During a career spanning nearly 30 years in Georgia, Dr. William Almon has reinvented himself in numerous ways in numerous places: Army psychiatrist, occupational medicine specialist, family practitioner, musculoskeletal expert.
What hasn’t changed is his ability to practice medicine, and for some familiar with his history that’s stunning. How, they wonder, is he still licensed?
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In three different settings, Almon faced allegations that he sexually violated extremely vulnerable female patients — a suicidal soldier, jail inmates, a mentally ill woman and a child of 14 — and every time was effectively given a pass.
Of the thousands of cases reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its investigation of physician sexual misconduct, few show the forces that protect offending doctors more dramatically.
“I’m absolutely speechless when it comes to how this doctor can keep going from place to place and having the same sorts of complaints made against him,” said Joyce Peters, a nurse who worked with Almon when he was the physician at the Augusta city jail. “We’re not doing something right.”
At Fort Gordon outside Augusta, where Almon was a psychiatric resident and held the rank of major, he admitted that he had sex with a hospitalized patient. The patient, a private, was found immediately afterward on the floor of her hospital room, curled up and crying.
The Army could have charged him with several violations. Instead, it allowed him to resign in lieu of facing a court-martial.
At the Augusta jail, where he was contracted to provide medical care several hours a week, he was charged with sexually abusing three inmates. At least one passed a lie detector test, and Peters told police that the doctor went out of his way to treat female inmates without anyone else in the room.
Yet prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges, believing a conviction was unlikely.
And at WellStar’s East Paulding Primary Care Center, where Almon was hired even though corporate officials knew of his background, he was accused of molesting two patients. One was a woman who is schizophrenic. The other was a 14-year-old girl.
The charges could have brought a prison sentence, but prosecutors allowed the doctor to plead no contest to misdemeanor counts of battery and sexual battery and receive probation. Then the Georgia Composite Medical Board negotiated an agreement that let him continue practicing as long as he complied with certain requirements.
“I can’t believe he’s never lost his license,” said Betty Pichon, a former Paulding County Sheriff’s Office detective who was one of the investigators in the WellStar case, when she learned from the AJC that Almon was still practicing. “That’s unreal.”
Almon, who has practiced at a series of Atlanta-area clinics operated by chiropractors throughout the last decade, told the AJC he did not want to discuss the past.
“The fact is, people looked into these things, (the incidents) were investigated by the authorities and what happened happened,” he said. “And I accepted that. I have gone on. That’s where I am right now.”
Almon said he has been profoundly affected by boundary and ethics training the medical board required in 2009, so much so that he now teaches the course for the company that offers it, Professional Boundaries Inc.
“A board order comes with sanctions,” he said. “The force of those sanctions make you think. What did I do here? How is it perceived? Why was it perceived (a certain way)? What do I need to do to be different and to change?”
He added, “I am a very different person.”
The 61-year-old physician was on staff at an Alpharetta clinic, Advanced Integrative Medicine, for four years before leaving in February. The clinic owner, Robert Schlampp, told the AJC that he and Almon had personality differences that led to the doctor’s moving on.
Schlampp, a chiropractor, said he knew when he considered hiring Almon that there were problems in his past, so he asked an attorney to look into them. He said the attorney reviewed what was publicly available from the Georgia medical board and reported that there were “definitely red flags” but no restrictions on Almon’s license.
“I have to rely on the medical board, and if the medical board clears him (that’s significant),” Schlampp said. “They’re our police.”
Schlampp said Almon always had a female employee present when he examined female patients.
“He ensured that everything was ethical, I mean to the nth degree,” Schlampp said.
‘THEY MINIMIZE THE HARM’
The first incident to focus attention on Almon was in 1988 at Fort Gordon, where he had sex with a patient in his office at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Medical Center.
Although Almon and the patient said the encounter was consensual, it weighed heavily on the patient, who was at the installation outside Augusta to be treated for suicidal tendencies and borderline personality disorder, according to the report prepared by military police. The medical profession says there can be no meaningful consent by a psychiatric patient and that sexual contact with a psychiatrist can have devastating consequences.
Witnesses saw the woman rush from Almon’s office to her room, the MPs’ report says. Jimmy Paulk, an Army nurse, went immediately into the room after her and afterward, in a detailed narrative for the MPs, recorded both his questions and the patient’s emotionally charged answers.
“What do you feel right now?” Paulk asked at one point.
“Like a slut,” she replied. “I want to die, I just want to die.”
Paulk, now a retired colonel, said the incident has stayed with him all these years.
“I knew she was upset about something,” he said. “I was working with her to get at what she was upset about, and, of course, the answer just shocks you.”
Paulk said the fact Almon wasn’t charged isn’t surprising. Commanders often believe the best solution is to let an offender leave the Army, especially when the issue is in a medical environment, he said.
“They’re thinking, ‘Do no harm,’ so they minimize the harm,” he said. “But what they don’t understand is, by not pursuing (charges), you’re giving him the opportunity to keep doing what he did.”
