Dr. Death, Murder for Hire
Orthopedic surgeon William Shoemaker, driving on Interstate 805 from his home in Rancho Santa Fe to his office in Mission Valley, had indeed been shot. Shot twice through the front windshield of his black BMW. Hit in the wrist and the shoulder, Shoemaker was bleeding, weak and in mild shock, but still managed to pull off the freeway and call 911 from his car phone. The date was September 14, 1994.
A little more than a year after the shooting, the good doctor is practicing medicine again. A bullet fragment remains lodged in his shoulder, and the scar on his wrist where emergency-room doctors at Mercy Hospital removed the other bullet is a permanent reminder of that horrifying day. But his most indelible scars are the invisibile ones.
“When you’re an innocent person with a wife andfour kids, and you get shot, it sort of takes away some of your faith in the system,” says Shoemaker, a friendly, balding father of four who was raised in San Francisco and moved to San Diego with his family in 1990. “It was hard for me even to drive on the freeways for a while; I don’t know if I’ll ever really get over this completely.”
Initially, local media called the incident a random attack. But as Shoemaker and the rest of San Diego soon learned, the shooting was anything but random. It was, it turns out, part of a Kafkaesque tale of greed, revenge and death, in which Shoemaker was just one of the innocent intended victims.
Soon after launching their investigation into the shooting, San Diego police began to suspect Shoemaker’s former medical partner, Dr. Ron Neufeld, who was enmeshed in a bitter legal dispute with Shoemaker. Their suspicions were confirmed when the registered owner of the truck used in the crime—it was discovered soon after at a nearby shopping center—was found to be Ronald Self, a highly decorated former Marine and a longtime resident of Neufeld’s La Jolla guesthouse.
Self was an immediate suspect, but the full extent of Neufeld’s complicity may never be known. Two days after Shoemaker was shot, Neufeld killed himself in the parking lot of his attorney’s office.
“I was absolutely shocked when I heard the news,” says Shoemaker. “I sincerely feel for the children of Ron Neufeld. This whole thing is just so bizarre, such a tragedy.”
Despite police suspicions, no suspect was arrested for nearly a year. Finally, in late July of this year—nearly 10 months after Shoemaker was shot—Self, 31, and his friend Carl Pizzuto, 26, a computer technician from Escondido, were arrested and charged with conspiracy and attempted murder. Self remains at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego in lieu of $2 million bail; Pizzuto was released on $150,000 bail.
When the trial commences next month in San Diego Superior Court, Deputy District Attorney Robert Sickels will argue that Self shot Shoemaker from the bed of Self’s pickup truck while Pizzuto drove. Sickels will suggest that Neufeld initiated the murder-for-hire scheme because he was seeking revenge against Shoemaker, who had left Neufeld’s practice and had reported massive billing scams and other improprieties by Neufeld.
DOCTOR VS. DOCTOR
The relationship between the two successful physicians started smoothly enough. Neufeld and Shoemaker met in 1990 when Shoemaker was seeking office space. At first, they shared a workplace and some employees, with Shoemaker paying Neufeld rent. Eventually, as the friendship grew, Shoemaker and another orthopedic doctor, Thomas Dunn, became partners in Neufeld’s Pacific Bone & Joint Medical Association.
“We met through a local hospital marketing person,” Shoemaker explains. “I was an independent contractor at first, just paying rent. We weren’t partners. Then a friendship developed. I trusted him; he seemed like a nice man and a good doctor. We were friends, like you are with any boss or coworker you see at a barbecue a couple times a year. We got along. We played golf once in a while.” And there were no suspicions. “I mean,” says Shoemaker, “I took more mulligans than he did.”
But Shoemaker did begin to question Neufeld’s integrity in the fall of 1993, when he says he discovered some “billing improprieties” by Neufeld. “It prompted me to keep looking, to go further,” he says. “I did some checking on my own, looking into his background. I’ll just say that what I found out changed my mind about him in one 48-hour period.”
