Dozens of women carried the secret, some whispering it only to sisters or female friends. Never to their husbands. Certainly not to police.
It wasn’t until Astrid Chavez shared the secret with a popular Atlanta internet radio host that word got out.
The show today, Brenda Bueno told her listeners last fall, is about what can happen when professionals take advantage of the people they see every day. Professionals such as doctors.
She didn’t name names. She didn’t have to. That morning, when she was broadcasting live, she immediately began getting text message after text message.
“Are you talking about Dr. Rios?” listeners texted.
Like Chavez, other women told Bueno that Chamblee pediatrician José Rios had subjected them or their friends to groping or other sexual advances when they took their children to medical appointments.
Miguel Martinez/Mundo Hispanico
But as in other cases involving allegations of doctor sexual misconduct across the country, the women had calculated that the risks of reporting their doctor to authorities were too great, or that no one would take their word over that of a physician. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation of doctor sexual misconduct found a nationwide pattern of physicians targeting the vulnerable: immigrants, the poor, children and the elderly, people who had been sexually abused as children, drug addicts, the mentally impaired and mentally ill, those struggling with marital problems, and patients who were sedated or unconscious.
“Doctors target patients who they view as not being confident or credible, or who they think are timid and less likely to report them to authorities,” said Adam Horowitz, a Florida attorney who has represented about 20 patients accusing doctors of abuse.
The women who contacted Bueno were Spanish-speakers, mostly undocumented immigrants who feared deportation. Some remained silent out of shame, not wanting to discuss details of what had happened. “Some of them were more afraid of their husbands … than of law enforcement authorities,” Bueno said.
After Bueno persuaded Chavez to go to Chamblee police, Rios was arrested in November at Primary Care Center in the Plaza Fiesta shopping center on a single misdemeanor count of sexual battery.
Miguel Martinez/Mundo Hispanico
Bueno and the Spanish-language newspaper MundoHispánico then brought together other women who said they were victimized, and had a psychologist explain to their husbands that the women were not to blame. As a result, by late November dozens more women stepped forward.
MundoHispánico also went with the women to police, where in a daylong session with Capt. Ernesto Ford and other officers, the women said that Rios had groped their breasts or buttocks, offered to pay them for sex, or made other sexual advances when they took their children to appointments.
One mother said that Rios had groped her legs. “After he did that, I never went back to his clinic. I asked the receptionist to give me an appointment with another doctor.”
Another recalled what happened at two appointments. “One time he told me to sit my child on my lap so he could examine him, and he brushed against my breasts,” she told MundoHispánico, which like the AJC is part of Cox Media Group. “I thought it was an accident, but he did it again another time that I went back, and he even gave me his private phone number so I could call him whenever I wanted.”
In December, Rios, a Colombian native, was charged with two additional counts of sexual battery and one count of pandering — soliciting sex for money. Police couldn’t bring charges in many other cases, which dated back for more than a decade, because of the statute of limitations on sexual battery, said Chamblee Detective LaShonda Williams, the lead investigator in the case. The law limits charges to incidents in the previous two years for first-offense sexual battery, Williams said.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which operates the Chamblee clinic, suspended Rios as soon as police made it aware of the allegations, a spokeswoman said. “The allegations filed in November 2015 were the first complaints we had ever received regarding misconduct by Dr. Rios, who was a full-time physician with an 18-year history of serving patients in our community,” Children’s Healthcare said in an emailed statement.
In January, Rios signed an agreement with the Georgia Composite Medical Board not to practice medicine until the criminal case is resolved. Such an agreement is typical when a doctor is facing criminal charges, board officials said.
The charges are still pending. Rios did not respond to interview requests and his attorney declined to comment.
In June, a group of women filed civil lawsuits against Rios and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, accusing the doctor of improper touching and seeking damages.
Miguel Martinez/Mundo Hispanico
Chavez — who never went back to the clinic after she said Rios made sexual comments at one appointment for her newborn, then grabbed her breast at another appointment — said she knows of some 50 women who said they were victimized. But the backlash from other Hispanics, indignant about the accusations, may have deterred some from going to police, she and Bueno said.
For every woman who said she was victimized, there were 20 who came to the doctor’s defense, Bueno said. On social media, some accused the pediatrician’s accusers of trying to get some sort of benefit. They probably didn’t want to pay for their children’s appointments, the skeptics said, or they wanted to get money from Rios.
“A lot of people were saying, these are women who are country folk, who are uneducated,” Bueno said. “Because they aren’t necessarily so attractive, there’s no way a doctor with his status and money and reputation would ever … turn to look at a woman who’s overweight, or just had a baby, or is uneducated.”
Chavez, who agreed to be publicly identified, has heard it, too. “But I talked to the right people and they gave me the courage to do it, to go to the police and report him.”
Williams said she still periodically gets women who want to report that they, too, were victims. “Some women called back just to thank us for the work we did,” Williams said. “They just felt like, ‘Nobody was going to listen to me.’”
— AJC staff writer Ariel Hart and senior investigations editor Lois Norder contributed to this article.
Other states, other incidents of Hispanic women assaulted
- In Maryland, Dr. Ramon L. Gonzalez sexually assaulted female patients for more than 20 years before losing his license. Among his victims were a patient who gave birth to his child, and another he forced to have sexual intercourse during treatment, the medical board found. “The obvious question is how (Gonzalez) was able to practice medicine for so many years and escape any substantial consequences for his actions,” an administrative law judge wrote in the case. One reason, the judge said, was his lies about his background. But he said the other reason was that he “worked with a socio-economic group of people, i.e. Hispanics, who held doctors in high respect and did not consider reporting sexual abuse or misconduct as an option …” A Medicaid investigator, the judge wrote, “also pointed out that (Gonzalez) was often the only medical professional available in certain neighborhoods and individuals were reluctant to complain for fear that these needed medical services might stop.”
- In California, Dr. Jeffrey Joel Abrams pleaded guilty in 2015 to eight counts of sexual penetration of an unconscious person, three counts of sexual battery and one count of child pornography. All the counts involved assaults at his low-income clinic in El Cajon, where many patients were Hispanic immigrants who spoke little English. Abrams sexually assaulted unconscious patients and took more than 1,300 explicit photos of patients, including one of an 8-year-old girl. He drew no jail time for his convictions. Instead, a California court in September 2015, noting that he had kidney cancer, placed him on one year of house arrest and five years’ probation.
- In Connecticut, Dr. Edwin Njoku, who speaks Spanish, was charged with five counts of sexual assault, including a charge involving a woman who accused him of raping her during an exam. To try to get her to withdraw the charge, Njoku asked a minister, Jesus Ruiz, to offer money to the patient’s family. But after hearing the family’s account, Ruiz told them not to agree to Njoku’s offer. At trial, two other patients testified about prior acts of sexual misconduct Njoku had committed. He was convicted of sexual assault and tampering with a witness. At his sentencing in 2013, the victim, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that she felt betrayed by his attack. Sexual assault charges were also filed against him involving three other women. Complaints by other women were dismissed because the cases were too old when police learned of them, news reports said.