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‘He must have completely fallen apart’: Star surgeon accused of murdering estranged wife

Ingolf Tuerk went from star surgeon to someone prosecutors say has admitted to strangling his estranged wife

A videographer shot footage earlier this month at the home Kathleen McLean shared with Ingolf Tuerk in Dover. Prosecutors said that Tuerk, the former head of urology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, has admitted to strangling McLean and dumping her body in a small pond near the home.
A videographer shot footage earlier this month at the home Kathleen McLean shared with Ingolf Tuerk in Dover. Prosecutors said that Tuerk, the former head of urology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, has admitted to strangling McLean and dumping her body in a small pond near the home.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When Ingolf Tuerk was a young doctor at Charité Hospital in Berlin, a few years after the wall fell, audiences gathered to watch him operate, astonished by his skill. A star athlete turned star surgeon, Tuerk would shape the field of urology through his discipline and determination, pioneering several breakthrough techniques.

“He was a master of the craft," Steffan Loening, then-chair of urology at Charité, recalled of his star protege, who once swiftly repaired a hemorrhaging artery during a radical procedure before a packed gallery that erupted in applause when Tuerk was done. “He must have completely fallen apart.”

Tuerk, 58, is now accused of murdering his estranged wife, Kathleen McLean, 45, in a violent attack culminating months of alleged abuse.

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Prosecutors say that Tuerk, the former head of urology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, has admitted to strangling McLean in the midst of a bitter divorce and dumping her body in a small pond near their home in the affluent Boston suburb of Dover. Found unconscious in a hotel the next day, Tuerk confessed to the crime and led investigators to her body, authorities say.

Those who knew Tuerk professionally said they were stunned by the allegations, that they never could have imagined him capable of such violence. They described him as a cool and collected Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike who enjoyed downhill skiing, cigars, and motorcycles.

But in the past five years, Tuerk’s personal life, never as unblemished as he could make it seem, appeared to unravel, interviews and court records show. He endured a bitter divorce from his second wife, losing custody of his two children and the trappings of an affluent suburban life. And his professional reputation began to publicly implode last year when state investigators found that he had committed billing fraud and he lost his job as chair of urology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. According to friends and court documents, Tuerk seemed to fall into despair, spending his days at home, listless and drinking heavily.

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For a world-renowned surgeon credited with saving many lives, it seemed a stunning fall from grace.

The accounts of his friends, as well as court documents, paint a portrait of a man who reached rare professional heights at an early age and spiraled after his status slipped and his personal life crumbled. They knew nothing of his alleged dark and violent aspect, long hidden from view.

Tuerk pleaded not guilty May 19 in the killing during his arraignment before a Dedham District Court judge, but had previously told investigators he choked McLean until she passed out and disposed of her remains in a Dover pond, according to a police report. Tuerk’s attorney, Howard Cooper, did not respond to a Globe request for comment.

When Tuerk was a teenager in the communist state of East Germany, his talent as a leaper and pole vaulter earned him a spot as an alternate on the 1980 Olympic decathlon team. He went on to graduate with a medical degree from Humboldt University months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and completed his residency at the esteemed Charite Hospital under the watchful eye of Loening, who was on sabbatical from Iowa State University to help rebuild the urology department.

Tuerk quickly mastered the emerging art of laparoscopic prostatectomy, a minimally invasive surgery to remove a cancerous prostate. With just a few keyhole incisions, Tuerk could remove the walnut-size gland and give a patient a new lease on life, all in roughly two hours.

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“Clearly there was much to be learned by someone who got to that level. I’m probably responsible for him ever coming to this country,” said Gerrald Jordan, a urologist in Norfolk, Va. who arranged for Tuerk to teach his new techniques to US doctors for six months in 2001.

When Tuerk arrived, he was married to a nurse he’d met at Charite Hospital in Berlin. The couple had two children, colleagues said. But during his stay in Virginia, he met another woman, whom he married a year later.

Charismatic, accomplished, and with “arms ... as big around as some people’s legs,” Tuerk turned heads whenever he walked into a restaurant, according to Jordan.

