LAS VEGAS (AP) — An 87-year-old unlicensed physician was sentenced Tuesday to 17½ years in federal prison for heading a stem cell scam in Las Vegas that prosecutors said preyed on terminally ill patients and exposed them to risky placenta implant procedures.
During the hearing, Senior U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson labeled Alfred Sapse's actions "abhorrent," federal officials compared Sapse to the obsessive horror story character Dr. Frankenstein, and Sapse protested that his trial and sentencing amounted to a "kangaroo court."
Then Sapse was handcuffed in court and taken away in custody.
He said he expected to die in prison, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/15qf4Yd).
Sapse's attorney, Chris Allen Aaron, said later he sought leniency due to Sapse's age. Aaron said he didn't know if Sapse would appeal.
"He didn't think he got a fair trial," Aaron said.
A jury convicted Sapse in November with former Henderson physician Ralph Conti of multiple conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud charges.
Conti, 51, died during surgery several weeks later at a Las Vegas hospital. The Clark County coroner ruled the cause of Conti's death undetermined.
U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden said the two men enlisted chronically ill patients to undergo experimental surgeries and convinced investors that they were using a proprietary method that was especially effective for treatment of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa.
Procedures involved the implantation of portions of placental tissue into the abdomen of the patients, most of whom came to Las Vegas from other states for the treatment.
Sapse claimed to be a retired physician trained in Romania and Ukraine, but prosecutors said he was never licensed to practice medicine in the U.S.
In sentencing documents, Assistant U.S. Attorney Crane Pomerantz accused Sapse of masterminding a "grotesque fraud in which he convinced incurably sick people to undergo ineffective and potentially dangerous medical procedures for his own enrichment."
"He sold hope to patients who had none," Pomerantz wrote, adding federal probation officials aptly described Sapse as a "modern-day Dr. Frankenstein."
Pomerantz noted that Sapse tried to convince the jury that his procedure worked, "or at least that he believed his procedure worked."
Sapse was accused of paying Conti, a pediatrician with no stem cell training, to perform placenta tissue implants on more than 30 patients in Las Vegas in 2006. The federal Food and Drug Administration eventually issued a warning.
The FDA said Sapse failed to properly obtain, store, test and process placentas received from mothers after birth, and failed to properly screen donors and patients. It said several patients contracted infections.
Prosecutors said Sapse moved his operation to Mexico and enlisted an unnamed physician in the border town of Nuevo Progresso to perform implant procedures from February 2007 to May 2010.
Sapse and Conti were indicted in November 2011.
Prosecutors said Sapse spent and gambled away $700,000 of the approximately $1 million he and his company, StemCell Pharma Inc. in Las Vegas, made from patients and investors. Conti received more than $60,000 in cash payments that he didn't properly report.
"None of the money went to laboratory research, animal studies or human clinical studies relating to the short- and long-term effects of the implant procedures they were promoting," Bogden said in a statement.
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com