Doctors and nurses in colorful scrubs stood by in tears for the mother and the newborn in her arms.
The delivery-room staff was under the impression the baby, Aryana Vasquez, born extremely premature as a result of induced labor, was damaged from chemotherapy treatment on her mother.
They watched Aryana take her last breath and they didn’t think her mother, Chalice Zeitner, had much longer to live either because they believed her body was wracked with late stage cancer.
Zeitner’s cancer was a lie. The second trimester abortion at Good Samaritan Hospital in 2010 wasn’t necessary to save her life, and Aryana was born alive and might have been saved.
Records show the Phoenix Police Department conducted a murder investigation on Zeitner, and some medical staff stopped cooperating when they thought a homicide investigator was setting his sights on them.
Zeitner’s doctor, Steven Nelson, said he stopped cooperating because he feared it would become a political prosecution.
Nelson said he is “rabidly anti-abortion” and would never terminate a pregnancy unless it was to save the life of the mother.
“We were all mourning. The hospital was a wake. Not anybody had a dry tear, we were crying our eyes out, not only at the loss of this baby, but at the loss of this beautiful young woman,” Nelson said. “We were victims.”
Nelson said he cooperated with an investigator with the Inspector General for AHCCCS when they were looking at the fraud element of the case, but he got word that a Phoenix homicide detective was interested in what occurred in the delivery room.
The detective, John Cleary, told Nelson in an email he was only investigating Zeitner, not any of the medical providers.
“A child, according to medical records, was born alive,” Cleary wrote. “This is, in my opinion, a homicide and she used you, a doctor, as the instrument of that crime.”
Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said there was no case submitted for prosecution against Nelson, but he can’t comment on whether there was an investigation.
Nelson said that all the documentation Zeitner provided showed it was a life and death situation. He said the fact Zeitner tricked them is embarrassing, but worst, the experience has left all of the medical staff involved in the delivery emotionally scarred.
The Arizona Attorney General obtained an indictment of Zeitner, 30, on a rash of fraud, theft and forgery charges for allegedly tricking doctors into thinking she was terminally ill so Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System would pay for the April 9, 2010, second-trimester abortion.
She has an extensive criminal record that includes a theft and forgery conviction, drunken driving and leaving her young daughter in a car while she shopped. She was also kicked out of the Army after three months in 2003 when a psychiatrist found she has a “long-standing disorder of character, behavior and adaptability.”
The psychiatrist also wrote that she wasn’t a significant risk for homicide or suicide at the time, but could become a risk to herself or others in the future “due to these life-long patterns of maladaptive responses to routine personal and/or work related stressors.”
The Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, FBI, the AHCCCS Inspector General and Arizona Attorney General have all had a hand in the fraud and homicide investigations, but no homicide charges have been brought against Zeitner.
The attorney general recently indicted her in another case, alleging she used the fake cancer to rip off charitable organizations.
Investigative reports from the Phoenix Police Department and Attorney General’s Office show how the events unfolded.
THE FAKE LETTER
Zeitner told Nelson in March 2010 she was in the late stages of cancer and she wanted to terminate her pregnancy. She provided him with a journal of specific treatments and medications she had already been receiving, and Nelson thought they were consistent with someone with cancer.
This led Nelson to believe that the baby was already harmed by chemotherapy and doctors who treated her were liable.
Nelson wanted verification from her oncologist.
She hand delivered a letter purportedly from Dr. Graham McMahon of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, saying she needed the second-trimester abortion so she could undergo life-saving abdominal surgery.
The letterhead indicated McMahon practiced “Medicine, Endocrinology, Diabetes & Hypertension,” but not oncology. The letter also presented her as Veitner instead of Zeitner.
Investigators discovered she made an appointment with McMahon as Veitner and never showed up.
Nelson also referred Zeitner to another obstetrician for an ultrasound. The obstetrician noted in a report that Zeitner claimed one of her chemotherapy drugs was paradol, which contains the same ingredient as Tylenol (acetaminophen) and is sold over the counter.
A committee of doctors at Good Samaritan Hospital approved the second-trimester abortion after reviewing the fake letter and the obstetrician’s report, said Nelson, who delivered Zeitner’s first child. AHCCCS also has a policy of reviewing medical records before making payment.
“We were all on the same page this woman was dying and her only chance to live was to end the pregnancy,” Nelson said.
Nelson said doctors were acting quickly in an emotional cauldron, and a doctor’s mindset is toward helping the patient, not second-guessing their claims. He said he spoke with her family and boyfriend, and Zeitner also convinced them she was dying.
“Who in their right mind would ever fake something like this?” Nelson said.
ALLOWED TO DIE
Nelson reported Zeitner after delivering a baby a year later by Cesarean section and finding no evidence of abdominal surgery and discovering the letter from McMahon was a fake.
The delivery came at 22 weeks and three days, a point at which research has found a baby can be viable, or can survive outside the womb with life support. The groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade puts viability at 24 weeks.
State law allows for abortion of a viable fetus only for preserving the mother’s health or life, and a state law passed in 1975 requires a doctor to “see that all available means and medical skills are used to promote, preserve and maintain the life of such fetus or embryo” that is delivered alive.
Investigators noted in their reports that no resuscitation efforts were made.
A second trimester abortion is typically done in one of two methods: by inducing labor to deliver a stillborn fetus, or by dilation and evacuation, which means the cervix is dilated and the fetus destroyed with instruments.
Investigators wondered why Aryana was simply allowed to die in Zeitner’s arms, and they got the opinion of Denise Holtkamp, a nurse who investigates health care fraud for the Attorney General’s Office.
Holtkamp wrote in an email to investigators that everyone believed Aryana was exposed to radiation and chemotherapy and were doing the best thing for her by not resuscitating.
“I am not necessarily agreeing with this, but I believe it may be an explanation for their actions,” Holtkamp wrote to an investigator.
Patricia Stevens, a veteran homicide prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, drew up immunity agreements for Nelson and the staff involved in the delivery so they could be interviewed by a detective.
The agreements protected them from self-incrimination, but prosecutors could still charge them with a crime if they had evidence from other sources.
Nelson told Cleary he wanted blanket immunity, or protection from any prosecution having to do with Zeitner’s abortion.
“They refused to give me immunity,” Nelson said.