Benita Alexander, a TV producer, was set to marry the doctor of her dreams in 2015 in a lavish ceremony officiated by Pope Francis. In her new documentary, “He Lied About Everything” (airing Wednesday on Investigation Discovery) she explains that the relationship was a con. Here, the Brooklynite tells Jane Ridley how her ex, Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, left behind a trail of deception — and death.
Taking a deep breath, I pulled my engagement ring out of my pocket and hurled it into the Hudson River. That moment in January was my closure on three years of heartache.
It’s embarrassing, but I was taken in by Paolo. Like his patients — many of whom ended up dead — I was seduced by a false promise.
We met in February 2013 when I worked for NBC and he was the subject of a TV special about how he had developed the science of artificial trachea transplants.
I’m not a believer in love at first sight. But the second our eyes locked, that’s what it felt like. At the time, I was in a vulnerable state. My ex-husband — the father of my daughter, then 9 — was dying of brain cancer. Paolo counseled me on what to say to my daughter.
After a few months of friendship, things became romantic. We vacationed in Venice, Italy, and drank Champagne in a gondola. But I worried about my career, as I’m not supposed to get close to my subjects.
“We’re going to have to wait until the [NBC] story is over,” I told him.
We were apart for two months. But that September, I had surgery for uterine fibroids. He insisted on flying to New York from Europe and arrived at Lenox Hill Hospital with a single red rose, charming my mother as much as he charmed me. This wasn’t some idle fling.
Paolo proposed on Christmas Day, 2013, with a $100,000 diamond ring.
By then, I had a new job at NBC and was very stressed. Paolo said, “I want to surprise you with a wedding in Italy. Just find your dress. I will plan everything else.”
Paolo was contracted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden — which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — and told me that many of his patients were VIPs, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, he said, the Clintons would be coming to the wedding.
He was insistent on a Catholic service, even though we were both divorcees. His friends at the Vatican would “help.”
“I ended up meeting with Pope Francis and he likes me and the work I am doing,” he said. “He offered to marry us himself.”
“Give me a f–king break,” I replied. “You are pulling my leg.”
Paolo explained that the pope, who was another patient of his, wanted to use us as the poster couple to push the church out of old traditions.
The plan was for Francis to marry us at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, on July 11, 2015. We sent out “Save the Dates.” Vladimir Putin was on the list, since Paolo was doing a medical trial in Russia funded by their government. Barack and Michelle Obama were also invited. I spent $10,000 on 300 embossed invitations wrapped in lambskin.
Paolo kept slipping details: Elton John was going to play at a party the night before. Andrea Bocelli and John Legend would perform at the wedding.
But around Thanksgiving 2014, Paolo confessed that doctors at the Karolinska Institute had accused him of scientific misconduct, claiming he lied about the success of his treatment.
“I am being unfairly attacked,” he said. “They are jealous.”
In May 2015, two months before the wedding, it all imploded. One day after I resigned from NBC to move to Paolo’s home in Barcelona, I got an e-mail from a friend — a news story showing that Pope Francis would be in South America the same day as our wedding.
I demanded an explanation from Paolo. He claimed internal politics were rife at the Vatican and the pope’s progressive plan had been “undermined.” When I contacted the Italian castle where he had supposedly booked guest rooms, nobody there knew Paolo’s name.
I confronted him the weekend of May 22, the last time I would ever see him. “Of course the castle staff wouldn’t tell you anything,” he said. “The Secret Service and the Swiss Guard are involved because of all the VIPs.” He then claimed that his surgeon status was a cover for him being a CIA operative.
I called a private investigator the moment he left. Soon, I learned that Paolo was still married to his wife of 29 years — and living in Barcelona with a second woman and two young children.
More details emerged: Seven of the eight patients who received one of his synthetic trachea transplants had died. In 2016, Paolo was under investigation by Swedish prosecutors on suspicion of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm related to three patient deaths in that country. A year later, it was announced that he had been negligent in all the cases, but that a crime could not be proven because the patients might have died anyway. The case is under appeal, and he is still licensed to practice medicine in Europe.
(Macchiarini’s lawyer did not return requests for comment.)
Last month, I had the ring that Paolo gave me appraised. The supposed $100,000 diamond had a re-sale value of $1,000. When I threw it into the river, I recalled the brief phone conversation when I spoke to him for my upcoming documentary. All he said was: “I’m sorry for everything.” But there was no empathy.
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