Drugs, Sex And Lots Of Taxpayer Cash Fueled Michael Mahl's Increasingly Sleazy Juvenile Psychiatry Practice.
By Vicki Hart
DR. MICHAEL MAHL, 47, of Tucson was once considered a gifted psychiatrist. He owned and operated the Rosemont Child and Adolescent Centers here, two group homes for boys ages 4-17 diagnosed with severe psychiatric problems, and he also operated a local outpatient treatment center. Today, however, Mahl is known as a hopeless drug and sex addict.
On May 15 the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners barred Mahl from practicing, after at least three boys in his care had accused him of sexual improprieties--by the time the Board met on May 15, more allegations had been lodged against him by Pima County youths in group home placement and other youths receiving outpatient treatment. State officials say these accusations are currently under investigation.
More recently, on June 3, a 15-year-old male client filed a police report against Mahl for another alleged molestation. The official investigation into that allegation, however, apparently did not begin until two weeks ago, when it became apparent to Tucson Police that The Weekly was looking into the matter.
See "Oink, Oink" in this issue for more on the Weekly - TPD connection.
The following tale of Mahl's personal degradation is sad enough, but sadder still is the inexcusable lack of action on the part of officials--in the juvenile system, Child Protective Services, and the Tucson Police Department--once it became apparent the supposedly good doctor was on a downward spiral to professional and moral oblivion.
Furthermore, the Mahl case reveals one frightening fact about Arizona's juvenile system: It has no checks and balances to protect the very children it's intended to help. The Tucson Weekly's countless calls on this story yielded no official willing to claim responsibility for overseeing the welfare of the teens entrusted to Mahl's care. To a man and woman, every official referred us to someone else.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS Michael Mahl had everything going for him. After a brief stint as a junior-high teacher, he graduated from medical school in 1979, did an internship at the UA Health Sciences Center and a psychiatric residency at the UA, becoming board certified in regular and child psychiatry in 1981. He was also certified in addictive medicine and held medical licenses in Arizona, Texas and Hawaii.
Mahl was practicing on an outpatient basis at a center on River Road when, co-workers say, he apparently became disenchanted with the quality of care available to Arizona's children.
In 1992 he founded his first group home for adolescent boys, under the corporation Psychiatric Child and Adolescent Centers of Arizona, Inc., doing business as the Rosemont Child and Adolescent Centers. He opened a second group home in 1994.
Mahl's for-profit operation was licensed by the Arizona Department of Health Services' Division of Behavioral Health. Mahl and his wife were the only people in the corporation, he as the CEO and medical director and she as the administrator. There were no directors, no trustees. The corporation had an annual budget of $1.4 million; Mahl was paid $15,000 a month and took roughly a $250,000 annual draw on top of that.
He treated only boys diagnosed with the most acute psychiatric problems, the worst of the worst in the juvenile justice system--boys who'd been bounced from group home to group home. They were sent to him from the state's Juvenile Probation Office (JPO), Arizona Children Home, Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health, South Eastern Arizona Behavioral Health Services (SEABHS), the Pascua/Yaqui tribe and La Frontera, to name a few. Most of his clients were subsidized by tax money. Some of the youngsters came from other states. In all, more than 100 boys went through Mahl's program, each staying as long as seven or eight months. There was always a waiting list.
In the beginning, former employees say, they would have described Mahl as a dedicated child advocate with a gift for reaching these troubled youths.
He was wonderful with the boys and their parents, they recall, a great boss, generous and fun. People were proud to work for him, and they worked hard, putting in long hours. At the height of his success, he had as many as 32 employees.
In those early days, staffers say, they followed stringent rules of operation, and on audits and inspections always got superior ratings. They respected Mahl, thought him to be above reproach, and completely believed in his integrity.
LOOKING BACK ON it today, employees say, Mahl's approach to the boys slaps them in the face as odd behavior, if not a blatant danger signal. Mahl merely explained away his methodology as "important to the treatment process."
Mahl termed what he was doing "positive transference." He explained that meant that he must always be seen as the good guy, the father figure who gave the boys unconditional love, and who must be loved and trusted like the father many of these boys never had.