“He had so many followers, especially women," recalled Loening, who said he never suspected or heard about any abuse in those relationships. “Like a swarm of mosquitoes, buzzing around him.”

After Norfolk, Tuerk returned to Germany. But word of his surgical acumen spread through the urology world, piquing the interest of John Libertino, chairman of urology at Lahey Clinic in Burlington.

“I was actually blown away. I’ve done about 4,000 radical prostatectomies, but when I saw this I said, ‘That is the way of the future’ and we made every effort to have him join us,” Libertino said.

Libertino, who now works at Emerson Hospital in Concord, said of Tuerk that he “never saw anything in the way of behavior that was disconcerting or concerning."

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"Truthfully, I don’t remember him having the potential or demeanor to do such a heinous thing,” fellow Lahey urologist Leonard Zinman said upon learning about the allegations.

But by the end of his six-year tenure at the Burlington hospital, Tuerk, while still widely respected in the field, had become less of a vanguard figure in the field. Surgeons mastered his calling card, laparoscopic prostatectomy, and robotic-assisted surgery emerged as the next frontier.

“When he came here, nobody really did laparoscopy. It’s still hard to do it as well as he did it, but it became not unique," said Leonid Kotkin, a private urologist and contemporary of Tuerk’s in Massachusetts. “It was the excitement of yesterday.”

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Eager to advance to a chairman position, Tuerk accepted an offer in 2008 to head the urology department at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton.

The hospital capitalized on his stardom, quickly featuring him on a Massachusetts Turnpike billboard promoting robotic surgery at the hospital. In 2012, Tuerk was featured in a video profile posted to Steward Health Care’s YouTube channel that showed him rolling up to the hospital on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and described him as “not your typical surgeon."

Jack Cook was one of Tuerk’s patients interviewed in the Steward video. Over the years of follow-up appointments, the men struck up a casual friendship. They grabbed beers together a couple of times but mostly kept up on Facebook.

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During that time, Tuerk’s second wife filed for divorce in 2015, claiming the marriage was irretrievably broken.

Both Kotkin and Cook said Tuerk fell into a downward spiral around the time of the split.

“His divorce was the most painful experience of his life. It was a very long, consuming process,” Cook said.

The divorce dragged on for more than two years. The couple fought fiercely over their two kids, with Tuerk accusing his wife of being threatening, irrational, and hysterical, limiting his contact with the children, and refusing to agree to a parenting plan.

His wife said in court filings Tuerk had regularly failed to show up for scheduled visits, often leaving their son waiting for hours without explanation. On one occasion, Tuerk brought their daughter home early, saying he had promised his friend Bob they would go motorcycle riding in Rhode Island.

“In reality, Ingolf did not go to Rhode Island,” she wrote. “But rode by our home in Dover with a female on the back of his bike.”

The divorce was finalized on May 3, 2017. She gained primary custody of the children. The seeming perfection of his professional image began to crack.

That November, Tuerk was the target of a malpractice lawsuit filed by Robert Young, a 67-year-old patient who claimed that Tuerk had knowingly failed to fully remove all cancer cells when taking out his prostate. His cancer returned and Young, a husband of 45 years and father of two, died a year after filing the claim. The lawsuit is ongoing.

That same month, Tuerk met McLean, a blue-eyed, red-haired Reiki therapist. A short time later, Tuerk insisted she sell her house and move in with him, McLean wrote in her divorce affidavit. She and her three kids did so five months later.

In the beginning, they appeared happy to have found one another. Tuerk seemed devoted to her and her children and eager to invite her into his life. But in private conversations with friends, McLean confided that he had a massive ego and overbearing nature, which some friends took as warning signs of something more sinister.

“He worked over a lifetime building up that character of a nice guy, all-star surgeon. She and I agreed that he had a severe god complex in our conversations,” said Larry Corcoran, a family friend whom McLean hired as a bodyguard in March after Tuerk became violent with her. “It wasn’t until later down the line that she realized he was a narcissist that had total control over her.”

A close friend of over a decade, who asked not to be identified because McLean’s family had asked them not to speak to the press, likened the environment McLean lived in to the one that Julia Roberts portrayed in the film “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

“The house was totally spotless. He treated her like a slave. He expected her to keep the house hospital-grade clean. Everything had to be in its place,” said the friend, who also said Tuerk regularly monitored his wife’s weight.

