The Man Who Remade Women

Kirkland plastic surgeon Greg Johnson considered himself an artist who sculpted women in the flesh, but some patients say he was a shape-shifter of a very different kind. JUST ASK HIS WIFE

By that day two years ago, marriage for Jacqueline and Gregory Johnson had become merely a cure for happiness. Estranged and embittered, the Johnsons were mired in a typically messy divorce, but with an atypical cause: Jacqueline’s breasts. Greg, a Kirkland plastic surgeon—an “artist,” as he called himself, who specialized in re-sculpting women’s breasts—had operated six times in three years on his wife’s, making them bigger, smaller, bigger, smaller, and then bigger again. When he was done, the reluctant Jacqueline, uncomfortable with their size, wanted them reduced. Greg refused. When she went to another doctor, Greg filed divorce papers.

Now, as their attorneys watched, the couple faced off in the Everett law office where a deposition was being taken in the case of Johnson v. Johnson. Wavy-haired Greg, then 45, baby-faced in his oversized glasses, was under investigation by a state medical board for allegations of malpractice; it had previously questioned him on the death of one of his patients. Within a year, he would be accused of criminal rape, convicted of felony assault, and sued by a dozen of his former breast-enhanced, tummy-tucked Eastside clients. By 1998, the medical board’s file on Johnson would be bulging with 24 allegations of malpractice (20 of them remain open investigations today). But even then, in 1996, some women had questionedthe way he touched and kneaded their flesh during exams, crowded their space when they undressed, and the strange vaginal discharges that lingered hours after they emerged from the anesthesia of four- to six-hour operations performed by a doctor who liked to work alone. One woman would later recall how Johnson’s unseemly bedside manner startled her when he ran his hands over her bare breasts after an operation, saying, “Beautiful, beautiful.” Still others wondered where they suddenly got that case of genitalherpes.

For the moment, though, the Johnsons were concerned with their two small children, preschoolers, and Greg’s third, older child by a previous marriage. Greg had moved out of the family home in Everett, temporarily taking the kids. Jacqueline wanted to know when they’d be back. Greg’s temper rose. Once they had been lovebirds, flirting in the hospital corridors where they’d met. But, as a transcript of their conversation that day shows, this was no longer Bill and Coo talking.

“Fuck you,” Greg said.

“Are you going to bring the children back?” Jacqueline asked again.

“Man, I am—you are such, you are such a worthless piece of shit.”

“Are you going to bring the children back?”

“And I am going to throw your fucking sister out of [the family home] tomorrow. You understand what I am saying?”

“Yes, I do. Are you going to bring… “

“I’m going to make your life miserable…”

To hear Jacqueline recount it, miserable was already the operative word in her life. In court papers, she describes her eight-year marriage to Gregory Alan Johnson as a dream-turned-nightmare—their happy courtship years dissolving into such frequent martial discord and abuse, she claims, that she can’t remember it all: Gregory the control freak, sending her to the kitchen to make him a steak the day she came home from the hospital after giving birth, or insisting she sign a prenuptial agreement and saying he wouldn’t marry her until she obtained a college degree. (She eventually did.) “One time we were being romantic on the couch when all of a sudden my husband’s action began to feel like an exam,” Jacqueline told the divorce court. “That is when my husband told me that he thought I should have liposuction before our second child, or I might need a tummy tuck. He has always been concerned with my appearance and critical of me.”

Then there was Gregory the drinker, beginning when he passed out in the hotel on their wedding day, Jacqueline says, and continuing when he was arrested for drunk driving while their divorce was pending, prosecutors say (the charge was later reduced). Jacqueline recalled Greg often passing out at home—”I have gotten so tired of dragging him from one room or the other to bed,” Jacqueline told the court, “that I started leaving him lay wherever he passed out.”

There was Gregory the name-caller, too: “He hit me in the stomach in front of our daughter and told me I was ‘shit for brains,'” Jacqueline recalls in a court declaration. And there was Gregory the hothead, tossing plates of food that left dents in the wall and threatening her life: “He started making comments that he would have to find someone else, someone younger, smarter,” Jacqueline says, recalling a night in bed. “That is when he told me he was going to kill me when he was through with me and if I wasn’t scared, that I should be. I was scared.”

And there was Gregory who gave his wife herpes, she claims, and as compensation “offered me $20,000 and told me to use it to finish school.” (Some of Johnson’s patients would later tell King County prosecutors that they believed they’d contracted herpes from Johnson’s alleged sexual assaults; Johnson’s attorney denies that allegation.) “I tore the check in half,” Jacqueline continues in court papers. “A short time later, I had my first outbreak of herpes. It was so painful it hurt to even walk. He apologized and told me he would take care of me. Through the years when Greg wanted sex, even if I was suffering from an outbreak of herpes, he would insist, even if it was painful for me.”