Former employees also say Mahl convinced the kids that he was the one who paid for them to be there, the one who popped for the lavish trips to La Jolla, Carlsbad, Las Vegas and other places. And while other group homes had to make do with old vans Mahl bought new Suburbans--fully equipped, and with CD players--for the trips he and the boys went on. He once spent $22,000 for 24 kids to go on a five-day La Jolla vacation, former employees say.
While no other employee ever placed him or herself in a situation where they were alone with a boy, Mahl always saw the boys alone, his former employees say. His offices at the two group homes and the outpatient facility on River Road were separate from the rest of his operations. Mahl also made sure his offices were sound-proofed. The doors were always locked when he was in session, former employees recall. There was no way to see in. Staffers said they were directed never to interrupt Mahl's session. In an emergency, they were instructed to phone him, but never to knock on his door.
Staffers confess that at the time they didn't feel much concern when Mahl, on his frequent trips with the boys, would rent a suite separate from the rest of the party. He would reward those whom he referred to as the "cool guys" by letting them stay with him in his suite overnight.
On wilderness outings, he would reward certain boys by letting them spend the night with him in his tent. Former employees recall he would take a single boy with him for the day, driving him to his home, picking up his dogs, riding around in his convertible and going to the park.
He took boys to his home "to watch movies" and eat take-out food, staffers recall. He even took them to fancy restaurants. Former employees now cringe when they remember that they used to refer to Mahl as the "candyman," because even though the rest of the staff attempted to keep the kids on low-sugar, low-junk diets, Mahl's office was full of sodas and candy which he freely distributed to the kids.
One former employee says that at the corporation's group meetings, Mahl would often have a boy literally lying at his feet. Mahl, the staffer says, would often "be petting and stroking him like a dog." The boys vied to be his pet, and seemed to adore him. Former employees now identify this as "inappropriate" behavior.
IN DECEMBER 1996, Mahl's wife of 18 years divorced him. She also left her position as program administrator, leaving Mahl as virtually the sole person responsible for the corporation. Nothing was to be done, no checks to be signed, no purchase to be made without him, former employees say.
They add this seemed to be when Mahl's life began spiraling out of control. During the bitter divorce, Mahl allegedly regularly insulted and threatened his estranged wife, according to former employees and acquaintances. On January 3, 1997, he was cited for criminal damage after police answered a domestic violence call. On January 4, 1997, he was cited for allegedly threatening and intimidating his ex-wife. Although the January 4 charge was dismissed, a judge remanded Mahl to diversion. According to court records, Mahl has not completed his diversion program, and a hearing is set on the matter for July 28. His ex-wife eventually served a restraining order against him.
Mahl began missing appointments, showing up late and acting strangely, staffers say. At times he appeared to be hyperactive, with slurred speech and red-rimmed eyes. Employees were increasingly covering for him as he got further behind in his work. They began writing his discharge summaries for him after he got six to nine months behind in his paperwork.
Mahl admitted to some of them that he was experimenting with homosexuality and now considered himself bisexual. They began finding notes lying around the office detailing names and numbers of young men who were answering his sex ads. He was submitting hundreds of dollars in phone bills to the corporation, some to 900 sex lines. At the time, staffers say, they hoped he was merely going through a phase and that he would snap out of it.
IN FEBRUARY 1997, three boys who'd been sent to Mahl's facility from Graham County accused him of inappropriate touching and inappropriate sexual comments. In turn, he said they were merely seeking revenge after he discovered they had pilfered candy from his office.
The boys' probation officers advised Mahl that if this were the case, he should report the kids to the police. Mahl did not file a complaint. Meanwhile, the boys' allegations were reported to the Arizona Supreme Court Juvenile Justice Division, as well as the Board of Medical Examiners.
In an April 3, 1997, letter, Mahl wrote the following to his accusers' probation officers:
"Finally, I admit I was somewhat naive not to have taken both your recommendations regarding calling the police in Pima County in order to press charges against the three youths involved in this incident. I had hoped to deal with their acting out by confronting their dishonesty in a therapeutic manner during their next scheduled appointments. I wished to avoid further legal charges against them and the added stress on their families. It was my belief that if I had filed police reports, it could have jeopardized their future treatment and the possible loss of their much needed psychotropic medicines. I never thought these youth capable of making such dangerous false allegations...It was my impression that you understood the reasons why I elected not to file a police report regarding the acting-out that occurred in my office on 2/28/97."
