By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
Tobkin is clad only in swim trunks and eyeglasses with octagonal tortoise-shell frames. The 56-year-old reclines in an upright chair, his feet sharing a small table with a bottle of spray-on tan enhancer. He's shirtless, displaying a bramble of black chest hair. His arrest record lists him at five-foot-ten and 140 pounds, but a budding paunch suggests that despite a workout regimen that includes beaucoup running, he may have put on a couple of pounds. He has a dark sense of humor and a tan to match: His skin has the carroty-bronze tone of a competition bodybuilder, and it makes his bright white teeth appear brighter and whiter. He offers his business card. It reads only, "Donald A. Tobkin, M.D., Esquire," and beneath that lists his phone number.
It was in late January that police called this lawyer/doctor's cell phone to arrange a house call at the Super Budget Motel north of Young Circle on Federal Highway, according to police and state records. A few minutes after midnight, Tobkin met undercover detective Nicole Coffin in number four. He took her blood pressure, checked her heartbeat, and tested her joints with a small hammer. He had her sign a patient acknowledgment form that includes more than a page of warnings on taking prescribed drugs. He asked her where she had been getting painkillers, and she replied, "The street."
Detective Coffin gave Tobkin $100, and he wrote her a prescription for 62 80-milligram pills of oxycodone, a potent painkiller. She asked whether the nearby CVS was open 24 hours, and he suggested she fill the prescription at a "mom and pop" pharmacy instead, according to a state report. Tobkin was then arrested, and police confiscated his medical bag, drug book, stethoscope, reflex hammer, and prescription pad. He was charged with writing prescriptions solely for profit. He made his $3,000 bail but faces a minimum of three years and maximum of decades if convicted.
"I committed no crime," he says as he sits poolside, his voice rising, the words spilling faster. "I'm trained. I'm a licensed drug dealer. And I never asked for money. I never said money for prescriptions. That's a fuckin' out-and-out fuckin' lie, and I can hardly wait to bring the case out."
There's little doubt that at least a part of him will relish his day in the courtroom. He's an avid litigant, having sued family, friends, doctors, hospitals, and cops and attempted to sue ex-clients during the past ten years. The Broward courts database lists him as a plaintiff or defendant in no fewer than 20 cases. In one still-active 2002 lawsuit alone, he named former neighbors, an ex-wife and her family, and the Hollywood Police Department all as defendants.
While brilliant and well-connected, Tobkin invites turmoil like few others. Empathetic and sharp, having earned two advanced degrees and millions of dollars, he has also: filed for bankruptcy twice since 1993, been accused of beating his ex-wife and small children, incurred IRS liens for three years of unpaid federal taxes, fallen behind nearly $100,000 in child support, and been barred from practicing in two Broward hospitals. The oxycodone arrest and a separate Florida Bar complaint before the state Supreme Court could cost him his law and medical licenses.
In April, a state Department of Health report rapped Tobkin for the arrest episode: "Dr. Tobkin has abandoned his role as a doctor to assume the role of street-level drug pusher..." Then it revoked his medical license, which Tobkin successfully petitioned to have reinstated -- for now, at least. He says he needs the license to make a living. He also claims to have millions of dollars in legal contingency fees outstanding but only a few hundred dollars on hand. The long slide for Donald Tobkin has not been pretty, and whether it's due to "his adversaries," as he asserts, or the product of his own temper and mistakes, it could be nearing its completion.
Many people have opinions about Donald Tobkin, but a good half-dozen of them reached by New Times declined to voice theirs. The comment by Fort Lauderdale attorney Alan Jay Braverman, who has faced Tobkin in court, pretty much sums up the rationale: "Anything I would say to you would result in a lawsuit."
Tobkin didn't intend to become such a feared man. Born to Jewish parents in Akron, Ohio, in 1949, he and his little brother, Ronald, were raised mainly by their father, Irwin, who had played tennis at Ohio State University in the early 1940s and had served, Donald says, as a lieutenant bombardier in World War II. After the war, Irwin made a tidy living selling carpet.
"I was fortunate enough to have the world's most tolerant, empathetic father of all time, who always felt that everybody's plight was worse than his own," Donald says. "I never heard him say I or me, ever."