On his attorney’s advice, Shoemaker dissolved the partnership and, with Thomas Dunn, established a separate practice soon after. Three months later, in January 1994, Neufeld filed a lawsuit against Shoemaker, Dunn and others who left Pacific Bone & Joint. In his suit, Neufeld accused Shoemaker of failing to pay a $100,000 loan from Pacific Bone & Joint and of stealing patients, office staff and insurance contracts. A month later, Shoemaker filed a countersuit in which he claimed Neufeld misrepresented himself as a reputable doctor.
Neufeld’s story is filled with curious sidebars. Toward the end, according to friends and associates, Neufeld—whose brother-in-law is Alan Bersin, the U.S. Attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties—was becoming increasingly obsessed with guns. The gun used in his suicide was allegedly registered to a reputed mob figure.
In his five-page suicide note, Neufeld talked of his life’s downward spiral. He did not refer to a murder-for-hire scheme specifically, but did say, tellingly, “If there is forgiveness in your hearts, forgive a man who should know better. I apologize to my staff. I apologize to the Shoemaker family. My life, in general, has been good. It is my fault it is screwed up now.”
Neufeld, who was 40 at the time of his death, had an apparently happy childhood in Toledo, Ohio. He excelled as a member of his high school debate squad, in 1967 winning the prestigious Double Ruby award, the highest honor bestowed by the National Forensic League. Earning a degree in speech from Northwestern University before attending Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, he completed his residency at the University of South Carolina Hospital in 1984 and was certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.
But somewhere along the way, Neufeld’s life took a sharp turn. A former coworker of Neufeld’s, who requested anonymity, recalls some chilling things about Neufeld’s increasingly dark character. “He had a ballpoint pen—or it looked like a pen, but it was actually a gun,” the former coworker explains. “The day after he shot himself, a large number of guns—I mean a large number—were removed from his house. He was getting more and more into guns and munitions in the last year or so. He was really getting into the dark side.”
At the time of his death, Neufeld’s medical practice was mired in scandal. His alleged improprieties included altering and/or influencing certain medical evaluations to strengthen his claims for disability insurance payments for patients, overbilling patients while at Pacific Bone & Joint, and attempting to alter a hospital report.
His problems also included malpractice suits, allegations of fraud, and investigations by several medical boards. In July 1990, the Medical Board of California filed an accusation against Neufeld’s physician’s license, alleging repeated negligence and the performance of incompetent orthopedic surgery on six patients.
In a telephone interview conducted not long after her son committed suicide, Neufeld’s mother, Mary, who still lives in Toledo, said, “He was a fabulous son, a brilliant student. He was sensitive and sweet. I have letters to fill a room saying what a wonderful man he was. He was in love with his wife and loved his children.” Asked why she thought her son took his own life, she replied, “Nobody knows. If you find out why, please tell me. No one knows. He was a happy, cheerful man, full of plans. He had a full life and wonderful children.”
Neufeld’s suicide was yet another tragedy in a family that has suffered more than its share of sorrow. Neufeld’s parents—Oscar and Mary—are both survivors of the Holocaust. (Mary, who grew up in Poland, narrowly missed a Nazi attack on her hometown in which the Germans took her parents and her younger brother.) The Neufelds have devoted their lives to philanthropic support of Jewish causes.
Neufeld’s apparent rage and eventual suicide might be an example of what is called the second-generation Holocaust survivor phenomenon, according to a therapist for a local counseling agency that often deals with Holocaust survivors and their children. The therapist says those children are prime candidates for a variety of psychological disabilities, including alienation, insecurity and a fascination with violence and death.
“You can’t ever generalize, of course, but the observation I’ve made over the years is that Holocaust survivors are often in no position to parent,” says the therapist. “They are damaged, traumatized, and their kids often pay that price. There are families that are just fine, that are doing just fine, but often, parents who survived the Holocaust are preoccupied with death. Their children often need to take the place of their dead relatives. They also have a very hard time letting go of their children. Their children grow up with all kinds of psychological disabilities. They can demonstrate all kinds of neurotic behavior and rage.”
