A life unravels

Published Feb. 4, 1999|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

Renowned neurosurgeon Joseph Ransohoff is at the center of a scandal over an affair and charges of blackmail.

The phone awoke Lori Ransohoff at 2:30 a.m. A woman whispered in a low voice: "Your husband is being extorted."

The anonymous caller told her to examine her husband's checkbooks. The woman said she wanted to help because the same thing had happened to her.

Ransohoff was incredulous at what she was hearing. Her husband, Dr. Joseph Ransohoff, was an internationally renowned neurosurgeon who had performed complicated brain tumor operations at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa into his early 80s.

Even at 83, Ransohoff's younger peers held him in awe. He was as fit as a Marine, they said, regularly jogging 4 miles with weights and doing 100 push-ups a day.

"He is really one of the great figures in 20th century neurosurgery in North America," said Dr. Fred Epstein, chairman of neurosurgery at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, who credits his success to Ransohoff's teaching.

Today, six weeks after that mid-December phone call, Ransohoff's idyllic life has unraveled. His wife has filed for divorce to salvage his $7-million fortune. A judge has ordered Ransohoff to stay away from his home and his two small children. And the fear that kept Ransohoff quiet for so long finally has been realized: On Saturday his name was joined in scandal as the victim of blackmail over an affair he had with a 26-year-old woman.

The day the story broke, Ransohoff was hospitalized at Tampa General Hospital, police records show. "He is very, very depressed," his wife said.

Although seemingly invincible in public, Ransohoff was vulnerable in private. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies say 26-year-old Laura Holt, reputedly a former lingerie model, threatened to expose their affair if he did not pay her. Authorities said he gave her and four associates more than $100,000.

On Monday night, Holt turned herself in to authorities "to face up to the whole thing," said her attorney, Ray Lopez. She denies the charges, he said.

Three days before, authorities arrested four of Holt's alleged associates.

Holt's mother declined Wednesday to discuss her daughter's relationship with Ransohoff. But she did say her daughter should be considered a victim, too.

Lopez said Holt will plead innocent. "She is definitely not the only person involved in this," Lopez said. "I don't think she is criminally culpable at all."

Neurosurgery was his life

Ransohoff moved to Tampa in 1992 after 30 years as a professor and department chairman in neurosurgery at New York University. A graduate of the University of Chicago Medical School, he was described in the New York Times as one of the country's leading specialists in the field.

Born into a family of doctors, "neurosurgery was just his life," his wife told the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday. The 1960s medical TV show Ben Casey was partly based on him.

"He grew up in an era where men were strong and outspoken and led with vigor," said Peter Fabri, associate dean at the University of South Florida Medical School.

Ransohoff would not hesitate to challenge someone he disagreed with. He also had little tolerance for mistakes.

"Joe called it as he saw it. If he thought someone was full of it, he told them," said Dr. Patrick Kelly, who holds a chair in neurosurgery named after Ransohoff at NYU.

"He has been directed very much in his career by what he considers right and what he considers wrong," said Epstein, the Beth Israel doctor. "There are so many people influenced by ego." Ransohoff was not one of them, he said.

Colleagues were in awe of his stamina. He was an amateur boxer and loved to drive powerboats. He performed surgery until about a year ago and would proudly display the steadiness of his hands.

For 43 years he was married to Dr. Rita Ransohoff, a psychotherapist who wrote Venus After 40, a book about men's responses to sexuality in older women.

"In male fantasies," Rita Ransohoff told the New York Times, "a man never loses his power as a man and he has the power to impregnate forever."

The couple divorced in December 1983. Four months later, Ransohoff married his current wife, Lori, a dentist, who was 28 at the time. They have two boys, 9 and 3. The New York Times included him in a story about men having children late in life.

"Bad influences'

Ransohoff first met Holt about 18 months ago, but authorities will not say how. Ransohoff has not even told his wife exactly how they met.

"He told my dad that he met someone in a bar," Mrs. Ransohoff said, although she's not sure she believes that explanation.

Holt came from a less august background than Ransohoff. A graduate of Hillsborough High School, Holt briefly attended Erwin Technical Institute to train as a nurse, said Miguel Detres, her former boyfriend and the father of Holt's 5-year-old child, Alyssa.

Holt also worked in a research lab in the Westshore area, he said.

"It seemed like she was hanging around bad influences," said Detres, 27. They have joint custody of their child but because of the charges he plans to ask a judge for sole custody.

Shortly after the couple broke up last year, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy arrested Holt for cocaine possession. Holt pleaded guilty to the charge and received a probationary sentence of 18 months.

She was living in the Village of Tampa, a mobile home park off Skipper Road in north Tampa, near Adrian Anthony Ayala, 38, a house painter with a history of drug problems who also has been charged in the extortion scheme.

In May 1996, detectives armed with a search warrant found four ounces of marijuana, some scales and Baggies inside Ayala's home. He received three years probation.

Another one of Holt's associates was Dawn Marie Dorado, 24, a former employee of the Celebrity Body salon on West Hillsborough Avenue, court records show.

Dorado has a criminal history that includes grand theft and cultivation of marijuana. Dorado also faced violation of probation charges in 1996 when she tested positive for cocaine.

Detres, the boyfriend, said Dorado hired Holt as a lingerie model at a defunct lingerie shop on Armenia Avenue. "She always had money," Detres said of Holt, "but there was never any sign she had a job."

She saw her

husband change

Even before the December phone call, Ransohoff's wife said, she saw her husband change. For one, he developed pneumonia about a year ago and started slowing down.

"He wasn't the fit, dynamic guy that he once was," she recalled.

The morning after she got the phone call, Ransohoff asked to see her husband's checkbook. He would not give it to her, she said.

"He was not willing to admit it to me," she said. "He was afraid I would leave him."

Eventually, she forced Ransohoff to tell her what he had done. "It was like squeezing water from a stone," she said.

Once his wife knew about the affair, he thought the cash payments would end. But they didn't. Ransohoff was told there were videotapes and photographs of the affair. The alleged extorters threatened to expose him to professional colleagues.

The couple hired an investigator, hoping they could handle the problem privately. The investigator told them about the criminal backgrounds of the people involved.

Ransohoff did not want to go the police "because he didn't want it to get in the paper," Mrs. Ransohoff said.

Finally, she convinced him they had no choice. With his blessing, Mrs. Ransohoff called the sheriff's office.

On Jan. 14, she filed for divorce to protect their assets. Her husband already had given away more than $100,000 and sold their boat, a 33-foot Sea Ray called Lorelie.

In court papers, Mrs. Ransohoff asked Judge Vivian Maye for an injunction to stop her husband from spending their assets, from driving a car with their children and from visiting their $800,000 house on Harbour Island. Maye granted the injunction. (Ransohoff is living in an adult care living facility on Bayshore Boulevard.)

Two weeks later, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies set a trap for Holt and arrested four involved in the scheme. The news was splashed on TV, but without the doctor's name. Sheriff's officials felt barred by state law from releasing his name because he is the victim of a crime of exploiting the elderly. But the Tampa Tribune obtained a document with his name on it and the next morning his worst fear was realized.

The indignity continues. This week, Ransohoff became the butt of crude jokes on a morning radio show.

_ Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writer Angela Moore contributed to this story.