A Walk in the Park: The killer thought that he’d gotten away with his savage act of mayhem. Unfortunately for him, he’d left behind one small clue.
All This Time: Edward was a grandfather, a churchgoer, a pillar of the community. He also had a former life… with some dark secrets.
Never Give Up: When a savage rape-slaying goes unsolved, it looks like a killer will get away with murder. Not if the victim’s sister can help it.
The Wish List: A talented, free-spirited artist meets a grisly end in her San Francisco apartment. Decades later, a very unlikely suspect emerges.
Letters to a Killer: The killer was sitting on death row, convicted of another crime. Why then, would he not confess to this one?
Barely Human: Lucille was a compassionate person, always willing to help a stranger in need. Sometimes your good deeds come back to hurt you.
The Secret Life of a Sociopath: He was a larger-than-life character whose story sounds like a Hollywood movie script. He was also a cold-hearted killer.
Cold Cases: Solved! Volume 4
Body of Evidence
To the people of Minot, North Dakota, Dr. Robert Bierenbaum was a saint. Here was this brilliant New York City plastic surgeon, working as the town doctor in their humble community; here was this esteemed physician, taking out a week of every month to fly to Mexico, where he would operate on children with cleft palates and other physical deformities, never asking a penny for his high-priced services. To Dr. Bierenbaum’s wife, Janet, also a highly qualified physician, Robert was the perfect husband, the perfect father to their 22-month-old daughter. To others in Bob Bierenbaum’s universe, he was a genius who excelled at every challenge he took on. Aside from his medical expertise, the esteemed doctor was a gourmet chef, a talented classical guitarist, fluent in five languages, and a qualified pilot. Just about everyone who knew him was stunned when he was arrested for murder in December 1999.
The arrest in question related to the disappearance of his first wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum in 1984. Gail and Robert had been introduced by a mutual friend in the early 1980s and married in 1982. It was an odd match. Robert had just graduated medical school and was handsome but socially awkward. Gail was a beautiful social butterfly but deeply troubled. She had a long history of emotional instability and had twice been hospitalized for depression. She had issues with drugs and had once attempted suicide. Bob Bierenbaum was taking on a challenge with his high-maintenance new bride. Perhaps he believed that love would conquer all. In this case, it did not. The union was in trouble almost from the start.
Depending on who you believe, the Bierenbaums’ marriage broke down because Bob was a control freak or because Gail was a neurotic, demanding woman who was impossible to live with. According to Gail, he insisted on micro-managing every aspect of her life, telling her what she could wear, who she could see, and where she could go. He also became violent when he did not get his way and once choked her almost unconscious after he caught her smoking, something he forbade. On another occasion, he tried to drown her cat in the toilet bowl because he was jealous of the affection she showed towards the animal. Gail also complained to friends that Robert was never around. As a surgical resident, he was putting in 130-hour weeks at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center. She was left at home and bored.
But Robert also had complaints about his wife, who he described as moody, neurotic, and unfaithful. The first two of those grievances were subjective. The third was hard fact. Gail had always been fond of male company and had continued seeing other men even after she and Bob were engaged. She would continue sleeping around after they were married, engaging in two ongoing affairs and a series of flings. Neighbors reported a string of male visitors to the apartment while Robert was at work and Gail was hardly discreet about her infidelities. She often boasted to friends about the sexual prowess of her lovers, comparing them to Robert who she said was “clueless” in bed. Just a year into the marriage and Gail was refusing to sleep with her husband. By 1984, when she started talking to a divorce attorney, she and Robert had not been intimate for more than a year.
This marriage, however, would not end in the divorce courts. It would end with the disappearance of Gail Bierenbaum on July 7, 1985. Robert called Gail’s parents that night and told them that Gail had walked out on him after a fight. The Katzes, who were used to the dramas in their daughter’s life, thought nothing of it at the time.
But concern began to grow when there was still no word from Gail by the next morning. That was when Bob walked into the 19th Precinct station house in Manhattan and reported her missing. According to Bob, he and Gail had argued that afternoon and she’d stormed out, taking a towel with her. Since she often went to sunbathe in Central Park, he assumed that she’d gone there. When she still hadn’t returned by dusk, he went looking for her. Her favorite spot was on the lawn behind the Metropolitan Museum and that was where he found her towel and suntan oil. Of Gail, though, there was no trace.
And there was still no sign of the missing woman the next day or the next. None of her friends had seen or heard from her. Although the police were still treating this as a missing person case, alarms were beginning to jangle. Gail had left behind her purse, with her cash and credit cards. How far could she have gone without money?
