A 17-year-old girl reported to Berwyn police in 2003 that her doctor, Ricardo Arze, had pulled off her clothes and sexually assaulted her in his exam room, state records show.
Two years later, another patient reported to Berwyn police that Arze had placed his hands on her breasts, breathed heavily on her neck and tried to touch her genitals, claiming it would help treat depression, according to a police report.
Not until 2007 — after at least four women had filed complaints — did police launch the investigation that led to Arze being charged with sexually assaulting patients and having his license suspended, records show.
By that time, the family physician had allegedly assaulted at least 21 women and girls at his Arze Doctors Center in Berwyn, according to criminal and civil complaints that outline attacks stretching at least to 2000.
The Cook County state's attorney's office said it lacked enough evidence to prosecute Arze on the 2003 allegation and wasn't informed of the 2005 complaint until years later.
The women who made the reports said law enforcement officials brushed them aside at the time.
"If they had listened to me back then, all of this could have been avoided," said the woman who alleged assault in 2003, her eyes filling with tears. Prosecutors did charge Arze in the 2003 complaint five years later.
The case is the latest in a series of Tribune reports in which female patients have alleged that the system — law enforcement and state regulators — failed to protect them from dangerous doctors.
The newspaper has uncovered other cases in which physicians were allowed to continue practicing in spite of allegations of serious misconduct — and even convictions. Among them was Bruce Smith, a gynecologist who was not disciplined or prosecuted for years even as complaints of rape and sexual abuse multiplied against him. He was charged with sexual assault following a Tribune report in April.
The Arze case also reveals a disconnect between the criminal justice system and the state agency in charge of policing doctors. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and its medical disciplinary board did not learn of the 2003 and 2005 allegations against Arze until 2007, said Sue Hofer, the department's spokeswoman. State law does not require the department and police to share such complaints with each other, she said.
"It's inexcusable that the medical disciplinary board and police aren't sharing these allegations right away," said Sidney Wolfe, a director at the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen, which has examined the handling of sex-offending doctors nationwide.
"They should be working much more closely and much more quickly," Wolfe said. "People who engage in these behaviors are a menace to society, and it's worse when they wear the white coat and have an ethical duty to do no harm. This is a classic example of how in the absence of early intervention more people get harmed."
State regulators contacted Berwyn police in 2007 after receiving a complaint against Arze.
The Dallas-based Federation of State Medical Boards has issued guidelines instructing boards to "place a high priority on the investigation of complaints of sexual misconduct due to patient vulnerability" and making clear a single case is sufficient to proceed with a formal hearing, with or without corroborating evidence.
The guidelines support the use of undercover investigations, which were eventually used in the Arze case.
After his release on bond last year, Arze was rearrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license and aggravated fraud. After posting $1.5 million bail, he was released again and is awaiting trial on all charges.
Reached by phone at his Berwyn home, Arze denied he had resumed practicing and declined to comment on criminal charges of sexual assault, battery and unlawful restraint involving 14 patients. In court and state records, he has denied wrongdoing.
"I'm in the process of trying to survive," he said.
A native of Bolivia, Arze was granted a physician's license by the state in 1989. In addition to running his private practice, he served on the staff of Berwyn's MacNeal Hospital from 1994 until his initial arrest in September 2007.
He said in court records he was treating more than 6,000 patients at Arze Doctors Center at the time of his arrest and that his practice had a "great emphasis on mental health" — including treatment for depression and other mood disorders.
The Chicago woman who made the 2003 report said she turned to Arze as a high school senior at the suggestion of her parents, who were already his patients. She was seeking help with depression that stemmed from sexual abuse by a relative, she said. (The Tribune does not generally publish the names of alleged sexual assault victims without their consent.)
Her mother said she always accompanied the teen into the exam room but that during an April 2003 visit Arze told the parents to wait outside.
"He said he wanted to talk to her one-on-one," the mother said.
Once they were alone, Arze told the girl that he would try to stimulate her in order to help clarify her sexual orientation and determine the level of depression, she said.
He pulled off her clothes, tried to force her to masturbate, placed his fingers inside her and pressed his body against hers, according to court and state records.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I got mad at myself like, 'How did I let this happen again?' I froze. … I could feel my blood boil."
The teen immediately told a friend about the incident but swore her to secrecy, fearing no one would believe her word against a doctor's, she said.
