Dr. Charles DeHaan is awaiting sentencing on Medicare fraud in federal court and is charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse against three handicapped or elderly people in Winnebago County. DeHaan denies the allegations. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
From her bed in her Des Plaines trailer home, Joan Shortridge kept a calendar. On the days her doctor made house calls, she drew unhappy faces, little circles with eyes and down-turned mouths.
"Can’t tell wish I could," she wrote by the faces. "Dr. DeHaan…. They don’t know what he’s doing to me. Please STOP… Sick things came no one knew."
The cryptic notes, she later told investigators, referred to Dr. Charles DeHaan, who specialized in at-home visits to sick and elderly shut-in patients.
Shortridge eventually found the will to go to police, prompting an investigation that led to Cook County prosecutors charging DeHaan in 2014 with aggravated criminal sexual assault of a handicapped person, an allegation he has strongly denied.
But it would turn out that Shortridge was far from the first of DeHaan’s patients to claim he engaged in sexual misconduct.
Police records in Rockford, where DeHaan’s practice was based, show that since 2009, 20 patients reported alleged sexual misconduct by DeHaan. But it was not until 2015 that Winnebago County prosecutors approved criminal charges against DeHaan. He now also awaits trial there on allegations of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against three handicapped or elderly people.
Additionally, at least 12 women have filed civil lawsuits against DeHaan, claiming he had inappropriate sexual contact with them. His license to practice medicine was suspended by state authorities in 2014.
DeHaan has categorically denied having any sexual contact with patients and has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges. In the Cook County case, he told Des Plaines police that the accuser was "attention-seeking" and wanted medications that he wouldn’t give her, according to a Des Plaines police report.
But those are not the last of his legal and professional troubles. On Thursday, DeHaan is due to be sentenced in federal court after pleading guilty to two cases of Medicare overbilling totaling less than $5,000, his lawyer said. DeHaan, 62, faces a sentencing range of eight to 10 years in prison on the fraud conviction.
News coverage of the Medicare fraud allegations prompted more of DeHaan’s patients to come forward, including Shortridge, she said.
‘Preying on the weakest people’
Court and police records show that many of the claims against DeHaan involve ailing, isolated women, some of whom were on pain medications or who had dementia, and some who claimed the abuse went on for years.
Some of the women, including one who used a wheelchair, reported that he rubbed their breasts and masturbated in their presence on repeated occasions; one patient told Rockford police that the doctor engaged in oral sex with her, court and police records show. Another woman stepped forward to allege to authorities that she had previously traded sex with DeHaan for medication, claims that dated back to 1993, according to a police report.
Many of the complaints to police stated that DeHaan wore surgical scrubs with no underwear and saw his patients alone behind closed doors. One of the civil lawsuits against DeHaan claims that he failed to diagnose breast cancer in a patient he was molesting. That patient later died.
Shortridge, 64, who filed a lawsuit in 2014 against DeHaan that is still pending, said she suffers from a severe fear of the outdoors, and for years has been confined to the same bedroom where she says she was molested.
"I was scared to death," she told the Tribune. "He said, ‘If you tell anyone, they’re not going to believe you.’"
Her attorney, Eric Jones, said Shortridge’s credibility is proven by the fact that she told police DeHaan had a scar across his abdomen, below his navel, which police verified along with other physical traits of DeHaan’s that Shortridge described.
"It’s a tragic case," Jones said. "We have a guy preying on the weakest people in society. He completely violated the trust people have in their doctors."
In documents filed in the federal case, DeHaan’s defense attorney, Debra Schafer, challenged the credibility of Shortridge and other witnesses, noting that the defense had no opportunity to question many of the witnesses in federal court.
"It is simply incredible to believe that an adult would put up with the behavior alleged without complaint for the length of time alleged," Schafer wrote. Some of the accusers claim the alleged abuse went on for years. Schafer has also questioned the mental fitness of at least one of DeHaan’s accusers.
Shortridge could easily have made her calendar comments after the fact, Schafer said, noting that elsewhere Shortridge drew stars by DeHaan’s name and wrote "Best Dr.," while scratching out other comments that might have been positive.
"My understanding is that Dr. DeHaan was an excellent doctor, and he’s looking forward to going to court so he can clear up these allegations," Schafer said.
DeHaan, who lives in Belvidere, outside Rockford, formerly had a practice in northwest suburban Mount Prospect, and had been making house calls for 20 years in 14 counties, he told Des Plaines police when they interviewed him in 2014 about Shortridge’s claims, according to a police report. Court records show that DeHaan was president of MD at Home, which became House Call Physicians Group of Rockford, and that he was involved with various other home health care agencies.
Multiple police complaints, starting in 2009
Attorney Michael Gravlin, who represents several of the women who have civil lawsuits pending against DeHaan, said authorities should have acted sooner, given the multiple patients who had complained.
The Des Plaines police report shows that an officer investigating Shortridge’s claims in 2014 contacted a Rockford police detective "who stated that he had five or six cases with DeHaan in 2011 that their state’s attorney did not approve (charges for) and now another five just popped."
"It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t taken more seriously," Gravlin said.
Katie Zimmerman, spokeswoman for the Winnebago County state’s attorney, said that in some cases where people file complaints, investigators do not have enough evidence to justify criminal charges. She said the office reviews police investigations regularly and files charges as soon as and when appropriate.
