Amber English was looking for a new job when her mother said their neighbor, the silver-haired doctor, was hiring.
Then 26, English started as a medical assistant for Dr. William Dando in the spring of 2012, helping him with laser surgeries and other cosmetic procedures he had begun performing at his longtime family practice on Frederick Road in Catonsville. But something didn't seem quite right — she felt uncomfortable around him and noticed that he flirted with patients.
She learned more from a departing colleague who texted: "I think you might want to take a look at this." Attached was a link to a news article from Dando's days as a medical resident in Florida some 25 years earlier, showing that he had been convicted of following a woman home, climbing through her kitchen window and raping her at gunpoint.
Though the article could be found on the Internet with just a few keystrokes, Dando's criminal past was unknown to state health officials until this spring, when a patient at an urgent-care center near Cumberland accused him of an April sexual assault over which he has been indicted.
Now, as Dando prepares to stand trial for those allegations, new details from a Baltimore Sun investigation show that on at least five separate occasions, state health regulators, a medical certification board and employers either did not investigate his past or did not see any red flags when they looked — enabling him to continue practicing.
Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein has acknowledged that Dando wouldn't have received a medical license from the state had officials known details of the rape conviction when he applied in 1996.
That conviction went unnoticed when he applied for a University of Maryland residency program, earned board certification and obtained a state medical license. It never came up when the state put Dando's license on probation for writing improper prescriptions. And it didn't raise an alarm when his most recent employer, MedExpress Urgent Care Center, conducted a background check.
"How in God's name does someone like this get a license to practice medicine?" said Edward Delaney, a Cumberland lawyer representing the 41-year-old Allegany County woman whose accusation prompted the recent criminal charges against Dando.
Neither Dando nor his lawyer, Steven Friend of Cumberland, responded to requests for comment. Dando, 60, has pleaded not guilty to charges related to the April incident; his trial is scheduled for Wednesday in Allegany County.
Another woman sued Dando, claiming a similar assault last year, and health officials say another woman complained that Dando touched her inappropriately in January, making at least three allegations of sexual assault in the past year from the 60-year-old's patients at the urgent-care center where he worked.
Meanwhile, the Dando case has raised questions about how well the state of Maryland knows the doctors it's licensing. It has also prompted soul-searching among state regulators and his former employer.
Reforms are being drafted to tighten up a state licensing system that Board of Physicians Chairman Dr. Devinder Singh said relies too heavily on the assurances of applicants rather than stringent checks. A requirement to subject physicians to regular background checks is likely to come in the 2015 General Assembly session, Singh said.
Regulators never looked into Dando's vague disclosure that he had "assaulted someone." State officials don't know why that happened, though an inspector general's investigation into the matter began in June.
Dando's disclosure was a far cry from his contrite statements years earlier, as he waited for a Florida judge to impose a sentence for the rape.
"I think that whatever your judgment, it will be less than what I deserve," Dando told the judge at the September 1987 hearing, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "Had it been another era, it could have meant my life."
A crime in Florida
Born in 1954 in the western New York hamlet of Pavilion, Dando studied medicine a long way from the Finger Lakes — at the Escuela Autonoma de Ciencias Medicas de Centroamerica, in San Jose, Costa Rica. He graduated in December 1985 and moved to Florida with his wife of six years and two young daughters, accepting a family medicine residency at what was then known as Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
But he never finished his training there. Although the internship began in June 1986 and was to last a year, a hospital personnel record shows that the end date was crossed out and replaced with the word "RESIGNED" and the date "12/11/86" — one week after an Ocoee, Fla., woman said Dando forced himself on her.
Dando had traveled more than 200 miles from Miami to Orlando for a three-day state licensure exam, but the stress of the grueling process was getting to him, according to Orlando Sentinel reports on court proceedings. He spent the night of Dec. 3, 1986, downing beers at a strip club, and after leaving, followed a woman on her way home from picking up her young daughter.
At 1:22 a.m., the woman heard the sound of a bottle cap falling to her kitchen floor, dropped as a man climbed in the window. She didn't know it yet, but he had cut her phone wires, according to police documents obtained by The Sun through a public records request.
"Who's there?" she asked, according to her account to police.
"You don't know me," Dando answered.
When she screamed, he threatened to hurt her or her daughter. He pointed a gun at her and told her to take off her clothes. When she did it too slowly, he did it for her, she said in the report.
