A Los Angeles County jury on Thursday convicted former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps of sexually abusing female patients.
Prosecutors portrayed Heaps as exploiting his position as a renowned cancer specialist to prey on the most vulnerable women during his 35 years associated with UCLA. Hundreds of accusers have been paid nearly $700 million by UCLA in the largest sexual abuse settlement involving a public university.
Heaps’ arrest in June 2019 came on the heels of similar charges against George Tyndall, a former USC gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct toward hundreds of students. Tyndall has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on dozens of sexual assault charges tied to the campus clinic where he practiced for decades.
“Instead of upholding the Hippocratic oath, [Heaps] used his position as a doctor, as a specialist, to sexually assault seven incredibly vulnerable women,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers said during the trial, which began Aug. 9.
The women Heaps was charged with abusing told similar stories from the witness stand, testifying that he groped them, penetrated them with his ungloved hand and committed acts of sexual stimulation under the guise of medical examinations.
Defense attorney Leonard Levine countered that the exams were appropriate and “for a medical purpose and were conducted with female staff present. Levin said Heaps had been “painted as a monster in the press” when, in fact, he was saving lives.
Heaps, 65, was charged with 21 felony counts. He was found guilty of three counts of sexual battery by fraud and two counts of sexual penetration of an unconscious person in assaults from 2013 to 2017, the portion of his tenure that falls within the statute of limitations for which criminal charges could be brought.
He was found not guilty of seven other counts, including one count of sexual exploitation.
Judge Michael D. Carter declared a mistrial on nine other sex-related counts, saying the jury was hopelessly deadlocked on them.
In his closing argument, Levine summarized the case by saying Heaps “either did it all or he did none.”
“He’s either a doctor out there doing his job, or he’s a maniacal monster sex fiend out there looking for sex whenever he can,” the defense attorney said. “Those are your two choices, in my opinion.’’
Heaps’ own university called his conduct “reprehensible” following a $374.4-million settlement covering 312 former patients.
A state investigation revealed UCLA ignored multiple detailed complaints of abuse spanning decades against the doctor. A separate University of California report found that UCLA repeatedly failed to adequately investigate the allegations. UCLA allowed Heaps to return to practice in 2018 to find new victims, multiple lawsuits alleged, even though top university officials knew of an ongoing internal investigation into the allegations.
“It’s very difficult to be betrayed in such a relationship of trust,” said Jennifer McGrath, who represented many of the victims in the lawsuits and the criminal case. “You go to a physician, you expect that you’ll be treated appropriately and medically, and when that does not happen…. It really destroys that trust in a deep way.”
One patient who testified during the trial said she had gone to see Heaps because she feared she had stage 4 cancer. She said she felt as though she were in a strip show or a pornographic movie after he told her to bend over and touched her all over without gloves or a chaperone present.
Another woman, a survivor of triple-negative breast cancer, told jurors how she was undergoing aggressive cancer treatment when she saw Heaps. In explaining how certain incisions would work for removing her ovaries and fallopian tubes because she had the BRCA gene, which makes a person more susceptible to certain cancers, Heaps told her she could still wear skimpy bikinis. The woman, identified as Kara C., testified that Heaps rubbed her vaginal area unlike any other doctor had. She reported him to UCLA 10 days after her 2014 exam.
Meyers reminded jurors during closing arguments how one of Heaps’ patients had an IUD removed five days after he inserted it because she was in excruciating pain. The woman said that during a June 2017 return office visit at UCLA, Heaps groped her breast and buttock in a way the prosecutor said had “no medical purpose.”
“You get to tell the defendant that he cannot hide behind UCLA, that he cannot hide behind that white coat and that he is guilty of every single count,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosa Zavala told the jury.
Despite years of complaints about Heaps, who treated about 6,000 patients during his tenure, it was not until late 2017 that allegations of sexual misconduct were reported to UCLA’s Title IX office and a formal investigation was opened.
Heaps was allowed to continue seeing patients — both during the investigation and after UCLA informed the doctor his contract would not be renewed when it expired on June 30, 2018. UCLA finally ended Heaps’ employment and notified the police of the allegations against him in June 2018.
Heaps was arrested a year later and charged with two counts of sexual battery by fraud and one count of sexual exploitation in connection with acts involving two patients. Until that arrest, UCLA had not made public or told former patients that a year before, Heaps had been investigated for sexual abuse. Subsequently, a grand jury indicted him on 21 felonies involving seven victims.
In May 2022, UC regents agreed to $374.4 million in settlements covering 312 former patients who sued, alleging they were abused between 1983 and 2018. That agreement came on top of a $243.6-million settlement of more than 200 women’s lawsuits and a $73-million class-action settlement involving more than 5,000 patients dating to 1983. In 2019, the UC system also paid $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit by a patient who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Heaps in 2018.
The cost of the UC settlements exceeds payouts by Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to resolve lawsuits brought by patients who alleged sexual abuse by school doctors. It also dwarfs a settlement involving a sex abuse scandal at Penn State.
The total, however, is still less than the $1.1 billion USC has paid to settle lawsuits by hundreds of women who accused Tyndall of sexual abuse.