"Obviously, we have no control over how long an investigation takes," she said. "The state’s attorney charges when we believe there’s enough evidence to prove a case in court."
Sex crimes in particular can be difficult to prove in cases that lack physical evidence.
Rockford police declined to comment on their response to the numerous police reports filed about DeHaan, saying they don’t discuss cases in which they don’t make an arrest.
Sometimes, even the victims’ own family members were skeptical of the allegations.
"I turned down probably 10 other cases where family members told me, ‘Grandma said Dr. DeHaan was molesting her. None of us believed her. Oh my God, we didn’t realize, our mother was telling us and nobody believed her. She’s been dead five years; now we feel horrible,’" Gravlin said.
‘Nobody took it serious’
One of the women with a civil suit pending against DeHaan, 60-year-old Yvonne Vazquez, said he treated her following heart surgery in her Rockford trailer home four times from 2012 to 2013.
"He came in with a big old smile on his face," she told the Tribune of seeing him the first time. "It was just like a soap opera doctor walked in my door. He is a good-looking man for his age. He had a tan, and came in wearing scrubs."
On his third visit, DeHaan raised Vazquez’s shirt, checked her heartbeat with a stethoscope, then slid his hand along one of her breasts, according to the account she gave police. Just then Vazquez’s baby granddaughter cried, and Vazquez jerked her shirt down, jumped up and went to the baby, but she told police that DeHaan then stuck his hand down his pants and fondled himself. Embarrassed, she looked away until he left, but she told authorities DeHaan did the same thing when he made one more surprise visit.
When Vazquez told her two daughters and a nurse what happened, they "laughed it off," she said.
"Nobody took it serious," she said. She eventually filed a report with Rockford police as well as a civil lawsuit, but no criminal charges were filed in her case.
The troubling allegations go back for years.
At DeHaan’s federal sentencing hearing last year, according to court documents, FBI Agent Alex Payne testified that a hospice social worker had reported allegations from a 27-year-old woman that she had a sexual relationship with DeHaan in the early 2000s, which the doctor denied to police. The woman used a wheelchair and suffered from depression. The hospice worker also reported that another patient had claimed in 2007 that the doctor fondled her breasts on several occasions, according to the agent’s testimony.
The hospice worker contacted the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to report the 2007 claim but was told the alleged victim had to come forward herself, which she was unwilling to do, according to the FBI agent’s testimony.
Records show home health care administrators also complained about DeHaan to Rockford police.
Another of DeHaan’s former patients, Sue Beesley, 62, said he came to her home in Rockford in 2013 to treat both her and her sister, who had dementia.
While examining Beesley with a stethoscope, he grabbed her breast, but when she pulled back, he left abruptly, she told police. She believed he mistook her for her sister, she said.
She reported her allegations to police and to the nursing agency that referred DeHaan, and was interviewed by prosecutors, but DeHaan has not been charged criminally in connection to Beesley’s claims.
"I felt like I was by myself and nobody believed me," she said. "And this was still going on."
In its 2014 petition to suspend DeHaan, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation listed eight women who had made misconduct claims against DeHaan. One involved a woman with a history of mental illness who told authorities that she met DeHaan in an elevator at a Rockford public housing complex while he was there seeing patients and ended up having sex with him numerous times over the next six months. During that time he prescribed her more than 1,000 tablets total of Norco painkillers and Ritalin, the woman claimed.
Another patient who made claims against DeHaan told authorities that she had asked him why he engaged in the behavior. The woman said DeHaan told her, "I can’t help myself. I’m a sex addict," according to the police report.
"He was a sexual predator with a medical license," said Jakub Banaszak, another attorney for some of the women suing DeHaan. "It’s shocking how long he was able to carry on abusing these woman and heartbreaking how many women’s lives he affected and ruined."
In the civil suits pending against DeHaan, his insurance companies have said in court filings that their policies don’t cover intentionally illegal acts and his attorney withdrew due to non-payment — so his patients may never be compensated if they were to win a final judgment.
Facing prison for Medicare fraud
Even if DeHaan is cleared of the criminal charges, he still could serve a lengthy prison term in the Medicare fraud case. Federal prosecutors had accused him of billing Medicare for nearly $6 million for services he never performed from 2010 to 2013, including for at least 13 patients who were dead.
DeHaan pleaded guilty last year to two counts of health care fraud.
He was initially allowed to remain under home confinement with an ankle monitor and volunteer at his church while awaiting sentencing. But in March, U.S. Judge Frederick Kapala ordered DeHaan jailed after investigators said someone forged his church time sheets.
DeHaan had claimed that the bills for dead people were remedied before Medicare paid them or that he had reimbursed Medicare before criminal charges were filed.
His defense attorney argued that the government was "massively overreaching" in its calculation of losses in the case. The government identified about 40 patients who were wrongly billed out of thousands, and the two cases to which DeHaan pleaded guilty amounted to a loss of less than $5,000.
Federal prosecutors, citing the alleged sex crimes as well as the Medicare fraud, are asking for a sentence of almost 11 years, beyond the normal range for the crimes to which he pleaded guilty, and want DeHaan to be ordered to pay $2.8 million in restitution.
Vazquez said she was not vindictive, but a long prison term would be fair.
"What he gets he probably deserves," she said. "I just don’t want him to ever have his medical license back."