“She's not with me, and she's not with my parents, and at that moment I know that my sister's dead.”
- Alayne Katz, Gail's sister
It was the 7th of July 1985. A Sunday. At around 6.30pm, Robert Bierenbaum, a plastic surgeon, arrived at his sister's house in Montclair, New Jersey, United States alone. It was his nephew's birthday and his sister was having a party for him. She invited her brother Robert and his wife, Gail Katz, to the party. Robert told his sister and his father that Gail wasn't with him as he and Gail had an argument earlier that day. According to Robert, Gail left their apartment in Manhattan at around 11am to go to Central Park and she wasn't home by the time he left to go to the party. So he went without her.
On the way home from the party, Robert stopped off at the home of his friend, Dr Scott Baranoff, and by that stage, he appeared to be in a distressed state and called the landline at his apartment multiple times. There was no answer. Robert told Scott that he and Gail argued that morning and she left wearing just shorts, a halter top and sandals and he hadn't spoken to her since.
Robert returned to his apartment in Manhattan. Gail wasn't there. He phoned her former psychology teacher, Dr Yvette Feis, and told her about the argument. He informed Yvette that Gail left earlier that day to go to Central Park to sunbathe. Yvette told him to tell police and to ask the doorman at their apartment complex if he saw Gail. He told her that he would.
Robert and Gail
The next night, the 8th of the July, at 9pm, Robert made contact with Detective Vergilio Dalsass for the first time. Robert informed him that Gail left their apartment at 11am the day before and he had not seen or heard from her since. Robert told the Detective that he waited for Gail in the apartment all day until 5.30pm but she never returned home. He told him that he left at 5.30pm to go to his sister's house for his nephew's party.
As Robert was the last known person to see Gail, the Detective asked him to make sure he would provide him with all the details he could so that they could try to find her. Robert told him that Gail had previously tried to take her own life. Robert also told friends that he was worried that Gail may have harmed herself. He told them that her therapist, Dr Sybil Baran, told him that she was suicidal.
A search began for Gail but police had little to work with. The police tried to get more details about Gail from Robert and in the days after Robert reported her missing, they left multiple messages on Robert's phone asking him to make contact with them but he only returned their call on the 10th of July. Robert called Detective O'Malley and asked him how the investigation was going. He agreed to meet him three days later to go over the details again about the last day he saw Gail.
Police began to suspect that Robert knew more than he was prepared to say. A number of things troubled them. On the 14th of July, some of Gail's friends, including a good friend named Maryann DeCesare were out searching for Gail and posting missing poster signs around the area and Robert told her that he thought Gail went on a week long shopping spree to Bloomingdales. On another occasion he told Gail's mother that:
“I wonder why the cat got sick. I had to take the rug out to be cleaned.”
They thought that was strange. Some of the details he provided about that day, the 7th of July, varied too depending on who he spoke to. He didn't tell police that he and Gail argued on the Sunday morning before Gail left at 11am even though that was what he told his own family and some friends. He told police they argued the night before she disappeared. When asked what they argued about, he told them it was about finances. But he claimed that things were fine afterwards and he prepared a romantic dinner for Gail when they got back to their apartment the night of the 6th of July and that Gail went to Central Park the next morning at 11am. Police asked him a number of times to make sure that he told them everything about the 7th of July and what he did that day. He repeatedly told them that he remained in the apartment all day until he left to go to the party at 5.30pm. Yet, that was in stark contrast to what he told Gail's friends. He told them that he searched for Gail in Central Park that day between 11am and 5.30pm. He told them that he found her towel and suntan oil in the park. Despite that being hugely relevant to Gail's disappearance, he never shared that information with the police.
Robert and Gail
Robert told the Detective that he spoke to the doorman at their apartment complex and the doorman recalled seeing Gail leave at 11am and did not see her return. But when police spoke to him, he said that he didn't see Robert or Gail that day.
