DETROIT (AP) - The rigors of working at a car wash left Tonocca Scott with a bad back. Yet he was confident the pain from bulging discs would go away when a charismatic Detroit-area doctor proposed surgery.
“He had swagger off the charts,” Scott said of Dr. Aria Sabit. “His hair was pulled back. He could have been a guy in a James Bond movie. Why would I go to anybody else?”
But 18 months later, the 40-year-old said he’s in worse shape. Scott wears a back brace reinforced with duct tape and keeps painkillers within reach at his apartment in Ypsilanti.
And Sabit? The doctor is charged with fraud in federal court in Detroit, accused of billing insurers for bogus procedures and deceiving patients about how he planned to fix their spines. He surrendered his medical license in California last summer after similar malpractice allegations. And in a separate action, the government is suing Sabit in Los Angeles over alleged kickbacks received for using certain spinal implants.
Sabit, in custody since Nov. 24, has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors fearing he could flee to his native country, Afghanistan, asked a judge Thursday to keep him locked up while his case moves through court.
“He will butcher individuals. … This guy is a danger to the community,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Regina McCullough said.
FBI agent Peter Hayes said Sabit has relatives in the Afghan government and has traveled there to pursue the possibility of a new hospital in Kabul and oil and gem exploration elsewhere in the country.
But defense attorney Tim Lessing noted that the 40-year-old doctor already gave up his passport. He said Sabit knew he was under investigation for more than a year but always returned to Michigan while traveling overseas.
“This is not a man who is interested in fleeing. This is a man trying to get his life back together,” Lessing said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand said he would make a decision Friday.
The criminal complaint against Sabit describes allegations of malpractice involving five patients in Michigan, but the FBI believes there are many more. In California, where he performed more than 200 spinal surgeries in 18 months, there are more than two dozen malpractice lawsuits. McCullough said a patient died.
Scott sought relief after injuring his back through repeated twists, turns and lifts while working at a car wash in suburban Detroit. He said Sabit offered to fix things with a spinal fusion in June 2012.
“I never completely healed,” Scott told The Associated Press. “I had tingling in my toes, behind my right leg and into my buttocks. I told him it feels like my blood is boiling in my legs.”
Another doctor looking at medical records and images of his back found the fusion wasn’t performed.
During an interview Wednesday, Scott could sit only for a few minutes because of discomfort. He wears a back brace with a DVD case taped inside to keep his spine straight. He said he may need more surgery if injections to block nerves don’t work.
Scott graduated at the top of his class at a technical school in 2012 but health woes have prevented him from landing a job in computer technology. His fear in the years ahead: life in a wheelchair.
“I can just feel the rubber in my hands,” Scott said of the wheels.
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