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Bail denied for Ariz. surgeon accused of helping drug dealer

| Thursday, June 28, 2007

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A plastic surgeon charged with trying to help a drug dealer avoid apprehension by surgically removing his fingerprints was ordered to remain in jail Wednesday by a judge who said he is likely to flee to Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane's order superseded a May decision by a federal magistrate judge in Tucson, Ariz., to release Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias on bonds totaling $100,000. That decision had been stayed until the outcome of Wednesday's hearing in Harrisburg.

"There's no exact science here," Kane said in explaining the reasons behind her decision.

Covarrubias, a U.S. citizen who lives in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., and practices his medical specialty in neighboring Nogales, Mexico, is being held at the Adams County jail in Gettysburg pending a trial scheduled to begin Aug. 6 in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

Covarrubias, 49, has been indicted on suspicion of involvement with a drug ring that federal prosecutors say conspired to buy marijuana from Tucson and other sources and distribute more than a ton of it in central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and other areas. Thirty-four defendants have been charged, and most have pleaded guilty or are expected to, prosecutors say.

The charges — conspiring to distribute marijuana and being an accomplice and accessory after the fact to marijuana dealing — stem from surgery he performed on a Jamaican man to replace his fingerprints with skin from his feet.

The co-defendant was arrested on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking after he attempted to re-enter the United States in September 2005.

In an interview after his arrest, Covarrubias admitted that he performed the fingerprint procedure on five people, including his co-defendant, and that he was aware that all of them were wanted by the law, Ballou said.

Covarrubias' attorney, Tucson lawyer Stephen G. Ralls, argued that his client should be released because he has been a plastic surgeon for 17 years, is respected in his community and has no criminal record. Also, Ralls said, there is no evidence that Covarrubias participated in a drug conspiracy or was aware of one.

"He has a spotless history of obeying the law," Ralls said.

U.S. Attorney William Behe said the doctor aided the conspiracy by using his highly specialized skills to help people he knew were fugitives from justice. He said the doctor's ties to the United States are trumped by his connection to Mexico.

"His livelihood is in Mexico," Behe said.

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