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tv   Nightline  ABC  February 13, 2021 12:37am-1:07am PST

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this is "nightline." >> tonight, a whirlwind romance. >> it was a constant shower of flowers and gifts. we went to london, we went to mexico, russia, the bahamas twice, greece. >> i love you, my love. >> love you. >> swept off her feet by a starn surgeon. >> the george clooney type of feel, sexy. >> a wedding fit for loyalty. >> john legend was going to be playing during the ceremony. the beckhams. the obamas. >> but when the fairytale came crashing down, how far did his web of lies go? >> if we don't do anything, a lot of people will die. nicorette knows, quitting smoking is hard. you get advice like: try hypnosis... or...
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♪ thanks for joining us. from the moment their eyes met, it was electric. a journalist and a renowned doctor who was said to perform miraculous surgeries and claimed he kept company with the pope. but when their fairytale wedding ballooned into absurd fantasy, she tracked him down to europe and couldn't believe what she found. >> he was the closest thing to prince charming.
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>> reporter: bonita alexander, a seasoned television producer, thought she'd met the love of her life. a handsome doctor. >> the world's most famous surgeon. >> that george clooney type of feel, sexy. >> reporter: who swept her off her feet. >> it was like living a fairytale. >> reporter: the man of her dreams was actually spinning a web of lies. that she and countless others were caught up in. >> this is a man who has people's lives in his hands. a haley regarded doctor and surgeon. people could be dying. >> reporter: bonita first met dr. paolo macreenie when she was assigned to do a story on him. >> breakthrough, a report a doctor has found a way to grow a new wind pipe -- >> a surgical first that could offer new hope -- >> reporter: he developed a technique to replace a patient's trachea with a plastic tube seeded with the patient's own stem cells. one of his patients, a toddler from korea named hanna, who was
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being brought to the u.s. so dr. macareni could operate on her. >> she was born with no trachea, hospitalized from the day she was born. she was going to be the youngest person ever to get one of these artificial tracheas. >> reporter: the doctor held a post at the karolinska institute in sweden which hands out the nobel prize. >> did i think he was going to be part of my life? no, absolutely not. >> reporter: until she started falling for him. >> we met the afternoon before we were going to interview him. and it was -- it was the weirdest thing. he comes around the corner, looks right at me. in that second, something happened. i mean, i got the sort of chill through my body. >> reporter: bonita was a reporter doing a documentary on paolo, but she couldn't stop her feelings for him. >> it was really difficult. because i was fall income love with somebody that i was doing a story about, which you are not supposed to do. if you get involved with somebody, your objectivity could be compromised.
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i agonized about it. >> reporter: bonita was divorced. paolo said he was separated from his wife but the divorce wasn't legal yet. still, she agreed to go to italy with him. >> all the way to venice by motor boat. >> he was taking me to venice. the whole trip was so romantic. just over the top romance. everything. the food, the flowers, the dinners. >> she had finally met the person that she was supposed to be with. >> he would record these little video love messages to me. >> i cannot stop thinking of you. especially proud that you are mine. i love you so very much. >> i was very hesitant to introduce paolo to my daughter. i wanted to be absolutely sure that this was someone that i wanted to keep in my life. she thought he was amazing. wooing her was as important to him as wooing me. >> my two beautiful girls. >> we were his princesses.
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it was like living a fairytale. >> reporter: paolo proposed at christmas, giving her a ring he said cost $100,000. paolo often visited new york where bonita and her daughter lived but never stayed long, telling bonita he had to perform surgeries around the world. >> that's when he told me there was this kind of clandestine network who are on call, basically, for these people. he told me that it included the clintons and that he and bill were tight, that they were good friends, that they'd played tennis together. he adds the obamas to this mix. as part of this vip network, he had become one of pope francis' private consulting doctors. >> it sounds crazy, i know. but if anybody fit that bill, paolo fit that bill. >> reporter: bonita says paolo told her he wanted to plan their wedding in italy, adamant they be married in the catholic church. >> and i said, look, aside from the fact that i'm not catholic,
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the catholic church is not going to marry two divorcees. >> reporter: paolo told her he would use his personal connection to the pope to see what he could do. >> he said, he offered to marry us himself. and i said, [ bleep ]. the pope doesn't marry people. no, i'm serious, he wants to marry us, because we're both divorcees he thinks we're the perfect couple to push forward his forward-thinking agenda to reform the catholic church. i said, okay, maybe it's not out of the question. i felt my head was spinning and didn't stop spinning. >> reporter: paolo told her andrea bocelli and john legend would perform at the wedding. >> the guest list kept growing and growing. the beckhams. the obamas. >> the clintons. >> for some reason russell crowe was on the list. >> reporter: but while the wedding planning was kicking into high gear, bonita said paolo was becoming increasingly
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tense about work. >> he had been talking to me for some time about how there were people that were against him, his enemies. >> reporter: and one morning she woke up and read in the "new york times" that colleagues at the karolinska institute were accusing him of scientific misconduct. >> i'm like, what the hell is going on, why didn't you tell me? >> reporter: paolo headed up a research lab at the karolinska institute, one of europe's top-ranked medical universities, and had performed three trachial facilities at its hospital. several doctors who worked alongside paolo, some tending to the patients he had implanted with new tracheas, started voicing concerns about the new procedure. in particular, they took issue with the way he'd written them up in medical journals. >> we went through six of paolo's articles. we could show that there was lies and falsifications. >> reporter: they filed an official complaint with the university. >> this was bad. it was all over the news. he was insanely stressed.
