-seen photos of Bierenbaum; a new interview with Alayne Katz, the sister of Katz-Bierenbaum who has been on a relentless quest for justice since her sister’s disappearance; and a rare interview with Denise Kastenbaum, Katz-Bierenbaum’s closest childhood friend who describes Bierenbaum’s suspicious behavior after his wife vanished.
Other interviews include Daniel Bibb and Steve Saracco, the original prosecutors; Virgilio Dalsass, the missing persons police officer who was the first on the case; and New York State Supreme Court Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder, who sentenced Bierenbaum to 20 years to life in prison.
In June, Mike Jacobs, former Herald publisher and editor, was interviewed by ABC for about two hours at the Herald office. It is expected that portions of that interview will be aired in Friday’s program.
As an editor who assigned and read stories prior to publication in the Herald, Jacobs drew much of his knowledge about the Bierenbaum case from reading then-Herald reporter Stephen Lee’s articles. He also read accounts published by other news outlets, including the New York Times, he said. “It was a pretty dramatic murder story.”
He recalled that when Bierenbaum first came to North Dakota in the late ‘90s, he settled in Minot and later moved to Grand Forks when his new wife accepted a job here. He practiced in both cities, flying back and forth, said Jacobs, noting that he never met Bierenbaum.
“All of the people who were quoted (in Lee’s articles), who knew him, regarded him as a good guy,” Jacobs said. “He had a very good reputation in Minot and in Grand Forks. I don’t think anybody had any idea about his past.”
The ABC producer also interviewed Bierenbaum’s neighbor and a police officer in Grand Forks, Jacobs said. Lee declined to be interviewed by ABC, he said.
Bierenbaum was also known for providing free treatment of impoverished children in rural Mexico.
Much of the interview with Jacobs centered on the question of how someone who was so respected and had done much good for disadvantaged people, could be capable of such evil.
“(That) appeared to be the frame on which they were building the story,” said Jacobs.
In November 2000, Bierenbaum was sentenced to prison by Judge Snyder who said trial evidence made it “absolutely overwhelmingly clear” that Bierenbaum had killed his 29-year-old wife, according to a report by Samuel Maull of the Associated Press.
Snyder noted that the jury convicted Bierenbaum without hearing psychiatric evidence about “how much he hated Gail and how much he wanted to kill her,” according to an Associated Press report. The judge had barred much of that evidence as prejudicial.
Bierenbaum, who said he is innocent, did not address the court at sentencing, according to the AP. Defense attorney Scott Greenfield said Bierenbaum was worried he might hurt his appeal chances.