‘WE DID ALL WE COULD’
Only a few months after Almon began working at the Augusta jail in the early 1990s, he was under investigation again, this time for what three female inmates claimed were highly inappropriate exams in a room where the door locked automatically when shut.
“So he started bumping on my stomach and he asked me did I have any pains,” one said. “And I said, ‘I don’t have no pains below my breasts.’ So finally … he worked his hand all the way down to my private. OK?”
The inmate, 18 at the time, later took a polygraph, police records show. It indicated she was telling the truth.
When the woman was contacted recently by the AJC, she declined to be interviewed, saying she wanted to “leave that in the past.”
Police also obtained a lengthy statement from Peters, the jail nurse, who described multiple occasions when Almon arranged to be alone with his accusers, sometimes requesting to see them when they weren’t in need of medical care.
Recalling the experience recently, Peters said she didn’t believe there was a problem until the inmates complained.
“I felt so abused and manipulated,” she said. “It made me very angry and it made me swear to never be that naive again.”
Ryon Horne / AJC
In his statement to police, Almon denied the allegations and questioned the credibility of his accusers.
The investigators noted that two of them had passed polygraph examinations and asked Almon how he thought that was possible.
“You tell me,” he replied. “I mean, these are different sort of people than you and I. I don’t know. I’m not even sure why you’re asking why they would pass a polygraph test. They’re not telling the truth.”
There is no indication in the Augusta district attorney’s file for why the charges were dismissed other than forms completed by Bill Bowcutt, then the chief assistant to DA Daniel Craig, stating there was “insufficient likelihood of conviction.”
Both Bowcutt and Craig said they did not remember the matter when asked about it recently.
“We did all we could with what we had in this case, I’m sure,” said Craig, now a superior court judge in Augusta.
Even though the charges were dismissed, the Georgia medical board still placed Almon on four years’ probation, requiring that he have a third party present when he examined female patients and wear gloves when conducting pelvic exams.
Tony Walden, the lead detective on the case, declined to be interviewed at length but said, “I stand by everything I reported.”
Walden said he was contacted several years later by Paulding County detectives, who told him that Almon had been charged with similar crimes there. He was not surprised.
“I had been to enough schools to know that this wasn’t going to be the end of it,” Walden said.
‘KNEW I WAS SCHIZOPHRENIC’
The chain of events surrounding Almon at the Paulding clinic raises particular questions for WellStar, the state’s largest health care system.
WellStar hired Almon in 2000 even though it knew of his issues at Fort Gordon and the Augusta jail, and obtained written statements from him with his version of events, records in the doctor’s personnel file show.
Less than two years later, a woman who has had schizophrenia since her youth complained Almon had “manipulated” her vagina and clitoris and asked questions about her sexuality while examining her for abdominal pain, internal WellStar documents obtained by the AJC show.
Remembering that day in a recent series of interviews, the woman, 57-year-old Patrice Gable, said she immediately drove to a nearby Huddle House, ordered coffee and read her Bible.
“I left and I prayed,” she said. “I read my book, my Bible, came back (home) and cried on mama’s shoulder.”
The AJC typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse. However, Gable, who lives independently, agreed to allow the newspaper to identify her.
Ryon Horne / AJC
After Gable’s mother, Barbara Pollard, called the clinic, WellStar confronted Almon, who admitted that the examination had been “inappropriate” and that “a great deal of what (Gable) alleged was true,” according to the WellStar documents. Within hours, he was fired, the documents show.
The next day, Sam Bishop, WellStar’s vice president for compliance and insurance services, called Gable and Pollard and offered $15,000 if Gable would sign a document agreeing not to sue.
Gable said Bishop told her she could “go buy a new car” if she would agree to the arrangement. Although she signed the document, Gable said she now regrets it, believing Bishop took advantage of her.
“He knew I was schizophrenic and that I would probably take the money,” she said.
Bishop, who has since retired, said he remembers the discussion of a car being initiated by the patient’s mother. “It seemed like we sort of asked what it would take (to settle the matter) and the mother said, ‘Well, she needs a new car,’” he said.
Although WellStar immediately informed the Georgia medical board of the circumstances surrounding Almon’s dismissal, it didn’t notify law enforcement.
Bishop said that’s because Gable and her mother were “emphatic” in saying they did not want to prosecute.
However, both told the AJC they had no qualms about pressing charges. “I told Sam Bishop I wanted (the doctor) in jail,” Gable said.
Ryon Horne / AJC
‘VERY CANDID CONVERSATIONS’
The Paulding County sheriff’s office began its investigation more than a month later after another doctor at the clinic, concerned that the 14-year-old had been abused, contacted the DA’s office, where his wife then worked.
Dr. Carl Goolsby examined the girl after Almon was fired and became suspicious when she appeared “afraid,” according to his statement to investigators.
