Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

$800,000 rift divides father and son

REDINGTON SHORES — Many years ago, when James Zebranek was a family doctor with a thriving practice outside Detroit, his eldest son came home from a Little League game with big news.

"I hit three home runs," said the boy, Jim Zebranek Jr.

The elder Zebranek had missed the game, so when he ran into Jim's baseball coach, he asked about the score. What he learned confused him. His son had not hit any home runs.

A boy's fib about his sports prowess could be forgiven, perhaps written off as a ploy to gain the favor of the father whose name he shared.

But according to police, state medical regulators, family and acquaintances, Jim Zebranek Jr.'s deceits would get more dangerous as he grew into a man.

"He's a liar of the first order," said his father, now an 87-year-old resident of Redington Shores in Pinellas County. "Ever since he was a child, he learned how to lie. He doesn't recognize the truth."

Zebranek's actions would lead to repeated stints in drug rehabilitation and a diagnosis of "sociopathic features" by a state-appointed doctor. They would lead to an arrest in Transylvania and a corpse in Cudjoe Key. Eventually, his transgressions led back to where they began — to his father.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office detectives say Zebranek, 56, stole $800,000 from his father and fled to Panama, where he lived the high life at resorts while his father scrambled to pay maintenance bills on his Redington Shores condo.

A former doctor, Zebranek was arrested last month in Texas, then extradited to Florida. On May 12, he was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on 14 counts of money laundering, two counts of perjury and one count of grand theft from an elderly person. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

"I'm innocent," Zebranek said at a recent hearing in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. "And I had no idea that this could happen to me, that my own father could accuse me of a felony that he knows, or should know, is completely false, because of his own senility."

Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office is representing Zebranek, declined to comment on the case.

Judge Thane B. Covert set Zebranek's bail at a jaw-dropping $9 million, apparently believing the amount was justified for a man who hopped international borders when he got in trouble — a man whose acquaintances learned to expect anything from him.

"Talk about a checkered past. It's a soap opera with this guy," said Jonathan Alper, an Orlando asset protection and bankruptcy lawyer who once had Zebranek as a client. "Anything you told me about him, I can't say it would be surprising."

• • •

There is a 1990s family photo hanging in the elder Zebranek's living room. Jim Zebranek Jr. stands at the end of a row of his parents and three siblings. He has dark, thinning hair and a jaw etched with a goatee. He squints at the camera, posture rod-straight, hands hanging awkwardly at his sides as his relatives embrace and grin.

Like his dad, Zebranek began his professional life as a doctor. According to Florida medical licensing records, he obtained a degree from the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1984. Osteopathy, developed in the late 19th century, is a branch of medicine that emphasizes that all body systems are interrelated. Osteopathic physicians may include manipulation of the body in their treatment regimens.

Three years after graduating from medical school, Zebranek, then 32, ran afoul of the standards observed in any branch of medicine. On July 5, 1987, he called the Monroe County Sheriff's Office to report he had a body at his house on the eastern shore of Florida's Cudjoe Key. The dead man, a 27-year-old named Michael Greene, had been Zebranek's patient. An autopsy found that Greene's body contained cocaine and Dilaudid, an addictive painkiller.

Monroe County Chief Assistant State Attorney Manny Madruga said his office has no records indicating Zebranek was charged criminally in the incident. However, in January 1988, the Florida Department of Professional Regulation issued an emergency order suspending his license to practice medicine.

According to state Department of Health records, the order was "a result of his drug and alcohol abuse and inappropriate prescribing which resulted in the death of a patient." It was finalized as a three-year suspension in 1989. The state Board of Osteopathic Medicine revoked his license in 1992 after finding he continued to treat patients despite the license suspension.

His license was reinstated six years later on the condition that he undergo addiction aftercare and drug screening. In 1999 Zebranek tested positive for cocaine, according to state medical records.

He was subsequently evaluated by multiple doctors for underlying mental disorders. One concluded he had "sociopathic features." Another opined that he had "an apparent bipolar disorder." Zebranek entered a Chicago mental health facility, only to be expelled within a month over what state records describe as a "physical altercation with another patient" and a "continual lack of trust with his peers."

The board again suspended Zebranek's license in 2002, citing his "continuing cycle of drug dependency, treatment, and relapse, coupled with his history of mental illness."

It looked like the end of a troubled career. For Zebranek, the unpredictable osteopath, it was a prelude to an escapade in Count Dracula's fictional homeland.

• • •

The Romanian city of Brasov nestles against the forested slopes of the Carpathian Mountains in the fabled Transylvania region. According to lore, its Saxon settlers were once terrorized by Vlad III of Wallachia, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century warlord commonly believed to have inspired the Dracula legend.

In 2005, according to Romanian authorities, the city's residents faced another threat in the form of James Zebranek Jr. The doctor from Florida made international headlines when he was detained on suspicion of illegally running a medical clinic in Romania in 2005. A Romanian prosecutor told the Associated Press that Zebranek protested at the time that he didn't know he needed a Romanian medical license.