Donald recalls an incident in 1969, when he was about 20 years old: The three Tobkin men attended a presentation at a school where Ronald was to be enrolled. In the middle of the auditorium sat a black family, alone in their row. Irwin steered his kids to the row and plunked them beside the family, where no whites had deigned to sit.
Then Irwin leaned to Donald and said, "All of us schvartzes [a derogatory Yiddish word for black people] have to stick together." Donald says the lesson was, "All of us are underdogs."
Irwin Tobkin died of heart and blood problems when Donald was 21 years old. "Either medical malpractice or bad health or both" killed Irwin Tobkin, Donald says. Donald had to that point planned to become a rabbi, but in 1970, he says, he was on the campus of Kent State University when National Guardsmen shot 13 student demonstrators, killing four. For Tobkin, old notions of religious influence gave way to realpolitik. He decided to become a doctor. "Put a title behind your name, doctor or whatever, and all of a sudden, you can pick stocks," he says. "There's a lot of money, a lot of power, and a lot of influence."
After graduating from the University of Akron, Donald headed for medical school at Wayne State University in Detroit. After finishing there in 1976, he moved south and began his residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. He says he married and divorced in medical school; there he also met a resident named Jane Seyler, whom he wed in January 1977. By the end of that year, he completed his residency and was licensed to practice medicine in Florida. In 1979, he opened a clinic in Pembroke Pines called the Respiratory Treatment Center. In 1980, Jane gave birth to a daughter, Jennifer.
What seemed an idyllic life soon soured. He practiced as a doctor until 1981, when Doctors Hospital in Hollywood suspended his medical privileges; Pembroke Pines General Hospital followed suit in 1982. Though Donald says the dispute centered on his righteous stand over treatment in the face of rising malpractice premiums, the Miami Herald at the time quoted Pines General Administrator Ed Maas as saying Donald "uttered obscenities at one staff meeting and used 'threatening behavior' at another."
"It was pretty devastating to have people turn on me for economic reasons," Donald says today, adding that for about a year afterward, he suffered from chest pains that a hypnotist helped him relieve.
Court records state that he filed for disability and received $100,000 from a life insurance company and $60,000 a year in long-term disability beginning in early 1982. That same year, he and Jane had a second daughter, Sarah. Donald enrolled in law school at the University of Miami, from which he graduated in 1985.
It was around that time that he says he met Sheldon Schlesinger, one of the most powerful civil attorneys in Florida. Donald's aunt, Grace Israel, had been injured in a car accident, and she hired Schlesinger to sue an insurance company. The attorney visited Donald, who had treated Israel, before taking his deposition. "I asked him, 'How's my aunt's case?'" Tobkin says. "He replied, 'That's up to you. '"
In March 1988, Donald was admitted to the Florida Bar and approached Schlesinger about a job. The established attorney hired the rookie. "He turned me from a doctor to a healer, and a lawyer to a warrior," Donald says. From 1989 to 1992, he earned $115,000 to $178,000 annually working for Schlesinger, according to court files.
An accomplished jurist and doctor (he still has never been sued for malpractice, he says), Donald seemed to be on a roll. But those years were the last time his life seemed so smooth. One reason among several was the breakup of his marriage to Jane. Asked the reason for the second divorce, Donald offers one word with uncharacteristic tenderness: "Marilyn."
At a desk overlooking the old brick street outside the downtown Orlando law office where she works, Marilyn Lindsey, the third former Mrs. Tobkin, advises a visitor that she must be careful of what she says. The fit, blond attorney has been in civil and custody litigation with her ex-husband for more than three years and doesn't want to provide fodder for him in those cases.
Her memories of Donald are bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter. "The emotional torture he can put you through is so intense and at the same time so bizarre, it's a hard thing to live with and a very hard thing to describe," she says. The only comparison she can offer: "Ever see the movie Sleeping with the Enemy? That comes close to it."
Marilyn's life before she met Tobkin reads like the lost chapters of a Bronte novel. Born in Coral Gables in 1962, she began at age 13 to tend horses for wealthy owners. When she was 15, a horse she was riding reared up, slipped, and landed spine-down on her, mangling several of her bones and organs, putting her in a coma for five months, and leaving her with enduring physical pain.