Like Gable, the girl, a troubled youth who was being raised by her grandparents, claimed that Almon touched her vagina unnecessarily and delved into her sexual experiences, including asking whether she was a virgin and whether she masturbated.
“I had my temperature took and all that, and he just started talking to me again about oral sex and how his daughter, he didn’t know if she masturbates or not,” the girl told Pichon, the detective who interviewed her.
The girl, now married and living in another state, declined to be interviewed for this story.
When investigators contacted WellStar, they then learned of Gable’s complaint.
The lead investigator for the sheriff’s department, Lt. Mike Christopher, said he and the agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation assigned to the case chastised WellStar for failing to report what it knew about Almon earlier.
“To be honest with you, there were some very candid conversations between me, (the GBI agent) and members of the WellStar family,” he said.
In an email, WellStar spokesman Tyler Pearson said the organization “maintains the highest standards of pre-employment verification” and has strict rules concerning employee sexual misconduct. He did not address questions regarding WellStar’s decision to hire Almon and its failure to immediately inform law enforcement of the doctor’s dismissal.
‘SYSTEM IS NOT PERFECT’
When the Paulding investigators interviewed Almon, he said he touched Gable’s vagina because he was trying to locate her pain but denied fondling it. He admitted that he didn’t wear gloves, which the medical profession says is a sexual impropriety. He denied conducting any kind of vaginal exam on the 14-year-old, although he confirmed that he asked her questions about masturbation and other sexual matters.
“I asked her if sex felt good,” he said. “I wanted to know whether she was having sex because she was being compelled to have sex or she was having sex because it felt good. Because most young ladies at 14 years old are not particularly orgasmic.”
In December 2002, Almon was indicted on two counts of child molestation for his conduct in examining the 14-year-old and one count of sexual battery for his behavior when he examined Gable.
Such charges often result in the Georgia medical board suspending a physician’s license until the matter is resolved. However, that apparently didn’t happen with Almon, who testified at his sentencing that he was practicing in Conyers.
Neither the board’s executive director, Robert Jeffery, nor its current chairperson, Dr. Alice House, would address Almon’s case, saying state law prohibits them from discussing specific physicians.
In fact, the board didn’t take action against Almon in the Paulding matter until 2008, two years after his plea, when it agreed to place him on probation for at least two years.
Incorrectly stating that Almon had pleaded no contest to two counts of battery, the order required him to have a female chaperone when examining female patients, undergo psychotherapy, pay a $5,000 fine and take classes on doctor-patient boundaries. The restrictions were removed in 2011.
Wrightsville physician Dr. Jean Sumner, who signed off on the document as the board’s president, said board members discuss the cases they consider, but the actual orders are written by the board’s attorneys after negotiation with the physicians and their attorneys.
“The system is not perfect,” she said. “But I think that, generally speaking, the board uses evidence-based interventions that it knows are effective to build systems around physicians that make them safe and protect patients.”
‘FAILING THE VICTIMS’
It’s unclear why the criminal case against Almon was in limbo for years.
Four years after he was indicted, he agreed to the plea deal and was sentenced to two years of probation. Because the sexual battery charge stemmed from his examination of Gable, an adult, it could be treated as a misdemeanor, keeping him off the sex offender registry.
In 2008, he was discharged as a first offender without an adjudication of guilt.
In recent interviews, the two investigators who handled the Paulding case, Pichon and Christopher, said they remain convinced that Gable and the 14-year-old were telling the truth.
“I have no doubt in my mind that (Almon) violated both these women,” Christopher said. “There was no reason for either one to lie because they had nothing to gain by it.”
Although Gable’s speech is sometimes affected by her condition, the detectives said they believed she would have been an effective witness.
“She was very adamant about exactly what happened to her,” Pichon said. “She didn’t leave out any details. She was very credible.”
But neither Gable nor the 14-year-old were given the chance to tell their stories to a jury.
At the sentencing, Assistant DA Tony Volkodav explained that he found the plea deal acceptable because the case had been “sitting around collecting dust” and because there were “problems” with the victims.
Volkodav, who now holds a similar position in the Athens-Clarke County DA’s office, said in a recent interview that he was particularly concerned about calling Gable as a witness.
“My memory of the girl with the mental disability, she was pretty bad off,” he said. “I mean, I would do better putting a 5-year-old on the stand.”
Gable said no one ever told her how the case turned out. When an AJC reporter informed her that Almon received probation and kept his license, she expressed surprise and disappointment.
“That’s just terrible,” she said. “I can’t believe … him not losing his license and spending no time in jail whatsoever.”
Christopher, a veteran of 30 years in law enforcement, said he understands that plea deals are a reality of his occupation. “Do I think they could have convicted him in a court of law? It’s impossible to read,” he said.
But Pichon, who left the sheriff’s department in the midst of the investigation to move with her husband to another state, said she considers the outcome unacceptable, part of a process that has kept a predator on the front lines of medicine.
“I just can’t believe that the system is failing the victims, the community and all of us, especially women,” she said.