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i've never seen him like that. he was adamant that this was going to go away, and there was no basis to these allegations, and it was just these jealous colleagues of his who were out to get him. and i believed he was being unfairly maligned. >> reporter: on top of that, little hanna, the subject of bonita's documentary, never made it out of the hospital after her surgery. >> i was devastated. i had become very close to her family. it was awful. paolo was really depressed. >> reporter: but they were still forging ahead with the wedding. and bonita and her daughter made plans to move to barcelona to live with paolo. bonita quit her television job and pulled her daughter out of her private school. >> the place where you and i will live the rest of our life. i love you. >> i had asked a group of girlfriends to go to the spa. i'm walking to the reception desk to pay.
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i pull out my phone. i see this email. the subject line says "the pope." and it's from a colleague and it says, we need to talk. and it has a link to an article that shows that the pope is not going to be in rome on july 11th, he's going to be in south america. i actually literally almost physically fell over. >> reporter: bonita started investigating paolo the way she would investigate her stories at work. she hired private investigators in the u.s. and italy. >> i called the castle where he says he's booked rooms and everybody's saying they've never heard of him. i called the restaurant he said was catering the wedding, they say they've never heard of anything. >> reporter: bonita managed to get the vatican to verify paolo was not the pope's personal doctor. she called in a clinton contact and found out they'd never heard of paolo. she couldn't find any evidence that the obamas knew him either. on top of it all, heartbreak.
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just weeks before their wedding, the italian investigator found records that paolo and his wife were still married. coming up, the shocking discovery and a confrontation. >> i knew there was something hidden in that house in barcelona. and i thought, the only way i'm going to find out what it is, is to go there and for him to not know that i'm going there. ♪ ♪ hi. so you're the scientist here. does my aveeno® daily moisturizer really make my dry skin healthier in one day? it's true jen. this prebiotic oat formula moisturizes to help prevent dry skin. impressive! aveeno® healthy. it's our nature.™ try the body wash, too. for people living with h-i-v, keep being you. and ask your doctor about biktarvy. biktarvy is a complete, one-pill,
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(beeping sound) ♪ ♪ ♪ save on select new volvo models during our presidents day sales event, now through march 1st. ♪ i ordered myself a glass of champagne on the plane, toasted myself at 6:00 p.m. when we were supposed to get married, and cried. >> reporter: on the week she was supposed to marry the love of her life, bonita alexander flew
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to barcelona with her friends, determined to discover how deep dr. paolo macarini's deception went. >> we're in barcelona, getting ready to do a little road trip. >> also known as a stakeout. >> we decided that i was going to wear this blond wig. we'd drive by the house. and i'm watching behind, all of a sudden i see somebody. so i yell to my friends, somebody's there. and they jump out of the car, and they walk down the hill. >> reporter: it was paolo, and he was not in russia like he said. >> i'm in the car, my heart is pounding. i saw him come down the steps with his dog. [ bleep ], he's there. >> i was angry as hell, angry as hell. >> [ bleep ] you, [ bleep ] you! you lying [ bleep ] sack of [ bleep ], yeah, i see you and your white shirt and your black shorts and your gray hair, [ bleep ] you! >> as i'm videotaping this, i see a woman. and two kids.