At 16, Marilyn dropped out of high school and left home to exercise horses at tracks around South Florida. "I moved out mainly to get away from my mom's boyfriend," she says, recalling that there were drugs in the home. At age 20, she married Mark Holley, a lifeguard, and began studying nursing. But then she became pregnant and had to delay her education; in 1985, Marilyn bore a daughter, Sydney; the marriage fell apart in 1986; she finished nursing school in 1988.
Within months, she found that her past injuries had left her unable to lift patients. Needing another vocation, she started at Nova Southeastern University law school, working one weekly, 12-hour shift for a nursing agency and racing through her studies in 2.5 years.
In 1991, not long after she passed the Florida Bar exam, an attorney friend introduced her to Donald, who hired her to help him in his Pembroke Pines medical practice. They bonded over a shared medical-legal background. He impressed her as bright and eccentric, funny and clever, with a genuine compassion for the patients he would visit and a talent for saying the right thing. "He would get together with patients, and they would start talking about legal problems that they had," she remembers. "He wanted to help them out with everything! He couldn't leave these people."
But she felt uncomfortable; Donald was pursuing her romantically while still married to Jane. After a month working for him, Marilyn took a job at the Broward State Attorney's Office. Then she moved to a medical malpractice defense firm and to Holy Cross Hospital as a risk manager.
Donald persisted in wooing her; they dated, albeit secretly.
Jane filed for divorce in the spring of 1992, saying the marriage was irretrievably broken (a judge later held that Donald had committed adultery). About six weeks later, Donald and Marilyn moved into a house in Fort Lauderdale's posh Rio Vista neighborhood. Marilyn became pregnant, and they were engaged.
In late March 1993, when Marilyn was seven months pregnant, she told Donald that she thought his relationship with his daughters was strained. He became irritated, she says, and pushed her on the chest, backing her out the front door. She tumbled down the front steps and started having sharp contractions, but he still dragged her to a court hearing where he was scheduled to appear, she says.
He didn't allow her out of his sight for a day and a half, she later wrote in court documents, until she slipped out to visit her obstetrician, Bernard Stern, at Parkway Hospital in North Miami Beach. Only moments behind her was Donald, who arrived and demanded to see her. To convey his urgency, according to a nurse's report from March 31, 1993, the "boyfriend threatened employee with neck-breaking."
No police report was ever filed in the incident -- but there were more to come. Donald denies that he pushed Marilyn or threatened anyone. "You can't harm a pregnant woman. Does it make sense that anybody, a prosecutor, a lawyer, would stand for that?" He adds: "This domestic violence stuff became a cottage industry. It should not be dignified as anything that deserves any special attention, because it is not quantifiable; it is not reproducible."
Two months after the alleged pushing, a judge signed the final dissolution of Donald's marriage to Jane. The next day, with a new baby days away and despite the alleged brutality and threat at the doctor's office, Donald and Marilyn were married. She remembers it as a whirlwind excursion: He directed her to accompany him to get a marriage license in downtown Fort Lauderdale. She claims she tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him, or at least to stall. When told now that Marilyn felt pressured to marry, Donald says only: "She and the baby would not have had insurance coverage."
A week later, on June 1, she gave birth to a son, Toby.
Donald's rage would manifest itself at odd times, Marilyn claims. In late 1995, when she gave birth again, this time to a daughter, Tabby, at West Boca Medical Center, he demanded that she return home without spending the night in doctors' care; nurses' notes indicate that Donald "wouldn't let mom sign any papers upon leaving," prompting alarmed hospital officials to notify state health officials. The baby was fine.
On November 23, 1996, Tabby's first birthday, Marilyn called Hollywood police, claiming that Donald, enraged over a credit-card charge, had grabbed her by the arms and bashed her head into the tile walls of their shower. Marilyn's older daughter, Sydney, then 11, "heard thumps," according to a police report, but didn't see the altercation, and the officer saw no bruises on the wife's scalp.
Donald denies that he urged his wife to leave the hospital early and that he abused her in the bathroom: "It never happened. I never caused a physical injury to any person in my life, except for in sports. I'm terribly opposed to violence. Words are enough... Anything that Marilyn says does not dignify a response from me."