Gail’s family believed that they knew the answer to that question. Gail wasn’t missing. She was dead… and it was her husband who had killed her. To make their point, they showed NYPD Detective Tom O’Malley a letter written to Gail by Dr. Michael Stone, a psychiatrist who both Gail and Bob had consulted. In it, Stone had cautioned that her husband was a very dangerous man and urged her to leave him. This wasn’t evidence of murder, of course, but it did make the police sit up and take notice.
Robert, meanwhile, had various theories to offer for his wife’s disappearance. He was quick to remind everyone that Gail had attempted suicide before and might have done so again. He also suggested that Gail might have run away with one of her lovers or that she might have been killed by the drug dealers that she associated with. The Katzes weren’t buying it, and neither were the police. They were now almost certain that the doctor had murdered his wife. They just couldn’t prove it. There were no eyewitnesses, no forensics, no clues at all. And then there was the biggest mystery of all. If Bob Bierenbaum really had killed his wife, what had he done with her body?
Those questions would remain unanswered as the case went unsolved. Dr. Bierenbaum eventually left New York and moved to Las Vegas, where he met Dr. Janet Chollet, a gynecologist. The couple hit it off from the start and were soon engaged. After they tied the knot, they moved to Minot, North Dakota, where their daughter was born in 1998. It was at this time that Bob started making those mercy flights to Mexico, flying his private plane to perform those life-altering surgeries at his own expense. Meanwhile, back in New York, Gail’s family would not allow the NYPD to forget about her. Gail’s sister Alayne, an attorney, was particularly active in keeping the case top of mind.
In May 1989, four years after Gail disappeared, a headless torso washed up on a Staten Island beach. After examination, the coroner declared that it was the last mortal remains of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum. This, at least, gave the Katz family some closure. Gail was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens. Sylvia Katz passed just a few months later and her husband, Manny, five years after that. They were buried in adjacent plots. Alayne drew some comfort in knowing that they’d at least put Gail to rest before their own passing.
But 1997 would bring a new twist to the case. The district attorney’s office had decided to reopen the investigation and had exhumed the torso for DNA testing. Those tests would show that the coroner had been mistaken. These were not the remains of Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, after all. This was a Jane Doe. Gail remained among the missing
So what was it that had prompted the D.A. to reopen the case after all this time? It was an interview with Roberta Karnofsky, a woman Bob had dated back in New York. She advised them to check his flight logs for July 1985 and it was then that they made a startling discovery, something that Robert Bierenbaum had failed to disclose on the many occasions that they’d spoken to him. On the afternoon of July 7, 1985, the same afternoon that his wife disappeared, Bierenbaum had rented a Cessna 172 from an airport in Caldwell, New Jersey, and taken it up for a two-hour flight.
Bierenbaum had not filed a flight plan that day, but prosecutors believed that they could make a pretty good case for where he’d gone. They believed that he’d flown out over the Atlantic and dumped his wife’s remains into the sea, somewhere between Montauk Point, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey. Even more damaging to Bierenbaum was an amateurish attempt to alter the logbook. The number ‘7’ had been overwritten, changing it to an ‘8’. The implication was obvious. Bierenbaum was trying to make it seem that he’d made the flight in August, rather than in July.
With a warrant issued for his arrest, Robert Bierenbaum surrendered to police on December 8, 1999, and waived extradition to New York. He went on trial there in October 2000. With no physical evidence and not even a body, this was a difficult case to make. Prosecutors had to pass the “corpus delicti” test if they were to succeed. This is a confusing term that has tripped up criminals in the past, most famously, the notorious Acid Bath Killer, John George Haigh. It does not refer to the physical corpse but rather to the “body of evidence.” Simply put, the prosecution would need to connect the dots in a way that was convincing enough to satisfy the court. They did that by painting a compelling picture of how the murder might have occurred.
Bierenbaum’s biggest mistake was trying to conceal the evidence of his unscheduled flight. Had he told police that he’d been upset after the argument with his wife and had taken to the air to calm himself, then he might have had a defense to fall back on. Instead, he kept quiet about this significant detail and then compounded suspicion by altering the flight log. Why would he have done that if the flight he’d taken was entirely innocent?
The prosecution contended that it was not innocent at all. They suggested that Bierenbaum had strangled his wife during an argument, had dismembered her corpse in the apartment, had packed the body parts into a duffle bag, had dragged this down to his car, had driven to Caldwell Airport and from there taken the plane out and dropped the bag into the Atlantic from a height. They even provided evidence of an experiment they’d carried out, dropping a 120-pound sandbag from a Cessna. Taken with the evidence from Roberta Karnofsky and the letter written by Dr. Michael Stone, it was enough to convince the jury.
Robert Bierenbaum was convicted of second-degree murder. The prosecution asked for the maximum sentence and the defense for the minimum. Judge Leslie Snyder split the difference and sentenced him to 20 years to life. He is currently incarcerated at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility.