Ex-UCLA gynecologist James Heaps guilty of sexually abusing patients
A Los Angeles County jury on Thursday found former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps guilty of sexually abusing female patients during his tenure at the university.
Heaps, 65, had been charged with 21 felony counts, but was found guilty of only five: three counts of sexual battery by fraud and two counts of sexual penetration of an unconscious person. The assaults date from 2013 to 2017, the portion of his tenure that falls within the statute of limitations for which criminal charges could be brought.
He was found not guilty of seven other counts, including one count of sexual exploitation.
Judge Michael D. Carter declared a mistrial on nine other sex-related counts, saying the jury was hopelessly deadlocked on them.
“Instead of upholding the Hippocratic oath, [Heaps] used his position as a doctor, as a specialist, to sexually assault ... incredibly vulnerable women,” Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers said during the trial, which began Aug. 9.
Prosecutors portrayed Heaps as exploiting his position as a renowned cancer specialist to prey on women during his 35 years associated with UCLA. Hundreds of accusers have been paid nearly $700 million in the largest sexual abuse settlement involving a public university.
Natalie B., one of the women Heaps was found guilty of abusing, wept as he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom. “He was found guilty for what he did to me,” she said in asking for Heaps to be taken into custody immediately after the verdict.
Heaps faces up to 28 years when he is sentenced on Nov. 17.
Two UCLA students filed a lawsuit alleging they were sexually assaulted and subject to hazing while working at Bruin Woods, a Lake Arrowhead camp for alumni and their families.
Darren Kavinoky, a civil attorney for hundreds of women who have accused Heaps of abuse, said that while his clients had hoped for a guilty verdict on all counts, they were “gratified that James Heaps now faces more than two decades in prison and will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.”
“This verdict should be heard in hospital corridors of every medical facility in the country, especially in the executive offices, where policies are formulated, so that other women don’t suffer the same horrors,” Kavinoky said. “It also sends a message to people everywhere who abuse their position of trust that they will also be held accountable for their actions.”
Lenny Levine, Heaps’ attorney, said he planned to appeal the verdict, emphasizing that the jury found Heaps guilty on counts involving only two of the seven women involved in the charges against him.
“Dr. Heaps will be exonerated,” he said. “This case was by no means clear-cut.” He added that the split verdict shows that if jurors had heard all of the evidence, they would have found Heaps not guilty on all counts.
Meyers, meanwhile, said she would seek to retry Heaps on some of the hung counts if he receives anything less than a double-digit prison sentence.
Dr. James M. Heaps, 67, faces a total of 20 felonies related to sex crimes alleged by seven of his former patients at his UCLA Health practice.
The women Heaps was charged with abusing told similar stories from the witness stand, testifying that he groped them, penetrated them with his ungloved hand and committed acts of sexual stimulation under the guise of medical examinations.
Nicole G. said that “stepping forward and telling others what happened to me is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.”
During the trial, Heap’s defense attorney said the exams were appropriate and “for a medical purpose and were conducted with female staff present. Levin said Heaps had been “painted as a monster in the press” when, in fact, he was saving lives.
In his closing argument, Levine summarized the case by saying Heaps “either did it all or he did none.”
“He’s either a doctor out there doing his job, or he’s a maniacal monster sex fiend out there looking for sex whenever he can,” the defense attorney said. “Those are your two choices, in my opinion.’’
But Melanie Padilla, one of Heaps’ accusers, said that was exactly what Heaps was: a monster.
“I belong to a sisterhood I’ve never wanted,” Padilla said during a news conference following the verdict. “That monster deserves everything that he has coming to him and nothing less.”
In June 2017, a married mother of four experiencing severe pelvic pain went to see a UCLA gynecologist.
Heaps’ own university called his conduct “reprehensible” following a $374.4-million settlement covering 312 former patients.
A state investigation revealed UCLA ignored multiple detailed complaints of abuse spanning decades against the doctor. A separate University of California report found that UCLA repeatedly failed to adequately investigate the allegations. UCLA allowed Heaps to return to practice in 2018 to find new victims, multiple lawsuits alleged, even though top university officials knew of an ongoing internal investigation into the allegations.
“It’s very difficult to be betrayed in such a relationship of trust,” said Jennifer McGrath, who represented many of the victims in the lawsuits and the criminal case. “You go to a physician, you expect that you’ll be treated appropriately and medically, and when that does not happen.... It really destroys that trust in a deep way.”
One patient who testified during the trial said she had gone to see Heaps because she feared she had stage 4 cancer. She said she felt as though she were in a strip show or a pornographic movie after he told her to bend over and touched her all over without gloves or a chaperone present.
Another woman, a survivor of triple-negative breast cancer, told jurors how she was undergoing aggressive cancer treatment when she saw Heaps. In explaining how certain incisions would work for removing her ovaries and fallopian tubes because she had the BRCA gene, which makes a person more susceptible to certain cancers, Heaps told her she could still wear skimpy bikinis. The woman, identified as Kara C., testified that Heaps rubbed her vaginal area unlike any other doctor had. She reported him to UCLA 10 days after her 2014 exam.
Meyers reminded jurors during closing arguments how one of Heaps’ patients had an IUD removed five days after he inserted it because she was in excruciating pain. The woman said that during a June 2017 return office visit at UCLA, Heaps groped her breast and buttock in a way the prosecutor said had “no medical purpose.”
“You get to tell the defendant that he cannot hide behind UCLA, that he cannot hide behind that white coat and that he is guilty of every single count,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosa Zavala told the jury.
The University of California will pay $374 million to settle more sexual abuse suits involving UCLA gynecologist James Heaps, bringing total to $700 million.
Despite years of complaints about Heaps, who treated about 6,000 patients during his tenure, it was not until late 2017 that allegations of sexual misconduct were reported to UCLA’s Title IX office and a formal investigation was opened.
Heaps was allowed to continue seeing patients — both during the investigation and after UCLA informed the doctor his contract would not be renewed when it expired on June 30, 2018. UCLA finally ended Heaps’ employment and notified the police of the allegations against him in June 2018.
Heaps was arrested a year later and charged with two counts of sexual battery by fraud and one count of sexual exploitation in connection with acts involving two patients. Until that arrest, UCLA had not made public or told former patients that a year before, Heaps had been investigated for sexual abuse. Subsequently, a grand jury indicted him on 21 felonies involving seven victims.
In May 2022, UC regents agreed to $374.4 million in settlements covering 312 former patients who sued, alleging they were abused between 1983 and 2018. That agreement came on top of a $243.6-million settlement of more than 200 women’s lawsuits and a $73-million class-action settlement involving more than 5,000 patients dating to 1983. In 2019, the UC system also paid $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a patient who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Heaps in 2018.
The cost of the UC settlements exceeds payouts by Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to resolve lawsuits brought by patients who alleged sexual abuse by school doctors. It also dwarfs a settlement involving a sex abuse scandal at Penn State.
The total, however, is still less than the $1.1 billion USC has paid to settle lawsuits by hundreds of women who accused George Tyndall, a former USC gynecologist, of sexual abuse. Tyndall has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on dozens of sexual assault charges tied to the campus clinic where he practiced for decades.
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