In early December, the family visited Donald's psychiatrist, Burton Kahn, who was ill and staying at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, where he had been chief of staff. "From his hospital bed, he told Donald, 'We've got to make a deal. If you hit her again, she can leave you,'" Marilyn says. "And [Donald] was still screaming and insisting that he never hit me." Later, the couple sat downstairs at the hospital with the parents arguing, the mother nursing Tabby, and 3-year-old Toby squirming on a seat, kicking at the baby's head.
Marilyn, distraught, swatted Toby on the leg. Donald rushed the boy to the emergency room.
A Hollywood detective who investigated the incident later wrote that the boy had only a slight red mark on his thigh. The detective also spoke with Kahn. "Doctor Kahn... stated that the mother has always appeared to be a capable parent," the resulting report reads. According to Kahn, Donald "was being treated for depression," and the state report about the alleged abuse that Donald filed against Marilyn "is just a ploy on Mr. Tobkin's part to gain custody of the couple's children due to the fact that Mrs. Tobkin recently filed for divorce." The detective considered the case unfounded. But Marilyn contends she was fearful for her custody rights, so she dropped the divorce suit she had filed on December 30, 1996, and remained with her husband.
"I really do believe," Marilyn says, "that if Donald would have just submitted to treatment and medication, he could function normally. And if he could function normally and direct his intelligence for good instead of destruction, he could really help a lot of people. He could have a good life, and he could be a good father.
"But instead, he chooses to hurt people, and if he gets a mad-on for somebody, it doesn't matter if you did something wrong -- he'll find something; he'll make something up. And torture you."
On a Sunday afternoon in late 1997, Sheldon Greenbaum, a stocky and soft-spoken man, was standing in the garage of a lovely two-story home on Lincoln Street in Hollywood and chatting with the home's builder, Kim Scoratow. Greenbaum and his wife, Susan, were planning to move in soon. It would be their first home together. "I was so happy," he says.
As Greenbaum and Scoratow talked, Donald Tobkin appeared, wearing a Speedo-style bathing suit and sweating. He demanded the builder's attention, saying he urgently needed to buy a home. Scoratow agreed to sell the place next door to Donald and Marilyn, who by then was about to give birth to a third child with Donald.
It was an accident of timing that Greenbaum would live to regret, for in 2002, Donald sued the Greenbaums, alleging that, among other things, they had tried to turn Donald's kids against him.
On a recent rainy morning, the stout, bearded Greenbaum showed a visitor his Hollywood office, where he runs a business importing, exporting, and manufacturing perfumes. Thousands of dollars of his income from the small business has gone to defending himself in court against Donald. "He just destroys everything in his path," Greenbaum says. "He leaves a wake of destruction behind him."
The Greenbaums, Sheldon explains, had a front-row view during the four years that Donald and Marilyn lived together in Hollywood. The neighboring couple did what they could to be friendly and would look after the Tobkins' kids when Marilyn asked. But they tried to keep a social distance.
In those days, Donald's work as a lawyer put food on the table, but it also brought out a dark, aggressive side, Marilyn contends. In one case, for instance, Donald tried to sue two former clients, Kimberly and Linda Jarboe, for libel because they complained to the Florida Bar that he mishandled a probate case for them. The Florida Supreme Court threw out the case in 1998, ruling that Donald couldn't sue a client who had done no more than report him to the bar. He told the Herald at the time that the Jarboes had complained to avoid paying their legal fees.
Donald's philosophy in taking depositions, he says, was "arrive late, start a fight, leave early," but he outdid himself during a 1999 trial. On behalf of a Vero Beach sexagenarian named Beatrice Rose, who had suffered complications during a 1995 hip-replacement surgery, Donald sued a host of medical providers. According to legal records, a judge tossed the case because of Donald's delays, histrionics, and mistreatment of witnesses and opposing counsel. "Plaintiff did everything possible to thwart a fair and orderly trial of this case," the final judgment reads. "Everything was attempted by surprise."
Says Dr. Charles M. Fischman of Vero Beach, one of the doctors named in the suit: "I'm not a psychiatrist; I'm an internist, so people would say I don't know what I'm talking about, but the man is just bizarre."
It got worse, Marilyn says. In early 2000, she underwent abdominal surgery. She suffered an infection in the recovery, and, she contends, her husband demanded that she retain him as counsel to sue. She waffled. As they crawled into bed one night, he asked her a final time. She refused, she says, and he straddled her hips and punched her in the lower abdomen. He then lifted her legs up, she says, and slugged her twice in the vagina. She rolled out of bed and ran downstairs. "He said, 'Don't bother calling the cops; they won't see anything through your hair,'" she recalls.
On April 13, 2000, Hollywood police arrested Donald on charges that he punched his wife "with closed fists in the victim's groin area." The report includes this telling exchange: "The reportee questioned as to why he was being arrested if the victim does not have any fresh marks (defendant was referring to victim's body). It should be noted that the defendant was not advised at that point that he was under arrest."
When asked whether he punched his wife in the groin area, Donald addresses the alleged violence indirectly: "All I can tell you is, I don't have a mark on me. I don't have a smudge. Not a smudge. I'm fully licensed. Never had any discipline whatsoever. No legal malpractice cases. Everything was government or my adversaries."
On April 14, Marilyn filed for a restraining order, which she received, and within days, for divorce, again. The case made headlines in the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald when Donald claimed that Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross was interfering with the suit because the judge had a decade earlier pressured Marilyn to have sex with him while she was an unpaid clerk in Ross' office.
Marilyn had repeated the allegation in an e-mail to her husband's attorney, Karen Amlong, a friend of the family. But Marilyn's attempt to keep the allegation private backfired when Donald submitted the e-mail to the court. "It was a desperate attempt, on my part, not thinking, to try to get someone to persuade Donald not to disclose something that would be damaging," she says. "All I could say is, the stress changes your way of thinking."
That divorce filing, like the previous one, Marilyn eventually withdrew -- voluntarily, the court files say; under duress, she says now. Judge Lawrence Korda thought as much at the time and refused to recognize her request unless Donald finally underwent counseling. The judge wrote in a scathing July 2000 order that Donald "has a history in this and prior cases... of avoiding the Court's orders, either by legal machinations or semantical misapplications of obvious intent to avoid such orders."
The state later dropped criminal charges against Donald when Marilyn didn't cooperate with prosecutors.
"I was afraid Judge Korda would believe him and give the kids to him," she explains now.
Says Korda, still a sitting family court judge: "It was pretty gross to me. As a result, I ordered that he complete a battery course, anger management, and parent training. What happened was, whatever class he did go to, he sort of tried to take it over. 'Hey, I'm a doctor. I'm a lawyer. You can't tell me how to be counseled.'
"He needed anger-management classes and anti-spouse-battering classes," the judge continues, "like a man in the Sahara needs a glass of water."
Soon, the Tobkins split for good.
On August 18, 2001, Donald walked into a low-hanging tree branch in their yard, hurting his eye. According to a police report, he yelled to Marilyn that he was going to chop down every tree below eye level. When she grabbed his arm and told him to calm down, she explains, he kicked her in the right side of her abdomen, hard enough to drop her to the floor of the garage, in front of their kids.
"The five-year-old girl stated, 'My daddy kicked my mommy,'" the police report reads. "The eight-year-old boy stated, 'Really hard,' immediately following his sister's statement."
Marilyn petitioned for another restraining order, and soon after, for the third time, for divorce. Hollywood police later took a statement from the son. The boy began telling the officer about an incident in which he and his little sister were racing around the house, crashed together in an open doorway, and their father began "like slamming us with the door saying 'get these two defective things out of here' and my mom was trying to drag us out."
The officer clarified that she was asking about a different incident, one that involved Marilyn. "My dad lifted his leg up and kicked my mom," the boy said.
Donald today says he never kicked his wife. He says the kids were coerced by police to misrepresent the incident. "It was POW stuff taken by the Hollywood cops."
Donald moved out. Then, Marilyn says, she found that the family's bank accounts were drained and the bills unpaid. The Greenbaums, who had long tried to stay clear of the Tobkins' domestic spats, loaned her grocery money.
On November 1, 2001, the IRS filed a federal tax lien against the Tobkins, who had submitted their returns jointly, for $77,462 in unpaid taxes from 1994, 1997, and 1998. Marilyn later petitioned, successfully, to clear her liability in the liens. Donald blames the tax snafus on the fact that because of the restraining orders, he was often barred from going to his house and therefore didn't receive his mail.
