Doctor Accused of Cutting Off Patient’s Life Support System

Times Staff Writer

A Van Nuys physician was charged with attempted murder on Monday for allegedly removing, without authorization, the life support system of a brain-damaged patient at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Dr. John Frederick Kappler, 55, an anesthesiologist who has been on the hospital staff since 1972, is accused of turning off the respirator used to keep Ben Wytewa alive in the medical center’s intensive care unit.

Wytewa, a 28-year-old Los Angeles electrician, has been hospitalized since apparently attempting suicide last January by jumping out of a window of his residence. Authorities said the alleged murder attempt occurred April 29 in a room containing several patients whose breathing was being assisted by respirators.

When an alarm went off after the device was unplugged, a nurse in the room quickly responded and restored Wytewa’s breathing manually and also rang for assistance, Morrison Chamberlin, chief executive officer of the 389-bed hospital, said.


Witnesses Saw Suspect

Authorities said that Kappler had apparently looked in on the patient at least once before allegedly turning off the respirator. Witnesses saw Kappler entering and exiting the room at the time the machine was turned off, district attorney’s office spokesman Al Albergate said.

After the incident, Kappler went to another part of the hospital to help perform a surgery, according to Albergate. Kappler was arrested in the hospital about seven hours after the episode by police officers who had been contacted by the hospital security force.

Wytewa suffered no unusual complications and his condition remains guarded, Chamberlin said.


Since Wytewa cannot speak, he has not been interviewed by police, said Lt. Charles Massey of the Police Department’s Northeast Division.

Police have not yet determined a motive.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Massey said.

Kappler Suspended

Chamberlin said that Kappler has been suspended from the staff pending resolution of the case.

Kappler, reached in Van Nuys on Monday, refused to comment on the case. He is free on $10,000 bail pending his arraignment, scheduled for Thursday. If convicted, the physician faces up to nine years in state prison, authorities said.

Kappler’s lawyer, William A. Francis, said that his client had been in the room of the patient on the evening of April 29, but “I’m positive he did not consciously turn off the respirator.”

Francis said that Kappler “feels very, very distressed by the charges.”


The attorney said that, according to police reports, two nurses were in the room when a man walked in and turned off the respirator. He said that, according to the report, one nurse could not identify the man and the other one did not see the incident.

A source close to the investigation said that the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance had reported no prior complaints against Kappler.

Echoed Massey: “To the best of our knowledge--and we’ve investigated the thing for two weeks--this is an isolated incident peculiar to the particular time and place.”

Massey said Kappler was not Wytewa’s doctor and that their only relationship was that Kappler had reviewed Wytewa’s medical chart, apparently at the request of a distant associate who knew a friend of Wytewa.

Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer and Michael Seiler contributed to this article