However, Frank Carmen, division director of Juvenile Justice for the Arizona Supreme Court, says Mahl's explanation didn't satisfy them.
The Supreme Court's Administrative Office then recommended that all court-involved youth in placement at the group homes, as well as outpatient youths, be transferred to new placements or new psychiatrists. Mahl countered by voluntarily agreeing to avoid direct contact with his patients and their families, and to hire another psychiatrist. This allowed the group homes and outpatient treatment center to continue operating.
The Graham County agency responsible for Mahl's three young accusers declined to send any more clients to him. After his voluntary withdrawal from the business, Mahl was no longer to see clients, or to be on group-home property. Another psychiatrist was hired to take over--even though Mahl still owned the operation.
AS A RESULT, the former employees say, they were left to do their work without much guidance, yet they were ultimately answerable to Mahl, who still called the shots and signed their checks.
A new psychiatrist, Dr. Eulid Faz, was hired to treat the boys. Staffers say they began to realize how unorthodox Mahl's methods had been when they saw that Faz did not use Mahl's isolated offices for counseling sessions with the boys, instead choosing to meet with them in the living room. And, they add, Faz never closed the doors during a session.
After Mahl was banned from the group homes, he began demanding that staffers come to his residence to get checks signed or to answer questions. They recall they were invited into his bedroom or bathroom to do business and observed what they described as "hundreds of porno tapes."
They say they were often greeted by young men, whom they estimated to be roughly between the ages of 18 and 23, who were apparently living with Mahl. These young men, they report, began driving Mahl's cars, using his cell phone and pagers, and were soon acting as Mahl's messengers. Former employees say it was not unusual for a young man to come zooming up to a group home in Mahl's car and announce he'd been sent to retrieve Mahl's files.
Mahl didn't bother attempting to hide his sexual relationships with these man, on occasion graphically describing his relationships, former employees say. At times he would introduce a young man as his children's babysitter. He also told several people he was using cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines.
Staffers were becoming increasingly concerned, not only for Mahl, but for Mahl's own children, whom they allege were being left alone at night during his escapades and exposed to porno movies and an increasing number of what the staffers described as "strange" young men.
In the spring of 1997, employees who saw Mahl said he began looking ill. Some speculated that he might be dying. He told them he'd been diagnosed with hepatitis. Staffers recall that at one point, after he was known to have the disease, he tried to enter one of the group homes and was ejected.
Shortly after that incident, Mahl went on an extended trip to Europe and Israel. He also took a cruise to Alaska. Staffers, though trying to keep the group homes afloat, were running out of money and becoming increasingly frustrated trying to continue operations with an absentee owner. Nevertheless, Mahl reportedly continued to pay himself $15,000 a month, in addition to his $250,000 draw.
By the time he returned from Europe, showing off thousands of dollars worth of "art objects," the group homes were barely meeting expenses, workers say.
In August 1997 staff members scheduled a meeting with the corporation's attorney to enlist his help and discuss their own liability. They report the attorney informed them that Mahl had total therapeutic and financial control and could take all the money if he wished.
A staffer then tried unsuccessfully to do a drug intervention with Mahl. He fired the employees who participated, and Mahl let the rest of the staff know he wouldn't tolerate such "disloyalty."
By the end of August, one of the group homes was closed due to lack of funds. By this time Mahl was so out of touch with reality, former employees say, that he was still trying to open another group home. At one point, they recall, he phoned them from O'Reilly's Chevrolet, where he was attempting to buy eight cars for the new home.
On October 28, 1997, Mahl experienced what he called a "hypertensive crisis" and was admitted to the hospital. A urine test revealed cocaine in his system. His drug use was reported to the Board of Medical Examiners.
After this, staffers report, they saw very little of Mahl. He journeyed to a series of treatment programs throughout the United States. None of them seemed to help for long.
Meanwhile, at Mahl's remaining group home, two sets of payroll checks bounced. There was no more money for bills, and Mahl stopped responding to employees' concerns and inquires. The staffers called the case managers for the clients who were left and had them pick them up. The doors closed December 19, 1997.
Of the former employees who spoke to The Weekly, none have had contact with Mahl since December. They were only able to follow rumors of what treatment program he was supposedly in that week. Some were later contacted by Harry Cohen, a relative of Mahl's, who told them he'd bought the corporation.
