11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Robert Bierenbaum stood in perfect silence as the verdict was read at his murder trial on Oct. 24, but his appearance spoke volumes. As the jury forewoman pronounced the once-proud plastic surgeon guilty of murdering his wife, Gail Katz Bierenbaum, whose body he is believed to have dumped in the Atlantic Ocean from a plane in the summer of 1985, the defendant turned ashen, while across the courtroom a somber celebration was beginning among members of the victim's family. "We got him, Gail," her brother Steven Katz said moments later on the steps of the state supreme court in Manhattan. "I'm sorry it took us 15 years, but we got him."
So ended the trial of Dr. Robert Bierenbaum, 45, a cruel and exacting husband who lashed out lethally at his wife at the very moment she threatened to leave him. Police never recovered the 29-year-old victim's body or any other physical evidence linking her husband to the crime, leaving prosecutors to argue a circumstantial case. But the evidence was compelling nonetheless, including proof of Bierenbaum's violent temper and a flight log prosecutors say he altered in a botched attempt to hide his actions on the afternoon of his wife's death. In the end it took jurors less than seven hours to find him guilty of second-degree murder. "I won't say I'm surprised," said Steven Katz, 30, after the verdict, "because that would mean I didn't believe...that he was the one who murdered my sister."
Certainly it had never been a secret that Robert and Gail Katz Bierenbaum's three-year marriage was troubled. Gail, a psychology graduate student at the time of her death, was an emotionally vulnerable two-time college dropout when she met Bierenbaum, a handsome doctor so intellectually gifted that he had finished medical school at 22 and spoke several languages. "Gail used to say Bob was very impressive—on paper," says Gail's sister, attorney Alayne Katz, now 42.
But behind the brilliant résumé lurked a dark personality given to violence. Just a month before the couple wed in 1982, Bierenbaum, furious at the attention Gail lavished on her cat, tried to kill the animal by drowning it in a toilet bowl. The following year, as jurors learned during the three-week trial, he caught his wife smoking a cigarette on the balcony of the couple's Upper East Side apartment and choked her until she lost consciousness. "He was having so much trouble reviving her that he had to call 911," psychiatric social worker Marianne DeCesare, a friend to whom Gail later confided the story, told the court on Oct. 5.
But Gail didn't press charges after the incident and, following a brief separation, returned to her husband. "Like a lot of people in unhappy marriages, Gail had one foot in and one foot out," says Alayne.
Born in Brooklyn, Gail was the oldest of three children of the late Emanuel Katz, president of a firm that printed company names on pens and pencils, and his wife, Sylvia, who worked at a card shop the couple owned. When Gail was in fourth grade, she moved with her family to Bellmore in suburban Long Island. After two years at the State University of New York in Albany, she eventually returned to New York City, where she briefly studied dance therapy at New York University and ended up working as a secretary at an advertising agency. In 1979, at 23, she attempted suicide by slashing her wrists after a breakup with a boy-friend. "She wasn't happy with where she was in life," says Alayne.
Then, two years later, a friend introduced Gail Katz to Bierenbaum, the son of a well-to-do physician from New Jersey. The two moved in together and were soon engaged to be married—a commitment Gail was unwilling to break even after the incident involving her cat. As the relationship progressed, Bierenbaum asked Gail to quit her job, told her to dress more conservatively and pressed her to finish college—which she did, completing a bachelor's degree in psychology at Hunter College in Manhattan. "He was a terrible control freak," says Steven, now a financial advisor. "But Gail was an eternal optimist. Maybe she thought she could change some of his ways."
After Bierenbaum nearly strangled her in 1983, Gail was urged to get out of the marriage by a psychiatrist whom she and Robert had seen. According to witnesses at the trial, Gail came to the same decision herself about a year later. By that time, she had had at least two affairs and the marriage seemed irretrievably broken. "She wasn't without blame," says Alayne. "None of which rises to the level of murder." In fact, Alayne testified that by the morning of July 7, 1985, the day she was killed, Gail was preparing to leave her husband and was considering moving in with her latest love. She chatted with a friend on the phone at 10:30 a.m.; when another friend called 40 minutes later, Robert said Gail wasn't available.
Bierenbaum later told police his wife had stormed out of their Manhattan apartment following an argument and never returned. But he did not report her missing for 30 hours. Although he initially cooperated with investigators, he abruptly stopped speaking to police after they questioned him about the cat and strangulation episodes a few days later. It would be another year before cops discovered that Bierenbaum had rented a Cessna 172 for a two-hour flight over the Atlantic from an airport in Caldwell, N.J. But at the time, with no body and no sign of a struggle at the Bierenbaum apartment—which police failed to search until months after Gail's disappearance—the investigation came to a standstill.
Bierenbaum, who began dating again within three weeks, started a new life, first in Las Vegas and then in Minot, N.Dak., where he was running a successful plastic surgery practice. He was living with his new wife, obstetrician Janet Chollet, and their 2-year-old daughter, when he was finally indicted for the 15-year-old murder last December, after investigators learned that he had altered a date in the flight log to make it appear that his mystery flight had taken place a month later than it actually had. After the guilty verdict—Bierenbaum will be sentenced Nov. 12—Alayne Katz credited New York police detective Thomas O'Malley, who continued to investigate on his own time, for keeping the case alive. "He never gave up," she says.
Nor did the victim's family. For years after her daughter was last seen alive, Gail's mother, Sylvia Katz, periodically left messages on Bierenbaum's answering machine, calling him a murderer. Sylvia, like her husband, Emanuel, died of cancer before their daughter's killer was brought to justice, but her surviving children fully appreciate the vindication that she was denied. Said Alayne after the verdict: "I don't ever want to talk about Robert Bierenbaum again. He got what he deserved."
Sharon Cotliar and Steve Erwin in New York City