Finally, Jacqueline contends in a court statement, there was Gregory the unstable doctor, the plastic man trying to mellow out on Prozac, once asking Jacqueline if she would “blow his brains out” for him. This was the same doctor whose steady hand would be needed the next day if he were to perform delicate surgery on women’s bodies—reshaping breasts, lifting faces, reducing fat deposits—including his wife’s body, on which he did at least seven procedures. Jacqueline reels off the list of operations like a soldier recalling old wounds: liposuction on her stomach, knees, and thighs; and six operations, including corrective surgery, on her breasts. “When I woke up following [the first] surgery,” she declares in a court statement, “I was devastated—they were too big… Approximately two weeks later I had my second surgery, decreasing the implants… He was disappointed and made comments to me that I didn’t have enough cleavage. I had to have a third surgery because my left breast contracted. Greg wanted me to go larger… He put a lot of pressure on me, and I finally gave in. My third surgery took place and was not successful either. My fourth surgery took place in the spring of 1994. Greg put in an 800cc implant without my consent… I begged him to take them out. In July 1994, I had my fifth surgery in order to reduce the size of my breasts. A year later Greg did one last surgery on me… he asked me if I wanted to go larger. I didn’t want to, but I knew how he wanted it, so I again agreed…” Despite the painful and lengthy procedures she endured, Jacqueline says her doctor husband was never quite satisfied with her chest, and after she contacted another plastic surgeon to do a breast reduction Greg wouldn’t give her, he filed for divorce. That was July 1996.

Jacqueline could remember better days—could even remember their first date together, April 8, 1987, after they met at an Everett hospital where she did office work, and the early years as they moved around, shopped for homes, had children. But Jacqueline could also remember the night she was lying in bed and Greg leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Die.”

TODAY, IT IS Gregory Johnson who is threatened—certainly his business, his career, and his liberty are at risk. He has closed hisposh Institute for Aesthetic [cosmetic] Surgery at Carillon Point, an elaborately decorated, state-of-the-medical-art office and surgical suite that had a piano in the reception area. His state medical license has been suspended because the doctor poses “a danger to the public health and welfare,” a state board concluded. (It may decide at a public hearing in Seattle May 28 on making the suspension permanent.) His membership in the American Society of Reconstructive and Plastic Surgeons has been suspended as well. He has been sued in civil court by a dozen women who, like his wife, weren’t satisfied with their breast jobs or other surgeries, and in many cases claim they were sexually attacked while they were knocked out during the surgical procedure. Attorneys for Greg Johnson deny the claims, noting the women had consented to the operations and calling the lawsuits opportunistic: All but one were filed after Johnson’s arrest for rape of a patient in March 1997. Still, Johnson, covered by malpractice insurance, faces years of litigation defending the procedures that earned him lavish fees. (Kirkland police say their inventory of office records showed Johnson held almost $500,000 in cash and known equity assets after his arrest last year.)

The doctor has also become a convicted criminal. Johnson, now 47, was found guilty of second-degree felony assault in October for attacking a 33-year-old client from Woodinville he’d wined and wooed and then taken to his office late at night. (The jury found that he assaulted her by holding her down and forcibly applying a gas mask to knock her out, but deadlocked 10-2 on charges that he then raped her.) Johnson was recently sentenced to seven months in jail for the assault. The jury acquitted him of two additional counts of indecent liberties for allegedly molesting two other patients. Prosecutors spoke of the “perverse side” of Johnson’s personality, such as “the use of foreign objects inserted into patients.” Serving five search warrants, officials found what they say were 2,000 hardcore porn pictures stored on computer disks at Johnson’s apartment, leading to a charge of possession of child pornography, which was dismissed before trial because police mishandled the evidence. “There is much more to the defendant’s character than is generally known by family and friends,” prosecutors note. “A vast majority of the defendant’s patients have described him as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality.”

Other than to deny any guilt, Johnson has refused to comment on his case and is appealing the assault conviction. His defense attorney at the rape trial, Julie Spector, says, “I can’t give you any information” about Johnson and “No, he is not” speaking with reporters about the case, his divorce, or his personal life today. (Unable to practice, he lives with a relative in Edmonds.) Prosecutors have announced they will retry Johnson on the rape charge; the trial is scheduled for March 2. Johnson is out on bail pending the outcome of his rape retrial. Legal costs have stretched the plastic man thin, and he has announced plans to change attorneysby the next trial.

Some of those criminal and civil allegations may sound familiar to Johnson’s ex-wife (whose attorney did not respond to requests for comment from her). Several of the women complain of receiving breast implants larger than they’d asked for, of being persuaded to undergo procedures they didn’t really want, and of Dr. Johnson sometimes performing multiple surgeries to get the job done right. One woman claims that as she awoke from anesthetic, he whispered, “I love you” in her ear.

