The Fairfield Wives

Dr. John Parkinson, a civic and religious leader in the perfectly suburban town of Fairfield, told women they needed pelvic exams. Long exams. Several times a week. For years. And they believed him.

And about the time Rasmussen made her complaint about Parkinson, auditors for Medi-Cal, the state agency that dispenses funds for medical treatment of the indigent, began questioning unusually lengthy chemotherapy treatments that other Parkinson patients were receiving.

Everett Gremminger smelled a problem. He had no idea how big it would grow, or how strange it would get. After the Fairfield Daily Republic ran its story about Carolyn Windham's lawsuit, and then more stories on the Medical Board's investigation, fear and loathing spread through the community like wildfire.

Initially, the Medical Board was looking to determine whether Parkinson had been negligent in treating cancer patients. But when prosecutors started reviewing medical records, they found that something was very, very wrong. The case changed before their eyes.

Gremminger talked to his wife. And then he talked to other doctors. He knew a lot about a lot of things, but pelvic exams weren't among them. The investigator set about the task of interviewing Parkinson's female patients. Because of the delicacy of the subject matter, he wanted their husbands to be present for the interviews. And many of those husbands had never heard about what went on when their wives went to see Dr. Parkinson.

Slowly, in interview after interview, an ugly pattern formed. Parkinson, it seemed, had women in the stirrups every time they walked in the door.

Gremminger's phone rang constantly with calls from Parkinson patients. Some women had heard from their neighbors. Others had read newspaper stories -- in horror. They'd had the treatments too. They didn't go to other doctors. They trusted Parkinson. They didn't realize anything was wrong.

Now they were scared. And embarrassed. And angry. About two dozen women signed declarations alleging inappropriate care. Another 30 or so called but didn't file official complaints.

The state Attorney General's Office prosecutes on behalf of the Medical Board. By June 1993, Deputy Attorney General Susan Meadows was convinced that the state needed to stop Parkinson from practicing while the situation was sorted out in court. She filed for a temporary restraining order. Every judge on the bench in Solano County Superior Court disqualified himself or herself from hearing the matter. The judges either knew the victims (one of whom worked in the court), or they knew Parkinson, or both. The matter of Dr. John Parkinson moved into Contra Costa County.

The quaint little town of Martinez is snuggled comfortably into gorgeous, pastoral, rolling green hills. During rush hour, the path through these hills contains some of the worst commuter traffic in the Bay Area, but Martinez itself still has a sort of rustic, throwback look. It is one of those towns where it is difficult to decipher what has been gentrified and what is just plain old.

There are two major enterprises that define Martinez in a commercial sense: the industrial tentacles of Shell Oil Co. and the civil business of Contra Costa County.

The county courthouse is a tall, pillared neoclassical building that sits atop a platform of cement stairs. Everything about it says that this is the home of justice, or at least a place where important things are done.

And on July 28, 1993, it was packed with more than 100 people from Fairfield who showed up for a hearing on an order that would temporarily stop Parkinson from practicing at least some forms of medicine. Those in attendance were old, young, male, and female. Most were members of the Mormon Church. Many wore green ribbons, an unexplained but quickly adopted symbol of support for Parkinson. The crowd spilled from the courtroom into the hallway. There were whispers and stares. Neighbors educated each other on the players, and what they supposedly had done.

After the Attorney General's Office produced records on several Parkinson patients, the state's medical experts testified that Parkinson's course of treatment for those patients was negligent and improper. The Parkinson legal team, which included his son and another lawyer, argued that their client was a highly respected member of the community. The whole affair, they asserted, amounted to an unwarranted attack by a handful of misguided and angry women.

Judge Douglas Swager made what seemed like an odd compromise: Parkinson could not see female patients, pending the state's disciplinary hearing on his medical practice issues. But the doctor was free to treat male patients as he saw fit.

The news hit Fairfield doorsteps the next morning. Almost immediately, it became clear that the Parkinson matter was going to split Fairfield deeply.

In support of the doctor were many church leaders and a group called "The Committee to Support and Defend Dr. Parkinson." The committee was headed by a man who'd been a lifelong friend of Chance Williams, Rasmussen's brother.

The committee placed fliers on parked cars, mainly near Mormon functions, that attacked women who had filed complaints against Parkinson. The fliers, titled "The Truth About Dr. Parkinson," contained minitestimonials from patients and friends. One such testimonial came from a woman named Susan Collins, who stated: "My husband and I know personally the vengeful woman who is behind all of this tragic turmoil, and would like to go on record as testifying that she made the remark that she would get Dr. Parkinson if it was the last thing she did."

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