It's unclear how Zebranek's legal troubles overseas unfolded. But by 2006, he was in Orlando, facing trial on domestic charges of unlicensed practice by a health care professional. The jury's verdict: not guilty.

Asked about the case, Orlando attorney Carlus Haynes, who handled Zebranek's defense, burst out laughing. The case hinged on covert police videos of Zebranek administering shots to patients after his license suspension, but the syringes were difficult for the jury to see in the tapes, Haynes said.

"Sometimes, if you give me a little bit, reasonable doubt can be manufactured, so to speak," he said.

While the elder Zebranek said he never knew his son to be particularly religious beyond some attendance at an Episcopal church as a child, Haynes remembered his client as a devout man who said his next ambition was to be a minister.

"After the case, he gave me a candle. I believe Saint Peter was on the candle," Haynes said. "He told me he let the morals of the Bible, as taught through Jesus, be his moral compass."

For others who knew Zebranek, his Christian compassion was sometimes hard to discern.

George Carlile, a retired police officer who was Zebranek's neighbor at a condominium complex in Winter Park, said he agreed to perform some construction work on Zebranek's house, but packed up his tools after Zebranek insulted his wife.

"To make it short, he's an a--hole. He's a lying, sociopathic a--hole," Carlile said. "He used to be the laughing stock of everybody, walking around in his bathrobe. I guess he thought he was in a spa or something."

Police records state that Zebranek is married to a 44-year-old woman named Adriana Dinescu, who lives in Winter Park. According to Orange County court records, he also has an ex-wife, Daciana Phillips. The elder Zebranek said both women are Romanian. Neither woman could be reached for comment.

Zebranek's mother is dead, as are two of his three siblings. The third, Joel Zebranek of Cleveland, declined to discuss his brother's case in detail.

"My brother is an outstanding doctor and did a lot of great things with his life. This is a very sad situation for my family," Joel Zebranek said.

• • •

On Thursday, Jim Zebranek appeared before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady, unshaven and still sporting a faint tan. The Public Defender's Office had asked the judge to determine whether Zebranek's finances actually entitle him to a court-appointed lawyer, or whether he can afford a private attorney.

Zebranek asserted that while he has "between $10,000 and $50,000" in a U.S.-based savings account, he has no way to access it from jail, and thus cannot pay for his own defense. "I'm locked into a cage like an animal that gets fed three times a day," he lamented. McGrady decided Zebranek could, "for now," continue to use a public defender's services.

Asked by the judge at one point whether he has kin besides his father, Zebranek didn't mention his brother in Cleveland. "I have no other relatives," he said.

The one relative he does acknowledge continues to live alone. The elder James Zebranek resembles an aging bird of prey: bright, close-set eyes, sharp nose, wild sweep of white hair. Seated at his dining table in a bathrobe on a recent morning, prescription pill bottles arrayed before him, he told the story of how his eldest son wound up in McGrady's court.

In October 2008, the elder Zebranek collapsed in his home when his blood sugar plummeted because of a bad reaction to a diabetes medication. He said he was treated at Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg. After about a week, he recovered, left the hospital and returned to his condo, where he continued to take care of himself and his affairs, according to an arrest affidavit filed by Pinellas Detective Stephen Bingham.

During the hospital stay, however, his son obtained a signed affidavit from Dr. Sreelatha Tirupathi stating that his father was unable "to manage property," according to the arrest affidavit. Tirupathi told Bingham the document was intended for use only while the elder Zebranek was hospitalized.

In February 2010, however, Jim Zebranek used the 16-month-old affidavit to take over his father's Fidelity trust fund. (Three days before filing the affidavit, Zebranek had submitted an amendment to the trust naming himself successor to the fund in the event of his dad's incapacitation.) He told a Fidelity representative his father suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Jim Zebranek removed $800,000 of the $802,000 in the account, transferring most of the money to a Panama bank, according to police. Cash was withdrawn from the new account at ATM locations in that country.

Detectives said Zebranek used the money to stay at resorts, among other things. His father learned what had happened when one of his checks bounced.

Jim Zebranek was arrested on April 26 in San Angelo, Texas, where he tried to obtain a new driver's license.

From his jail cell in Pinellas County, Zebranek declined a request for an interview. The Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the charges against him. A Fidelity spokesperson said the company could not discuss the Zebranek affair, citing client privacy.

Tirupathi referred questions to her lawyer, Jeff Goodis of St. Petersburg, who said the doctor could not discuss the case because of laws governing patient privacy. Goodis said Tirupathi "absolutely did not" procure any financial benefit from signing the affidavit for Jim Zebranek.

It is unclear how much of the elder Zebranek's money remains — he hasn't gotten access to his son's Panama bank account — or why Jim Zebranek returned to the United States.

Having lived so many different lives in different places, maybe he just wanted a shot at one more. But there is one role, the elder Zebranek insists, that the boy who once boasted of hitting three home runs in a single game will never play again.

"As far as I am concerned," he said, "Jim is not a son of mine anymore."

Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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