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Six women testify against doctor

Six women testified in Douglas County Circuit Court on Tuesday that Dr. Javier De La Garza of Duluth touched them in inappropriate sexual ways during examinations.

Douglas County Assistant District Attorney James Boughner called the women to testify during a motion hearing held to determine whether the court will allow their testimony at De La Garza's trial on charges of sexual assault as evidence of other acts he allegedly committed.

De La Garza, a gastroenterologist at St. Luke's, is charged with two counts of third-degree sexual assault, both felonies, and one count of fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor, in the alleged assault of a 42-year-old woman. She claims De La Garza touched her in a sexually inappropriate way during examinations and had intercourse with her without her consent on a boat at Barker's Island Marina in 2006.

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De La Garza, 51, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Tuesday's hearing before Douglas County Judge Michael Lucci will continue on May 19 when another woman is scheduled to testify for the prosecution against De La Garza. Lucci then will rule on whether the women's testimony will be admissible at a trial scheduled for

Aug. 11-15.

The witnesses were ordered by the court to not talk to each other Tuesday. They entered the courtroom to testify one at a time with most of them accompanied by family members. Each of the women swore to tell the truth and spelled their full names and provided their dates of birth for the record.

The News Tribune generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

Of the six women who testified Tuesday, De La Garza has been criminally charged with assaulting only one. His alleged victim was the last of the six women to testify. The woman, who is a schoolteacher, said De La Garza touched her sex organs during examinations for a stomach problem. She said he told her he was checking lymph nodes in her vagina. She said it became a routine part of his examinations. She said he didn't wear gloves and didn't wash his hands when he examined her.

Superior defense attorney Rick Gondik asked the woman why she kept "going, going, going'' to De La Garza if she was being abused.

"I trusted him,'' she said. "He was my doctor. It made me feel funny inside, but I trusted him. He was my doctor.''

The woman said she told her husband of the alleged abuse. Gondik asked why her husband wasn't concerned about the alleged abuse. "He questioned it, but he was like me,'' she said. "He trusted that we had a good doctor.''

De La Garza passed written notes to Gondik throughout the daylong hearing. The doctor slowly shook his head from side to side when the women made some of their most serious allegations.

A 26-year-old woman testified that she had never been examined the way De La Garza examined her. She has Crohn's Disease, a disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. "I had never been to a doctor who didn't give you a gown, or wear gloves,'' she said. "I had never been to a doctor who removed my pants for me.''

She said De La Garza spent what seemed like five minutes probing and massaging her breasts. She provided graphic details of how she said the doctor further examined another body part in a painful and needless way. She said De La Garza became defensive when she asked him why he did that. Another woman testified that De La Garza touched her the same way.

Two of the women testified that they saw evidence that De La Garza was sexually aroused during their examinations. All of the women claimed that De La Garza didn't wear gloves during his examinations.

"Of course they're wrong,'' Gondik said outside the courtroom after the hearing. "They're absolutely wrong. But they all have to have some common element in order to try to dovetail one another.''

A 52-year-old woman testified that De La Garza touched both of her breasts during an examination. "I instantly thought that it was inappropriate,'' she testified. Boughner asked her if it could have been an accident. "No, I could tell it was on purpose,'' she said.

Gondik suggested by his questioning that the woman's claim could be linked to the fact that her husband has an ongoing business dispute with De La Garza.

A 39-year-old woman testified that she couldn't remember if she was watching De La Garza in a mirror or actually watching him touch her in a sexually inappropriate way. She talked of seeing a vision of the doctor. She claimed she woke up from anesthesia during a colonoscopy to find the doctor handling her in an inappropriate way. She also said that in her opinion De La Garza was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A 36-year-old registered nurse said she saw De La Garza for irritable bowel syndrome. She said he was charismatic and very caring. But she was "just kind of shocked and confused'' when the doctor moved his hands from her abdomen to between her legs. She said De La Garza said, "Bless your soul. Bless your heart. You poor thing that you have to go through this.''

Another woman testified that De La Garza used similar language with her after touching her in a sexual manner.

Gondik said four of the six women who testified at the hearing -- including the woman De La Garza is criminally accused of sexually assaulting -- are plaintiffs in a malpractice civil lawsuit brought against the doctor.

"I think and thought from day one that this was motivated by cash,'' Gondik said after the hearing. "I can say even more so now after hearing some of the silly and spurious allegations made here. In my humble opinion, some of the allegations were preposterous. You heard witnesses talk about images and visions and basically dreaming stuff up. I say that with no pun intended. It sounds to me exactly like some of this testimony was. It was a product of somebody's overactive imagination.''

Boughner said he couldn't comment on the case because the motion hearing has not been completed.

Gondik said De La Garza has treated more than 7,500 patients in Duluth and had 30,000 to 35,000 office visits. "You have six or seven people here who are having visions and dreams,'' he said. "I hate to use the term statistically irrelevant because it's obviously pretty relevant because we've spent a whole day here, but if this is the best the state can do with its witnesses we don't have too much to be worried about. The state is hoping to throw enough you-know-what on the wall and hoping some of it sticks.''

De La Garza has practiced at St. Luke's since 2004. A gastroenterologist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal tract disorders. He reached an agreement with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice on Sept. 26 to stop practicing medicine while the board investigates complaints against him.

The doctor also is facing a charge of reckless discharge of a firearm within a municipality, fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle and two counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol after a Nov. 30 incident that started as a domestic disturbance at his Congdon Park home.

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