As he raped her, he asked questions, she told police. Where did she work? How old was she? "He stated that I was married and wanted me to confirm that," she said.
"During one of his conversations, I asked him why he had the gun," she wrote in curvy cursive handwriting. "He said it was his security. I asked him what my security was and he said I had none."
He kept the gun aimed at her as he asked for Vaseline, and after hesitating, he went to the bathroom to get it — and the woman made her escape. She got a glimpse of his face in the bathroom mirror before running down the hallway, screaming for help.
In his rush to flee, Dando left a key piece of evidence on her bedroom floor: his wallet. In a matter of hours, an Orange County, Fla., sheriff arrested him.
At his Aug. 31, 1987, sentencing hearing, Orange County Circuit Judge Rom Powell called the incident "one of the most tragic cases to come before this court" and "one of the most difficult sentences I've had to impose."
State guidelines suggested a prison sentence of 12 to 17 years for burglary and sexual battery with the threat of a deadly weapon. But a guilty plea from a remorseful Dando, a letter of apology he sent to the victim and 41 supportive letters from his relatives and friends prompted the judge to limit the sentence to 10 years.
Dando wasn't imprisoned that long, though. As a sex offender, he was ineligible for parole. But he was a model inmate, with no disciplinary sanctions. He worked as a canteen manager and later an administrative clerk at several prisons, according to Florida corrections records. In most months, he shortened his sentence by 20 days for good behavior.
He was a free man on May 15, 1991, and back to medicine — in Maryland — soon after.
No questions asked
Within two years of his release from prison, Dando was treating patients as a resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. When he finished the residency in 1996, he was licensed to practice medicine on his own in Maryland.
It's unlikely that any background check was conducted when Dando applied and was accepted for the residency, officials at the Association of American Medical Colleges said. Such checks weren't automatically performed at that time, and employment screenings varied by hospital.
University of Maryland Medical System officials declined to provide any of Dando's personnel records and said they did not know what residency application protocols were at the time. A spokeswoman said background checks into criminal records and credentials are now routine.
Being "of good moral character" is the first qualification Maryland law requires of doctors, but the code doesn't bar aspiring physicians based on any particular crimes. Instead, it asks applicantsto list past arrests, charges and convictions on licensure applications and takes them at their word.
Dando's admission to the Board of Physicians that he had once "assaulted someone" while under the influence of alcohol landed him in an alcohol abuse treatment program for physicians in 1993 when he started his residency, state health officials said.
But such an admission should also trigger an investigation before a license is awarded, officials said.
That background check never occurred, a misstep that is now the subject of the inspector general's probe.
Dando's early years practicing did not raise any red flags. He and his wife bought a home on Hunter Way, across the street from Catonsville High School, in 1998, and in 2000 he established a family practice just a mile and a half away at the Catonsville Professional Center, tucked behind a McDonald's on Frederick Road.
After a divorce in 2003 — his wife accused him of adultery and abandonment — he moved to another part of the town and remarried.
The American Board of Family Medicine certified Dando in 1997, and he held the distinction until Maryland officials suspended his license in June. That board does not conduct its own background checks, instead relying on the seals of approval of residency programs and state licensing boards. The family medicine board requires doctors to participate in ongoing educational activities and pass an all-day written exam once every 10 years, as well as have an unrestricted and active medical license.
Some patients said he never raised concern.
"He was always very courteous and very nice," said Anna Mae Stuples, whose daughter had been a patient of Dando's for a decade when she suggested her mother see him. Referring to revelations about his past and the recent accusations, she added, "It seems like they're talking about somebody else."
Others who knew Dando described him as a bohemian free spirit.
Mary Mitchell, a neighbor on Harbor Wood Road, where Dando lived with his second wife, said parties held at his home were rowdy. "It just got out of hand. It was 2 a.m. and it was like you were down at the harbor at a concert at Pier Six."
Before long, trouble surfaced for Dando.
In 2009, the Maryland Board of Physicians charged him with failing to meet proper standards of medical care and failing to keep adequate medical records. Its investigation revealed missteps involving seven patients. For one, medical investigators said, he repeatedly wrote prescriptions for Xanax, a commonly abused anti-anxiety drug, even as the patient suffered seizures and became suicidal while on the medication. His license was placed on probation in April 2010.
Dando maintained his board certification even while on probation because the sanctions did not violate the board's policies, said Robert Cattoi, spokesman for the American Board of Family Medicine.