Donald, it seems, didn't find peace after the divorce. In March 2002, he burst into an oncology clinic to meet opposing counsel Catherine Paris on a medical malpractice case. According to a later bar complaint, Donald started an argument regarding records custody. The receptionist called security. Donald snatched x-rays away from Paris. According to a memo by Florida Bar attorney Eric Turner: "Paris said she was sufficiently frightened by Tobkin's actions to file a motion for a restraining order but did not pursue the motion. She did not file a bar complaint because of the possibility Tobkin would sue her for libel or slander." Donald denies that he snatched x-rays from anyone.
Four months after the scene at the clinic, Donald sued Marilyn, the Greenbaums -- and, oh, what the heck -- Marilyn's mother and teenaged daughter, Sydney, claiming a litany of grievances, most generally that they had interfered with his relationship with his children (he uses the word brainwashing) and damaged his reputation, affecting his living. The complaint was sprinkled with handwritten insertions and asides; in accusing Sydney of battering Donald, the stepfather misspelled his stepdaughter's name. He also accuses the Hollywood Police Department of false arrest; the case is still open.
"He taught me the meaning of the phrase, 'No good deed goes unpunished,'" Sheldon Greenbaum says.
Wachovia Bank foreclosed on the Tobkins' $201,000 home in December 2002, when Marilyn couldn't meet the payments. Damned shame; it fetched $330,000 at public auction and six months later sold for $450,000. Donald and Marilyn's divorce finally came through in February 2003. Within weeks, Marilyn filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
The only bright spot for Marilyn was becoming reacquainted with David Lindsey, whom she had met when she was 19 years old. Lindsey, who had been a Broward paramedic and triathlete, had in 1992 famously lost most of his lower legs when a yacht ran over him as he was free-diving off Fort Lauderdale Beach.
The two struck up a romance and were married in August 2003. That summer, Marilyn filed a motion to allow her and the three kids to move to Orlando, home of the doctor who handles Lindsey's prostheses.
"Anger's a perfectly healthy emotion, and if one is not able to get angry, I would say they probably have a limited range of emotions," Donald Tobkin says. "It's a perfectly law-abiding behavior to get angry."
Lately more than ever, Donald's rage seems to be catching up with him. In July of last year, the Florida Bar filed a complaint against him that today looks like a stack of phone books swathed in manila folders. It stems from his conduct in Beatrice Rose's case and from the unrelated incident when he demanded the x-rays and frightened the opposing counsel Paris. It alleges that Donald "repeatedly made speaking objections after he was cautioned, made argumentative and inflammatory comments, exhibited objectionable conduct [and] made threatening comments attempting to intimidate" a witness.
"Both of these grievances arose from my adversaries complaining against me," Tobkin says. "Not my clients, not the public. Take it for what it's worth."
The January oxycodone prescription case, though, remains no small matter. Soon after the arrest, Judge Linda Vitale restricted his contact with his children to telephone calls and visitation at a supervised center in Orlando.
Judge Korda recalls his reaction to the news of Donald's arrest: "My first thought when I read it was, 'He's still a doctor? And he's still allowed to practice medicine?'"
Adds Dr. Fischman, when told of the alleged prescription profiteering: "You've made my day. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
This month, Donald is scheduled to face charges before Broward Circuit Court Judge Eileen O'Connor. He has filed motions to have O'Connor disqualified for what he claims are racial biases, after the Herald last month uncovered discrimination complaints against O'Connor from her time as a federal prosecutor. Donald contends that Hollywood police set him up illegally.
He's fighting the charges viciously, despite the fact that, as of this writing, he had not secured an attorney to represent him. O'Connor denied his request for a public defender.
"To threaten me with death or prison is not a deterrent," Donald says. "It shows that the person doesn't know what they're talking about. That would be a relief! Let me be a guest of the state. Let them take over payments for a while.
"Listen," he continues, and bobbles his words for a second before launching ahead. "Life, life, the only ones who are suffering are the survivors. When they put you in the ground, the pain stops. Who's afraid of the pain stopping?"