But weeks later, she confided in her parents and then in a high school counselor, who called the state Department of Children and Family Services. She said she worried the doctor would hurt other patients if she didn't report him.
The school counselor and a DCFS official accompanied the family to the Berwyn police station, where everyone was separately interviewed about the allegations, said the woman and her mother.
They said police gave them a chilly reception.
"They were rude — like, 'Why did you let this happen?'" said the woman, now married with children and working as a receptionist. "They didn't show any compassion."
An investigator later interviewed the girl's friend, but the family was unaware of any other actions by police.
An assistant Cook County prosecutor decided not to file charges against Arze because the doctor denied the allegations and there were no witnesses or physical evidence, said Sally Daly, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
"I called one time, and they said we need to wait," the mother said. "But nobody ever called us back."
In March 2005, Berwyn police received a similar report about Arze from a 20-year-old Brookfield woman.
The woman alleged that during treatment for depression, Arze removed her bra, placed his hands on her breasts and tried to touch her genitals, according to a copy of the incident report and a complaint filed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The woman told the doctor his actions made her uncomfortable.
"(She) asked how his actions would help her depression. Dr. Arze related that he was trying to see if she would get sexually aroused and if so, she was not depressed," the police report said.
The woman, who came forward two days after the alleged incident, said doing so was difficult because, like the teen in the 2003 case and many of Arze's other patients, she is from an immigrant family.
"In the Hispanic community we don't like to make a big deal out of things," she said. "Opening up about something like that is one of the hardest things you can do."
The officer told the woman an investigator would contact her, but months turned into years with no word.
Police did not share the allegation with the state's attorney's office at the time, Daly said.
Jim Ritz, chief of Berwyn police, declined to answer questions about the cases.
There was no contact until fall 2007, when police arrested Arze on charges of sexually assaulting and battering patients. The state simultaneously suspended his license.
William Kushner, then chief of police, told reporters at the time the initial charges were the result of a two-month investigation by detectives and state investigators.
Patient complaints lodged with police in June and July 2007 were among the original battery charges, records show. In August and September, a Cook County sheriff's officer posed as a patient at Arze's private practice and encountered sexual advances from him, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson.
After Arze's arrest made news, the charges against him multiplied — in court and with the state, painting a picture of a chronic sex abuser who allegedly preyed on vulnerable patients suffering from depression.
Among the allegations in court and state records:
•Starting in November 2004, Arze allegedly fondled the breasts of a recently divorced patient seeking treatment for depression, forced his fingers inside her and kissed her neck. She screamed, but no one came.
•In March 2005, he allegedly asked a patient to remove her clothes without providing a gown, fondled her, pushed her onto the exam table and instructed her to keep quiet while he raped her.
•In September 2007, he pulled down his pants and exposed himself to a patient, asked her to touch him and made lewd comments as she left the room, according to court records.
The 2003 allegation resulted in a 2008 felony sexual assault charge against Arze. It and the 2005 allegation also were included in a 2007 complaint filed by the state.
The women said police gave no explanation for why they did not act on their complaints sooner.
"The detective was very apologetic about it," said the woman who made the 2005 report, now 26 and living in Oak Brook. "It's not something you just file away."
That police had received allegations against Arze as early as 2003 came as a shock to one of the women who reported being abused by him in 2007.
"I am disgusted," she said of law enforcement. "They should investigate why they didn't do anything. They were accomplices."
The women said they continue to suffer trauma from the incidents. They cannot see male doctors. One has recurring dreams about her alleged attack.
Arze, who is scheduled to be in court Aug. 16, won't lose his medical license for good even if convicted of all the sexual assault and battery of patient charges.
The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has interpreted the state Medical Practice Act to mean that it cannot permanently revoke a physician's license unless a doctor has been twice convicted of felonies involving controlled substances or public aid offenses.
A Tribune review uncovered 16 convicted sex offenders who have held Illinois medical licenses within the past 15 years. Not one had his license permanently revoked. One doctor convicted of sexually abusing a patient was never disciplined by the state in any way.
If you have a complaint about a doctor, contact the police department nearest the doctor's office and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation at http://www.idfpr.com/dpr/FILING/Complaint.asp or 312-814-6910.Copyright © 2015, CT Now