McLean’s family and other friends declined to be interviewed, but her obituary describes her as a lover of sunflowers, blue hydrangeas, and warm wool socks and a devoted practitioner of Reiki, a non-invasive alternative approach that stimulates the body’s natural healing process.

Her occupational therapist license expired in August 2019. It was not renewed. McLean later alleged in divorce documents that Tuerk made her quit working when she started living with him in 2018.

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Tuerk’s former colleagues from Norfolk and Lahey said they had not spoken to him in the past few years. But they knew that his sterling professional image was smirched last year, as his relationship with McLean intensified.

Tuerk saw his last patient at St. Elizabeth’s on May 31 of last year according to the hospital.

In November, Tuerk was ordered by the state Attorney General’s office to pay $150,000 for repeatedly improperly billing MassHealth for surgical procedures that never took place and office visits he never showed up for. As part of his settlement, Tuerk agreed to implement a multi-year compliance program at his own expense if he continued to practice medicine.

The next month, Tuerk allegedly turned on McLean inside his Dover home, assessed at $1.7 million.

“I’m the king of the castle,” he told McLean Dec. 7, according to a police report she filed in Dedham District Court. “You are just the guest here."

He then cut a strand of her hair and sliced her hand with the scissors when she raised it to protect herself, McLean later told police.

A week later, the couple got married in Las Vegas, a drive-through ceremony that was preceded by "the consumption of several martinis,” Tuerk wrote in his divorce affidavit.

That same month, McLean told officers she and Tuerk had gotten into an argument while they were in bed. During the fight, Tuerk slammed her head into the headboard, then began to strangle her.

“McLean stated that she felt like ‘she had trouble breathing and thought she was going to die’ and ‘everything went black,’ ” according to a police report filed in February. “During the incident, she screamed and one of her kids heard her.”

McLean also told police Tuerk picked her up and threw her to the ground during an argument in January, according to the Dover report. After both incidents, Tuerk told McLean he loved her.

Within weeks of their marriage, Tuerk said in divorce filings that he realized the wedding was “a mistake.” He met with a divorce lawyer on Jan. 31 and broke the news to McLean two days later, according to his affidavit. The next day, she filed a restraining order against him, which police delivered to Tuerk at the Valley Road home. They also seized three long guns, two handguns, and ammunition from his home.

During the divorce proceedings, the two fought over ownership of McLean’s home in Dover, where she wanted her children to continue their school; all had individualized education plans. But in May, McLean reversed course. She said she did not want to pursue criminal charges and asked that the restraining order against Tuerk be vacated.

Her longtime friend said her main reason for returning to Tuerk was so her kids could continue on with lives they had built in Dover. The friend implored her to stay away from Tuerk forever.

“I told her it was going to be like a [expletive] Netflix special. He already tried to kill you. His life is falling apart. He is drinking heavily. The guy is a powder keg and you cannot do this,’ ” recounted the friend. But the couple reunited.

“I feel safe and would like to bring my family back together with my husband,” McLean wrote in an affidavit filed May 2. “My goal is to salvage our family including reuniting with my husband as father and stepfather to my children.”

On May 13, a Norfolk County court judge denied Tuerk’s request to return home to McLean, saying he had to stay away as a condition of his bail. But the next day he returned just the same, authorities said. After a few drinks, the couple began to argue, and McLean struck Tuerk with a glass object. He then choked her until she lost consciousness, he later told authorities.

On May 15, police found Tuerk unconscious in a Dedham hotel with lacerations on his left wrist, a knife and a needle nearby. He was given a dose of Narcan, but Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Lisa Beatty said Monday it was not certain that he had overdosed.

When Tuerk spoke with investigators at Norwood Hospital the next day, he waived his Miranda rights and confessed to killing his wife, according to police. He detailed how he had strangled her and where he had dumped her body, which police found Saturday night, half-naked with rocks and stones in the pockets of her pants.

Staff reporter John Ellement contributed to this story.



Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger. Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.