Ronald Self, who faces up to 50 years or life imprisonment if convicted of shooting Shoemaker, claims he, too, is a victim of Neufeld’s rage. A muscular, imposing military hero who dragged 15 fellow Marines out of a burning helicopter in Korea in 1989, Self has maintained his innocence since the beginning. In an interview from jail, he told San Diego Magazine that on the morning of September 14, 1994, at 8:15—the time of the shooting—he was with his now ex-girlfriend, Carmella Bertuglia.
“We argued, she left, then I followed her to Gold’s Gym on Garnet [Avenue], where I signed in,” says Self. “I am innocent ... I did not participate in the shooting of Dr. Shoemaker.”
Bertuglia, a local hairdresser who says she came to Self’s house that morning to break up with him, corroborates his story. “I went to Ron’s that morning, and I didn’t tell him I was coming over,” she says. “I remember looking at the clock in my car, and it said 8:07 a.m. I got to his house at about 8:20, and we talked for a while. It was a discussion, an argument, a typical male-female thing.
“He wasn’t happy with what was said, so when I left at about 9, he followed me to Gold’s Gym. He came in and walked over to me—we were at opposite ends of the gym. And I remember a lot of people were looking at us; that’s just the way it is at the gym. We talked and hugged, and he left. It was about 9:20 when he left. I stayed until about 10:50.”
Later that day, Bertuglia says she heard about the shooting and that Self was being questioned. Police called her at work, and, she says, “I told them exactly what I’m telling you.” Two days later, as Bertuglia pulled up to Self’s house, she says police stopped her and would not let her go.
“They pulled up with their lights and guns, and they would not let me move. They asked me if I’d ever been handcuffed. I think they were trying to scare me, but I wasn’t scared. I haven’t been scared through this, because I’ve just kept my focus on the truth.”
Self’s attorney, Gary Gibson, says he has lodged a formal complaint against police alleging they attempted to intimidate Bertuglia, to persuade her to change her story. (Police deny any wrongdoing.)
Despite Self’s alibi, prosecutors are convinced that Self and Pizzuto are guilty. Deputy D.A. Sickels won’t elaborate on evidence he’ll present in court, but sources say this evidence includes a check from Neufeld to Self in the amount of $23,000. Self says the check was not a fee for the shooting but a secured loan from Neufeld that was going to be used to “help me buy half of my grandfather’s house” with his sister.
As for the truck used in the shooting, which was registered to him, Self says he sold it “one or two weeks before the shooting” to a gardener named Hector Rodriguez. During the investigation, however, police spokesman Dave Cohen questioned whether a gardener had ever used the truck.
“There was no dirt or grass found anywhere in the truck,” Cohen said. “Common sense tells you that if what Mr. Self says is true, there would be a trace of dirt or grass in the bed of the truck.”
Public defender Gibson suggests that the “paranoid” Neufeld believed his wife and Self were having an affair. “We think he was trying to kill two birds with one stone by killing Shoemaker and framing Self for the crime,” says Gibson. “When it started to unravel, Neufeld killed himself. I believe my client is 100 percent innocent.”
Self admits he and Neufeld’s wife sometimes worked out together, but insists they were just friends. “I cannot help but feel that he either knowingly or unknowingly involved me in this... It is obvious why he killed himself. He did something very, very wrong, involved and hurt a lot of people and, in the end, got overwhelmed by what he had done.”
As for the mild-mannered physician who unwittingly got trapped in this web, Shoemaker is expected to testify at the trial. For now, he’s trying not to lose faith in his fellow man. It’s been a tough year, and it’s harder to trust people, he admits. He’s obviously more careful about choosing friends, not to mention business associates. But to his credit, he has not lost his ability to laugh.
“I have to keep my sense of humor about all of this, or I’d go nuts,” he says with a smile. “All my life, because my name is Bill Shoemaker, people have asked me, ‘Are you that jockey? Is that you?’ Well, they don’t ask me that anymore. Now they ask, ‘Are you that doctor who was shot?’
“It’s been bizarre. But I want to spend another 20 to 25 years practicing medicine in this community. I’m just an average guy with a family and good friends. I mean, I just want to go on with my life.”