Furthermore, when Detective Dalsass asked if he could look around the apartment in July after Gail was first reported missing, Robert only responded to him about that request on the 12th of September and did not let him inside until the 30th of September and that permission was given on a limited basis and police were not permitted to check for blood or hair samples.
With suspicion growing about Robert's possible involvement in Gail's disappearance, police looked into the state of their marriage and discovered that things were far from perfect. Their relationship was described as toxic by those who knew them. It wasn't always toxic though. Gail and Robert met in the early 80s when Gail was still in college and when Robert was a surgical resident in Manhattan. Robert pulled out all the stops to impress Gail. He was a pilot and liked to take potential new girlfriends on a short flight for a date. He impressed her as he spoke multiple languages and seemed very romantic. Their relationship was even described as magical at the start. But that all changed and they began to argue more and more frequently in the months leading up to Gail's disappearance.
Gail's sister, Alayne Katz, told police that she observed Robert shoving food into her sister’s mouth at a restaurant one time and it greatly disturbed her. Police discovered that that was just one of a number of troubling incidents. Friends and family found him to be controlling and Gail told a neighbor that she didn't feel comfortable at home. Gail had reported one incident to police but nothing came of it. It related to an allegation she made that Robert choked her into unconsciousness when he caught her smoking on the balcony. Gail stayed with Robert after Robert agreed to go to a psychiatrist but the psychiatrist later sent her a letter warning her that Robert may end up killing her.
Just before Gail was reported missing, she met someone else and had made the decision to leave Robert. She told a friend that she planned to tell him that she was leaving and wanted a divorce on the 7th of July. She told the friend that if he refused to divorce her and agree to a settlement, she would make it clear to him that she would use the letter, the one she received from his psychiatrist warning her of the danger he posed to her, and show it to his colleagues. Police believed that all the circumstantial evidence made it appear that Robert was responsible for Gail's disappearance. But there was one problem. Gail had not been found.
The search continued for Gail and her family and friends continued trying to find out what happened to her. But Robert didn't seem concerned. He spent a lot of time in the Hamptons, he went to a number of parties and began dating women. In September 1985, a woman named Dr Roberta Karnofsky moved in with him into the marital home and they were in relationship for a year. During that time, no trace of Gail was found and no arrests were made.
Despite the fact that no arrests were made, Gail's disappearance was still an open and active investigation and chief investigator Detective Andy Rosenzweig looked at the evidence again. He was aware that Robert loved flying and was a licensed pilot so he decided to check the New Jersey airport and some flight logs. He knew that Robert liked to rent planes from the New Jersey airport. He discovered that he had taken a plane out on the 7th of July 1985. Yet the date on Robert's own flight log had been altered and the date was changed to the day after, the 8th of July. But Detective Rosenzweig was able to establish via the airport records that on the 7th of July, Robert rented a Cessna 172 plane at Caldwell Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, at 4.30pm. He returned it after one hour and fifty six minutes. Why did Robert want to keep that flight a secret?
Robert and Gail
Detective Rosenzweig believed that Robert killed Gail and threw her body into the Atlantic Ocean. His flight time gave him enough time to fly round trip approximately 165 miles over a part of the Atlantic Ocean. But without a body, the DA's office believed there wasn't enough evidence to secure a conviction.
Four years after Gail was reported missing, in May 1989, a torso washed up on Staten Island. At that time, DNA testing wasn't available and an X-ray technician compared an old chest X-ray with the torso and confirmed that it was Gail. The torso was released to her family and they had a burial service for Gail. No charges were brought and Robert moved to Las Vegas. He opened his own plastic surgery practice, continued to date women and was well liked in the area. In 1996, he married Janet Challot and they moved to North Dakota and had a daughter together.
But while Robert had moved on with his life, Detective Rosenzweig couldn't let go of the fact that Gail's disappearance remained unsolved and he took a fresh look at the case. It had been cold for ten years. As DNA forensics was available by then, he asked Gail's family if they would consider exhuming the torso so that they could have it tested. They agreed. The tests showed that it wasn't Gail.
