Former New York surgeon admits killing wife, throwing body from airplane in 1985

NEW YORK — Dr. Robert Bierenbaum maintained his innocence in 2000 as he was tried and convicted of killing his first wife 15 years before.

In a December parole hearing, however, Bierenbaum, now 66, admitted for the first time that he strangled Gail Katz, 29, in July 1985. An accomplished pilot, he took her body onto a four-passenger Cessna 172 Nighthawk and, as the plane flew over the Atlantic, tossed it out the aircraft door.

Katz’s body has never been found.

The former plastic surgeon’s stunning confession took place during a December parole hearing, the transcript of which was recently obtained by ABC News. The network is featuring the case Friday night on “20/20.”

“I wanted her to stop yelling at me and I attacked her,” Bierenbaum told the parole board, according to the transcript.

Bierenbaum described himself as “immature” at the time of the murder, for which he is serving 20 years to life. Like his wife, he was 29 years old when she vanished.

He “didn’t understand how to deal with his anger,” Bierenbaum said, according to the transcript.

After killing Katz, he got rid of her body where no one would find it.

“I went flying. I opened the door and then took her body out of the airplane over the ocean,” the transcript reads, according to ABC News.

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The New York Times reported in 1999 that authorities believed he spent hours dismembering Katz’s body before taking flight and dumping it into the water somewhere between Montauk Point, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey.

Prosecutors who convicted Bierenbaum were stunned by his admission to the parole board, particularly because the confession mirrored the state’s theory of the crime in 1999, when Bierenbaum was charged with second-degree murder.

“I was like, ‘Holy (expletive), are you kidding me?’” former prosecutor Daniel Bibb told ABC News. “I was stunned because I always thought that that day would never come, that he would own up, take responsibility for having killed his wife.”

A ‘magical’ romance and a vanishing

Katz and Bierenbaum met in the early 1980s in Manhattan and had what initially seemed to be a “magical” romance, Katz’s sister, Alayne Katz, told ABC News. The magic didn’t last long.

Gail Katz once called her sister, weeping, and said that her husband tried drowning her cat in a toilet at their Upper East Side apartment, Alayne Katz said. He also once choked Gail into unconsciousness after finding her smoking on their balcony.

Cigarettes were not allowed in their home, according to Bierenbaum.

Gail Katz reported the assault at a local police precinct, but nothing came of the report.

“If this had happened in 2021 … Robert Bierenbaum would have been in handcuffs immediately,” Bibb told the network. “The fact that this was (1983) ... nothing was done about it.”

The couple’s stormy marriage continued as Katz worked toward her doctorate in clinical psychology at Long Island University. Bierenbaum was on the staff of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Family and friends reported, however, that Katz wanted to divorce her husband. According to the Times, she had talked Bierenbaum into seeking psychiatric help for his violent streak.

He saw three different doctors. All three subsequently contacted Katz and warned her that her life could be in danger, the newspaper reported.

Because of client confidentiality, the doctors could not testify in court. Alayne Katz and other witnesses would later testify, however, that they had seen one of the letters, which Gail Katz planned to use in the divorce proceedings.

She never got the chance.

On July 8, 1985, Bierenbaum called the police and reported his wife missing. He said Katz had stormed out of their apartment following an argument the morning before and not returned.

Alayne Katz told ABC News she immediately knew something was very wrong.

“She’s not with me, and she’s not with my parents, and at that moment I know that my sister’s dead,” Katz said. “And if she’s not alive, there’s only one person who is a likely suspect to murder her, and it’s Bob. There’s no other suspect.”

Within days, investigators were also skeptical of Bierenbaum’s story, according to the Times. They could find no proof, however, that he had harmed his wife.

Days turned to months, and months to years with no sign of Katz. Meanwhile, her husband moved on and began seeing other women.

By 1990, Bierenbaum had relocated to Las Vegas and opened a plastic surgery practice there, ABC News reported. He dated a chiropractor for a while before remarrying in 1996 and moving with his new wife, gynecologist Dr. Janet Cholett, to Minot, North Dakota, where they had a daughter together and he opened a successful medical practice.

The case continued to nag at Andy Rosenzweig, chief investigator for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and he and other detectives began re-interviewing everyone involved in the missing persons case, according to the network.

ABC News and the Times reported that investigators learned that Bierenbaum had gone to the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, New Jersey, on July 7, 1985, and taken out a small plane for about two hours. His flight path took him over the ocean.

He never told investigators about the flight. He also gave inconsistent statements about his wife’s disappearance to various women he dated after Katz vanished.

In December 1999, prosecutors charged Bierenbaum based on the circumstantial evidence.

“We knew it was going to be the toughest trial that we’d ever had. No forensics, no eyewitnesses, entirely circumstantial,” Bibb told ABC News. “There was no foregone conclusion to this case, by any stretch of the imagination.”

One of the biggest challenges, the former prosecutor said, was to convince a jury that Bierenbaum could fly a plane and push Katz’s body from the aircraft at the same time. They accomplished that task by filming a recreation of how it could be done, the Times reported.

As a cameraman in a helicopter filmed the recreation, a New York City police officer shoved a duffel bag filled with 110 pounds of rice and sand from a Cessna 172 three times, unassisted, the newspaper said.

Bierenbaum was found guilty of second-degree murder in October 2000. At his sentencing, Alayne Katz told the court Bierenbaum killed her sister to “prevent her from exposing him as a violent and twisted man,” according to the Times.

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Upon seeing the transcript of Bierenbaum’s confession, Alayne Katz said the words sounded like her former brother-in-law.

“This is exactly the same man that I knew 35 years ago,” she told ABC News. “He hasn’t changed. He is incapable of a shred of remorse.”

All of Bierenbaum’s appeals over the years were unsuccessful. He became eligible for parole last October, according to state prison records.

The December parole hearing at which he admitted his guilt was unsuccessful. His next parole hearing is slated for next month.

Meanwhile, he remains imprisoned at the Otisville Correctional Facility, the records show.

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