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from what i could tell, he had a whole family there. so we ring the doorbell. and he answers the door. >> hola. >> and he's like, why are you here? and we're like, oh, we wanted to give you a gift, you know, for the wedding. for the wedding that never happened, basically. >> oh, thank you so much. >> just a little something. >> yeah. >> we know how busy you are. >> that's okay, that's fine, thank you so much. >> his eyes, his eyeballs, he was looking down. and they were going brrrr! like he was calculating, he was trying to figure out what lie he told and what he was going to say next. >> if i see him walk back up the stairs -- i mean, my friends open the car door. i'm -- not even crying, i'm
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wailing. >> [ bleep ], [ bleep ], [ bleep ], [ bleep ], [ bleep ] you! >> the last time i ever saw him was when he turned around and walked up those stairs to go to his house in barcelona. i decided to text him. i basically sent him this long text, telling him that i new he was lying about everything, and he makes me sick. he writes back one word. "wow." that's all he said, wow. i was devastated. i was shattered. >> reporter: benita wondering what else paolo could have lied about, emailed karolinska institute. >> i wrote them two emails and basically just said, you know, this man isn't who he seems to be. this man, he doesn't walk on
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water. >> reporter: turns out paolo's professional life was in deeper jeopardy than benita knew. colleagues and journalists were beginning to ask more questions, and a reporter for "vanity fair" began to investigate. >> i did a pretty deep dive, and i pulled every cv i could find from any conference he had ever been at, any medical institution that had ever had him. i actually put them on a giant spread sheet. i knew the timing didn't make sense. he would have to have been in multiple places at the same time. >> reporter: paolo also claimed he had a master's degree from the university of alabama in bio statistics. while also doing a fellowship in thoracic surgery. >> and i remember calling down there. the guy's like, no degree in biostatistics. okay? cross that one off. then he said, yeah, no fellowship in thoracic surgery.
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>> reporter: "vanity fair" also found paolo misrepresented his status as a professor at the university of italy, and that some of his italian colleagues were aware of this. >> this guy had falsified his qualifications, his work experien experience, yet was going around the world performing human experiments, masquerading as cutting-edge operations. >> reporter: weeks after the magazine article, an investigative documentary about paolo aired on swedish television. >> i'm working for the university. and we are trying to create new organs. frankenstein. >> reporter: the documentary raised a number of questions about paolo's techniques, and it showed footage of him admitting to an issue with a patient's artificial trachea while still forging ahead with another surgery. the documentary also told the personal stories of patients who had died.
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paolo claimed the synthetic trachea did not shorten the lives of any of his patients, nor cause their deaths. instead pointing the finger at their underlying health conditions, saying they were fatal and may have been a factor. >> it's difficult, difficult to be attacked, be on the front pages. at least we would have done something wrong, then i would understand it. but -- i believe we didn't. >> the outcry was such that the karolinska institute had to do something. >> reporter: the karolinska institute announces they are not renewing paolo's contract and unwinding his lab. >> then the leadership of the karolinska institute resigns. then the leadership of the nobel prize committee in medicine resigns. and it was like a bomb went off in stockholm. >> reporter: karolinska institute launched multiple new investigations against paolo. they eventually reversed their
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previous findings and found paolo guilty of scientific misconduct. six medical papers he published about the transplants retracted. we reached out to the karolinska institute and they said, it is obvious that karolinska institute's initial handling of this case was insufficient and inadequate on several points. it has also led to extensive reform work internally at karolinska institute in order to improve and clarify a number of regulations and routines. paolo implanted artificial tracheas in a total of eight patients. today only one is still alive. that patient has had their synthetic trachea removed. >> do you still believe in the procedure? >> of course i believe in the technology. and come on, i mean -- the first liver transplant, the first kidney transplant, the first heart transplant, did they go all well? no. if you do something such
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radically new, you expect collision complications. >> if you look at his career, he has made doctors trust him. people get carried away because they see the promise of being part of something fantastic. >> nobody wanted to acknowledge it. there was too much everything. he was too big to fail in medicine, until he had lied too much in his personal life. >> reporter: paolo has never publicly commented on his relationship with benita and didn't respond to any of our requests for comment on this story. >> i do still believe in love. have always been a hopeless romantic, always will be. >> i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you. >> i'm really afraid to let somebody in there again. >> and we'll be right back with "the final note." (quiet piano music)
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♪ we should note that last september, swedish prosecutors indicted paolo macchiarini on charges of aggravated assault relating to three of his surgeries at carolyn ski university hospital. he has not yet entered a plea but he's completely denied all
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the charges. a court date has yet to be set. of course you can watch the full "20/20" episode on abcnews.com and hulu. that's "nightline." thanks for staying up with us.s. good night, america. it's time for the ultimate sleep number event on the sleep number 360 smart bed. you can both adjust your comfort with your sleep number setting. can it help me fall asleep faster? yes, by gently warming your feet. but, can it help keep me asleep?

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