Even though Gail's body had not been found, police and the DA's office believed that the evidence they had was enough and Robert was arrested and charged with second degree murder. He pleaded not guilty.
The case against Robert was entirely circumstantial. There were no eye witnesses, no forensics, no confession and no body was found. Despite that, it was the Prosecution's case that even though the evidence was circumstantial, it was clear and it all pointed to one possibility. Robert murdered Gail. It was their case that he killed Gail in their apartment when he discovered she was leaving him. Police believed he spent hours dismembering Gail's body before taking a plane out over the ocean and dumping the body between Montauk Point, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey.
The Prosecution had to show the Jury that it was physically possible for Robert to dump a body while flying the plane. They believed he acted alone. To show that it was possible, they called four expert witnesses to the stand to testify and prepared a video that demonstrated how a person could do it.
The Jury heard from the four expert witnesses; New York City's Chief Medical Examiner, an experienced New York City Police Pilot, an aviation safety inspector, and an airline transport pilot/flight instructor/FAA flight test examiner. They testified that it was physically possible for Robert, a surgical resident and pilot, to disarticulate a body of Gail's size, 5ft. 3in. tall, weighing 110 lbs., within just ten minutes, pack her dismembered limbs into a flight bag and carry them through an unmonitored rear exit of his apartment building and walk the two blocks to his car. The Jury heard that Robert would have been able to load the flight bag onto the plane without anyone noticing.
They testified that it was possible for him to pilot the Cessna 172 over the Atlantic Ocean and to throw Gail's remains into the ocean. The Court heard that the plane he rented was a relatively easy to operate plane.
The Prosecution provided evidence of a motive to the Jury. The Jury heard about Gail's affair and that she wanted to leave Robert. She had made plans. She had borrowed money. She was determined to leave him that day, the 7th of July. The Court heard that Robert didn't tell anyone, not even his own family, that he went flying on the 7th of July. They were shown the altered flight log that made it appear he went flying the day after.
The Court heard about their toxic relationship and domestic violence allegations. Robert himself in the past had referred to their arguments as severe and explosive. The Court heard he had mentioned hating her in the past too and made references that he wanted to kill her. The Court heard about direct and perceived threats that were made. In the fall of 1983, Gail phoned her cousin, Hillard Wiese, an attorney, at his office and told him that she and Robert had argued. She confided that he choked her and that it wasn't the first time he did so but it was the first time she was rendered unconscious.
On another occasion, Gail and Robert watched a television program about the Von Bulow murder case and Robert said that the problem with Claus Von Bulow is that he left evidence and he would not leave evidence.
The Court also heard from Gail's therapist, Dr Sybil Baran. Robert had told Gail's friends just after she went missing that he was told by her therapist that she was suicidal but Dr Baran testified and told the Jury that she never discussed anything like that with Robert and she did not believe Gail was suicidal.
It was the Defense case that Robert was an innocent man. They alleged that Gail had mental health issues, a drug problem, was dating other men and she was unstable. They called a witness to testify. The witness told the Court that he saw Gail in a bagel shop days after she disappeared. But the Prosecution pointed out to the Jury that the description he gave of the woman he saw did not match Gail's description.
The Jury deliberated for five and a half hours and found Robert guilty of second degree murder. He was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.
He appealed but was unsuccessful.
After serving twenty years of his sentence, at a 2020 parole board hearing, Robert confessed, for the first time, to killing Gail and throwing her body out of an airplane. The Prosecution theory of what happened to Gail was an accurate one. The parole board heard that they argued and he "wanted her to stop yelling at me and I attacked her" and he strangled her and then:
“I went flying. I opened the door and then took her body out of the airplane over the ocean.”
When asked why he killed Gail, he told the parole board that he was immature and didn’t understand how to deal with his anger.
Gail's body has never been found.
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- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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