About that time, one of Dando's patients died of a prescription drug overdose, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit the woman's family filed against him in 2013. The lawsuit alleges that Dando began prescribing narcotics including Percocet and oxycodone to the Dundalk woman, Grace Elliot, in 2003, and continued through at least 2009 despite concerns from her and her family that she was addicted to the drugs. Early in her treatment, in August 2003, Elliot wrote Dando a letter saying she "just can't stop this medication," the lawsuit said.
Dando denied responsibility in a court filing.The trial, twice postponed, is now scheduled for June 2015.
Dando had meanwhile been contracted to provide breast and cervical cancer screenings for the Baltimore County Health Department from 2001 to 2004 and again from 2008 to 2010, but the relationship was terminated when officials learned that his license was on probation, according to state health officials.
Patients and neighbors said they noticed changes in Dando amid the turmoil.
"We thought a lot of him, but at the same time he was getting a little too liberal with some of the medicines he was giving me," said patient Missy Blucher. She said he prescribed as much as 40 milligrams of Valium each day for her post-traumatic stress disorder, and told her he gave other patients more. Typical daily dosages can range from 4 milligrams to 40 milligrams, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
In 2011, Dando began expanding his business into cosmetic procedures, but the Catonsville practice didn't last much longer. Around March 2013, he told his staff the office was closing. English, the medical assistant, said the move didn't surprise her, given signs the business was struggling. Patients said there were frequent insurance billing problems.
Dando filed for personal bankruptcy in October, listing $2.1 million in liabilities — including potential damages from the wrongful-death lawsuit of $1 million or more. Among his $742,000 in assets was the Harbor Wood Road home, a home in Western Maryland and a timeshare at a Marriott resort in Aruba. A bankruptcy judge discharged the case in February, releasing Dando from his debts. Medical equipment, including two laser machines, was sold in an online auction in March that netted $32,000.
A new job at MedExpress in LaVale offered a fresh start for Dando last year. The company had expanded rapidly, growing from locations in four states in 2011 to nearly a dozen states this year. As part of its hiring process, it contracted with a third party to conduct background checks of Dando and all employees — a system it is scrutinizing to see where improvements can be made, spokeswoman Kelly Sorice said.
But less than a year after Dando's hire, the company said it fired him when a woman told police he performed a pelvic exam behind a locked door, without a female chaperone present. She was visiting the facility over concerns of an ear infection, Delaney, the woman's lawyer, said. Dando examined the woman without wearing gloves, asking her "if it hurt or felt good," she told investigators, according to a Board of Physicians order suspending Dando's medical license in June.
The board investigation revealed in June that another woman had complained Dando touched her inappropriately. Last month, a third woman made similar allegations in a lawsuit filed in Allegany County Circuit Court.
Soon, state health leaders expect to recommend policy changes designed to close loopholes that allowed Dando to continue practicing medicine in Maryland despite a conviction and serious claims of misconduct. Health officials will likely recommend that background checks occur at the time a physician is licensed and at some intervals thereafter, said Singh, chairman of the physicians board and a plastic surgeon at University of Maryland Medical Center.
"While most physicians have the moral character to tell the truth, it's particularly in the cases of individuals who have committed egregious crimes that they may not tell the truth," Singh said. "It almost defeats the point."
• Dec. 4, 1986 — An Orange County, Fla., sheriff arrests William Dando after his wallet is found in the home of a woman who said she was raped at gunpoint. He is later convicted of rape.
• May 15, 1991 — Dando is released from a Florida prison after serving less than half of a 10-year prison sentence.
• June 28, 1996 — Maryland grants Dando a license to practice medicine after he completes a residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Though he told regulators he had assaulted someone while under the influence of alcohol in the past, they did not investigate his background.
• August 2000 — Dando establishes his own family medicine practice on Frederick Road in Catonsville.
• April 28, 2010 — The Maryland Board of Physicians places Dando on probation on charges he gave substandard care to several patients, including writing improper prescriptions for painkillers.
• May 2013 — After closing his Catonsville practice, Dando moves to Allegany County and begins working at a MedExpress Urgent Care Center just west of Cumberland.
• April 6, 2014 A woman tells police Dando sexually assaulted her in a locked examination room at MedExpress; he is indicted six weeks later. State health officials suspend his medical license and launch an investigation after his past rape conviction is revealed. He is slated to stand trial for the alleged assault on Wednesday.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun