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March 16, 2011

The Day My Husband Disappeared

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the vanishing

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Kramer

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Michelle did not find Mark in Cannes; instead, she went back home, deciding to take the next year off from school to "put out fires." For weeks, she could barely sleep or eat, and her mom moved in with her. "The house became like a dilapidated mansion," she says. "Rumors were flying. People thought I was in on some scam, or that I killed him. The authorities were after him, too. He had defaulted on a bank loan, and now it was a legal matter." Meanwhile, the malpractice suits against Mark were snowballing. He was being accused of the worst kind of crime imaginable for a doctor: performing bogus surgeries on his sinus patients.

In October 2005, around a year after her husband's disappearance, Michelle filed for bankruptcy to deal with the colossal debt. Still, she held onto an improbable notion that she and Mark would reconnect, perhaps on the date of their wedding anniversary in November. On that day, she thought, he would somehow contact her. When he didn't, she says, she finally realized it was over. She filed for divorce, got her own place, and resumed her graduate studies in psychology — thanks to student loans, a day job working for a neuropsychologist, and a night job at a club. She would no longer be defined by her husband's betrayal. "I decided, I'm not gonna curl up in this little ball and die," she says. "I'm not gonna let him destroy me."

More than five years after Mark's disappearance, in December 2009, Michelle got an astonishing phone call from a producer she knew at America's Most Wanted. Her ex-husband had been found, huddled in a tent atop Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the European Alps, in subzero temperatures. When authorities took him in for questioning, Mark attempted to end it all by stabbing himself in the jugular with a hidden knife — but survived.

Officials learned that Mark had been living alternately in the tent — stocked with cans of food, clothing, and other gear — and in an apartment in the nearby Italian town of Courmayeur. His plan was to write a survivalist handbook; hence, the tent. A simple blunder had led to his capture: He'd fallen behind on the rent for his apartment, and the landlord had gone to the police. (Oddly, Mark had used his real name when renting the apartment.) In investigating, the police unearthed Mark's international arrest warrant. He was now facing more than 300 malpractice suits in the States.

Michelle, meanwhile, was busy doing a predoctoral internship at a hospital in Alabama, working with injured war veterans. Upon hearing about Mark, she says, "My throat went dry. I could feel a pulsating in my ears. I was outside, and ambulances were racing by. I sat down on a stoop at a construction site. I was sobbing, but there were no tears. I didn't know if I was happy or sad."

She felt no desire to talk to her former husband. However, his most recent girlfriend — an Italian woman living in Courmayeur — wanted to talk to her. The two shared a few e-mails about how they had both been duped, and then Michelle wanted to move on.

Six months later, Michelle received her doctorate in clinical psychology in Chicago. "When I got my diploma, my hand was shaking," she says. "My mom was there, cheering me on. I thought, No one can take this away from me, right?" Today, Michelle is working on a postdoctoral psychology fellowship in Baltimore. She lives a more normal life now: She works marathon days at a hospital; she worries about her mom; she tries to go on one date a week. How did she not only survive such an extreme betrayal, but thrive? "I never lost myself, even when I had all that stuff," she explains. "I just didn't lose who I was." She credits her down-to-earth parents for that — her hardworking father who juggled three jobs.

It's a Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, and Michelle is just back from walking her dogs, an aging white Labrador named Angel and a bouncy Maltese called Bling. She's gearing up for the week ahead, when she'll counsel patients with injuries ranging from spinal-cord trauma to brain damage to amputated limbs. "My life has come full circle," she says. "Sometimes I think of myself in that full-body cast when I was 13, when I nearly lost a leg. Now I help my patients deal with pain and trauma. I feel like it's the universe's way of saying that what happens to you has meaning."

This past fall, Mark Weinberger pleaded guilty in Indiana to 22 counts of health-care fraud. (Hundreds of malpractice suits are still pending.) In his plea deal with the prosecutor, he agreed to serve four years in jail for fraud. At press time, he was awaiting the judge's decision on the sentencing. Michelle thinks he deserves a stiffer sentence. In October she wrote to the judge, expressing her opinion. "Mark not only hurt patients," she says now, "he ruined people's trust in doctors."

Michelle has not talked to Mark since that moment in Greece when he hung up the phone. She still finds it hard to believe that she married a monster. "It makes me sick to think of how he funded our lifestyle," she says, noting that he is the definition of a narcissist. Then she pauses and adds, "But in the end, I won. I was more than a 'formidable foe.'"


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