THE BOARD OF Medical Examiners summoned Mahl to appear before them in March. He failed to do so, saying he was in treatment.
On May 15, Mahl appeared with his personal attorney, Charles Buri, for an informal hearing before the examiners. In a lengthy exchange, the examiners attempted to get some answers about what had happened to the once-reputable psychiatrist.
The short version, in Mahl's words, taken from Board transcripts:
"And one of the things I want the Board to understand is my lapse in using cocaine was...I picked up my first cocaine when I was divorced. And after 18 years of marriage and a sudden breakup in the marriage, I suffered from some depression. I had a nine-month period of abuse, and towards the end of the nine-month period, knew I needed help and voluntarily sought treatment."
When the examiners asked about his "sexual boundary issues," Mahl replied:
"My issues around sexual compulsivity were during my cocaine abuse. I was married for 18 years monogamous, with no allegations ever before this Board or any other, regarding my sexual boundary issues. So rather what I learned at COPAC [a treatment facility] during the compulsivity program, is how my cocaine abuse drove sexual preoccupation."
Discussion ensued regarding Mahl's lack of success in therapy. From what The Weekly can glean from the transcripts, he was in at least five treatment centers--in Oregon, Virginia and Florida, with names like Springbrook, Farley Center, COPAC and Highpoint.
Mahl had excuses for every failure.
The examiners read him statements from his various treatment programs, such as:
The record continues with tales of Mahl's poor behavior in programs, his leaving them against medical advice, and his inability to follow the rules.
During the hearing, Mahl attempted to bargain with the medical examiners. Although they suggested that he go to yet another treatment center, he and his attorney countered that he wanted to receive treatment from a local MD, an "addictionologist" who has "some experience in sexual compulsivity." And then he added that maybe he should go to the Pride Institute in Minneapolis, because according to Mahl, the institute "works with men and women who have bisexual and/or gay orientation as well as chemical dependency."
On May 15, the medical examiners stipulated that Mahl could not practice medicine in Arizona until he successfully completes inpatient treatment for sexual compulsivity and chemical dependency.
Last week, the medical examiners said: "Investigations into the complaints against Dr. Mahl continue, and the Board has already made inquiries with the state entities and the complainants involved." Claudia Foutz, the medical examiners' executive director, added they've taken the allegations against Mahl "very seriously" and are conducting a thorough investigation to determine if violations of the state Medical Practice Act have occurred."
Although the medical examiners stipulated that Mahl not practice in Arizona, he still holds a valid license and could practice in several other states. And at the present time, Mahl has yet to seek inpatient treatment as required by the examiners.
MEANWHILE, AN OFFICIAL of the Arizona Supreme Court's Juvenile Justice Division says they've done all they could by reporting Mahl to the Board of Medical Examiners.
It appears that Juvenile Court and the Juvenile Probation Office stopped referring cases to Mahl some time ago, possibly at the direction of Supreme Court officials. Disappointingly, local law-enforcement officials apparently took no immediate action to investigate Mahl at the time these complaints were made, leaving reasonable minds to wonder how many other complaints might have been made against the psychiatrist over the years, only to be disregarded because of the troubled nature of the accusers and Mahl's elevated status as a man of medicine. In fact, a recent Supreme Court fax to The Weekly also alludes to allegations against Mahl from "youth receiving outpatient treatment"--charges we hadn't heard about until now.
Reasonable minds could also wonder whether state officials even bothered to inform local authorities about these allegations.
Currently, the Tucson Police Department is still conducting what appears to be a rather haphazard investigation (See related editorial) that apparently didn't begin until The Weekly started asking questions about Mahl's activities several weeks ago.
And the fact remains that despite their expressions of horror today, Mahl's employees tried to cover for him and help him. Now, however, they're mortified that they may have contributed to additional problems in the very youths they were dedicated to helping. Furthermore, records indicate that although officials of agencies that contracted with Mahl stopped meeting with him personally because of his bizarre behavior, they nevertheless continued to send kids to him.
And now, as what may be a clearer picture of the extent of Mahl's sexual behavior comes to light, everyone in the juvenile system is busy covering his own butt. But the important question this case has raised remains unanswered: Who's watching out for Arizona's troubled children?
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