In light of Johnson’s felony conviction and license suspension, many of those women wonder why someone didn’t blow the whistle earlier. They say they were insecure and vulnerable under their doctor’s dubious care. Most are in their thirties and forties; dreading the effects of aging and gravity, they are among the estimated 1 million Americans who each year seek to renew their looks with standard lifts and tucks, and detailing such as lip enhancement, wrinkle smoothing, and frown-line removal (many clients of plastic—from a Greek word meaning to mold or shape—surgery are also injury or cancer patients seeking skin grafts, facial reformations, and breast reconstruction, for example). In addition, Johnson’s former patients who say they were sexual victims indicate they did what too many women do after any sexual attack: They suffered in embarrassed silence. It wasn’t until the headlines of Johnson’s rape arrest last spring that they began to find each other. Kirkland police became a clearing house for complaints: First one, then several, then as many as 30 called to tell their stories of everything from billing errors to alleged assaults. Still, Johnson’s record was hardly spotless up to then and the state’s medical board was just beginning to take a closer look at the doctor who promised, in his Yellow Pages ads, “certified surgical suites because we care about your safety.”

The state Department of Health’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission received its first complaint about Dr. Gregory Johnson five years back—October 1993, filed just after Johnson opened what he originally called the Carillon Plastic Surgery Center. An investigator for the state commission came by Johnson’s

office to ask about a claim by one of his former office workers. She alleged that non-licensed personnel were administering anesthesia to his patients, a violation of state law. The ex-worker had also complained about Johnson’s temper, saying he “was abusive to his staff and has had 13 new employees this past year,” records show. As the investigator wrote after his meeting:

“I asked [Johnson] if he was ever required to take an anger-management class. Respondent stated that when he was on the staff at Providence Hospital in Everett, he was required to take emergency room calls. ‘I had to see intoxicated and combative patients’ and this made him upset. On one occasion, one of the staff physicians made mention that it may be to his benefit if he would look into an anger-management class. He never pursued this recommendation.”

In 1994, the medical board dismissed the anesthesia allegation for lack of evidence, even though Johnson admitted to the investigator he’d used unlicensed help in the past. (County prosecutors now say Johnson sometimes performed his operations unassisted, administering the anesthesia himself.)

Two months later, in May, the board learned that one of Johnson’s surgical patients had died following an operation in 1990—three years after he first began his practice, in Snohomish County. According to investigative reports, the board wondered if the 52-year-old burn victim might have mistakenly been given a blood thinner called heparin while Johnson was performing a skin graft on his lower legs. The patient was hospitalized for a week after his surgery and died from a heart seizure after arriving home. Johnson denied all wrongdoing, and the medical board’s file does not indicate any action was taken. However, Johnson, through his medical insurer, paid the dead man’s family $375,000 to settle their legal claim of malpractice, filed in Snohomish County Superior Court. According to a copy of a medical malpractice payment report, “Liability was not admitted in this settlement—lump sum cash payment of $5,095 and annuity payment of $369,905” was paid to the victim’s survivors.

To date, two dozen medical malpractice complaints have been filed in Olympia against Johnson. Along with four cases settled in past years, “there are 20 open cases,” says Mike Kramer, a coordinator for the medical commission. “Because those cases are still being investigated,” he adds, “[the specific allegations] cannot be disclosed.” At least three of the cases were pending from 1996 and the rest have been filed in the past year. They are likely related to the criminal case and the lawsuits filed after Johnson’s arrest. The 12 civil cases filed in King County Superior Court describe a doctor who allegedly humiliated, sexually attacked, or maltreated his patients and include a case filed just three weeks ago (January 20) accusing the surgeon of “groping” a female client in a “lascivious” manner. Another woman alleges that Johnson “deliberately inserted implants larger in size than those requested” by her in 1994, the same year another patient says she asked for a breast augmentation from an A to a B cup. During surgery, Johnson allegedly inserted a D cup instead, and its subsequent removal left her scarred and disfigured, she claims. Another breast augmentation patient contends Johnson told her during a 1995 exam, “I’d like to put my penis between your tits,” then fondled her and exposed his erect penis. Still others claim “gross” and unwanted inflation of their breasts and “brutal” treatment. King County prosecutors say their own investigation shows that “other practicing and academic plastic surgeons contacted by the state have indicated that methods of practice used by [Johnson] are outdated and inappropriate and constitute malpractice.”

Looking back, Jacqueline Johnson might agree with that. As she said two years ago, recalling the day she announced her breast reduction plan to her doctor husband, he “told me I was crazy, that I must be a dyke if I didn’t like big breasts….” She hoped the marriage-ending operation would also be her last. But because Greg increased her breast size so much during the operations, Jacqueline says, her skin was stretched “to the point where I may now need additional surgery”—no. 9, and counting.

She may also need another attorney. In almost every lawsuit now filed against her ex-husband, Jacqueline Johnson has been named co-defendant, and could be held liable for damages. That may be the other legacy of her marriage: The alleged victims of Gregory Johnson apparently do not consider Jacqueline, despite her own scars, one of them.

Examples of, and trends in, plastic surgery

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons—consumer and ethics information

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