Doctor who lost license in Virginia named Alaska's chief medical examiner

Kyle Hopkins

A physician whose medical license was suspended for four years in Virginia because of drug and alcohol abuse has been named Alaska's chief medical examiner.

Gov. Sean Parnell in January approved the promotion of Dr. Gary Zientek to head the state office responsible for determining the cause of death in homicide investigations and fatal incidents statewide.

Zientek's license was restored in late 2007 in Virginia, where a state court judge said his role in a 2008 autopsy impeded prosecutors' ability to seek the death penalty in the killing of a 12-year-old girl.

Zientek, a pathologist, began working for the Alaska Division of Public Health as an assistant medical examiner under Parnell in 2009. Examiners must present and defend their findings in murder trials, and cracks in their credibility can be used by defense attorneys to plant doubt among juries.

A spokeswoman for Parnell said the doctor was "fully vetted" to head the office earlier this year by Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner William Streur. Parnell Chief of Staff Mike Nizich approved the hire Jan. 22.

"Dr. Zientek has been open about his past. He has served as Alaska's deputy medical examiner and is highly qualified for the position," Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow wrote in an email.

State officials said Zientek's performance in Alaska has been exemplary.

The doctor said in an interview last week that he has been sober for 10 years.

Part of recovery is helping other people, he said, and in a state burdened with outsize drug and alcohol problems, he says his is a story of redemption.

"I hit very low bottom. With a lot of work and a lot of help from other people, I've put my life back on track and become successful again," he said.

Zientek's drug and alcohol use is well-documented in Virginia Board of Medicine records.

The doctor began prescribing himself Tylenol with codeine in 1989 while practicing pathology in Richmond, according to the order that suspended his license. He was using up to 10 to 15 pills a day, combined with six to eight alcoholic drinks and over-the-counter Nyquil, the board found.

The substance abuse continued through the 1990s, court records show. In July 2000, Zientek was convicted on three felony drug charges that were later reduced to misdemeanors. Zientek's criminal record made headlines in Virginia in a 2008 murder case. He had conducted an autopsy on the body of girl who was raped and killed by her stepfather, Kentrell Sanderson. Prosecutors intended to seek the death penalty, but Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Junius Fulton III said Zientek's documented substance abuse "has compromised the Commonwealth's ability to prosecute," the Virginian-Pilot reported in 2010.

The killer in that case later made a plea agreement to serve life in prison, avoiding a trial that could have led to his execution.

Zientek said he did not follow the case closely but was told the defense attorneys insisted on background checks for everyone involved in the prosecution and turned up his criminal record. The doctor was not accused of using drugs at the time of the autopsy. His prior criminal record nevertheless became a "significant matter" for prosecutors who needed an unassailable case in order to pursue the death penalty, said Amanda Howie, a spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Attorney's Office.

"An important element of a capital murder case is to ensure that every aspect, every factor is in a pristine condition when brought to the court," she said.

Alaska has no death penalty and few medical examiners to study deaths spread across the state.

Zientek has performed about 1,000 autopsies so far in Alaska and testified at jury trials 12 to 15 times as an assistant medical examiner, he estimated. He has appeared before about 30 grand juries, he said.

His rap sheet could be fair game for defense lawyers looking to undermine his medical findings, said retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews.

"Both the prosecution and defense would need to be prepared to address these arguments to the trial judge," she said.

Longtime public defender Doug Moody said Zientek's background is widely known among defense attorneys in Alaska.

Given that the doctor's admitted drug use is now more than a decade old, it has not appeared to hurt his credibility with juries, Moody said.

"If it's not being brought up now, I assume it's because trial attorneys have concluded there's no mileage to be gained from it," Moody said.


Zientek was hospitalized in 1998 after consuming a family member's prescription drugs and testing positive for opiates, according to the Virginia Board of Medicine.

He began residential treatment for the first time in 2001, he said. Zientek declined to talk about specifics of his substance abuse and recovery.

"I pretty much am no different than anybody who has an addiction to drugs and alcohol," he said. "Basically that becomes the most important thing in your life. And that's what happened to me. During that time period, I made a lot of bad choices."

The Virginia medical board reinstated Zientek's license, with restrictions, in 2007. The following year Zientek worked as a medical examiner on fellowship for the state of Virginia, conducting about 200 autopsies, he estimated.

Zientek submitted to and passed random drug and alcohol tests during that time and was supervised by another doctor because of his fellowship status, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

He moved to Alaska in 2009. The state medical board provided Zientek with a medical license provided he submit to five years of probation for chemical dependency.

By the time he began working for the state, in October, Sean Parnell had replaced Sarah Palin as governor and Dr. Katherine Raven was the new chief medical examiner.

"Gary was very straightforward with us from the minute he sent in his application and CV. He discussed it with us," said Public Health Director Kerre Shelton, who was one of the state officials who interviewed Zientek for the job. Former Public Health Director Beverly Wooley and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Butler also conducted the interviews, said Shelton, who was a deputy director at the time.

"We talked it over with (Raven) and we all came to the conclusion, right away, that the medical board has no issues. Gary's been re-instated. There have been no performance issues. No issues of any sort, and we thought he would be a great fit for the office," Shelton said.

Shelton said Zientek has performed well ever since, leading to the February promotion.

Zientek was the only person interviewed for the chief medical examiner's job, for which he is paid about $225,000 a year, according to the Department of Administration.


In Alaska, the chief examiner is chosen by Shelton and Health Commissioner Streur, Shelton said. Their selection is forwarded to the governor's office for approval.

Someone in the governor's office -- Shelton said she doesn't not know who because the communication was with the commissioner -- asked about Zientek's history before approving the promotion.

"When we sent forward his approval for the chief position, they asked and said, 'Are you aware of these issues?'" Shelton said. "We said, 'Yep, it's all good. He's been here for four and a half years.'"

"They said, 'OK, that's great,' and they signed it," Shelton said.

As the top state expert on cause of death among homicide and other victims in Alaska, Zientek is the third chief medical examiner in six years, following Franc Fallico and Katherine Raven.

As chief, he will continue to perform autopsies as well as oversee a staff that includes two assistant medical examiners, four administrative staff, five autopsy technicians and six investigators, Shelton said.

The degree of alcohol and drug abuse in Alaska surprised Zientek when he began working here, he said.

"The cases that come through our office, I would say well over 95 percent of the individuals have alcohol and/or some sort of drugs present in them," he said.

Zientek's medical license is no longer under any restrictions. The Alaska State Medical Board put an early end to his probation and monitoring in 2011.

He said he doesn't enjoy talking about his past but has tried to be upfront about his addictions.

"I think it's a great success story," he said. "Hiding from it would sort of diminish that story."

The selection of Zientek follows the Alaska Department of Labor's 2012 hire of embattled former Pennsylvania state judge Paul Pozonsky. Pozonsky was publicly known to be under criminal investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office at the time of his Alaska hire. He resigned from his Alaska post as a hearing officer in late 2012. Pennsylvania authorities charged him months later with stealing cocaine from court evidence envelopes while he was working in that state.

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