Crime

The Man Behind the Curtain: While No One Paid Attention, What Happened to These Patients?

Getty Images/Jay Vollmar
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This phrase is a comic highlight of 1939's The Wizard of Oz. It's sputtered by the supposed wizard after he's revealed to be not a great sorcerer, but a stranded showman gifted in humbug.

But when the line is applied to Christopher Lambros, a nurse whose arrest last fall for sexually assaulting unconscious patients spurred a class-action lawsuit targeting St. Mary's Medical Center in Grand Junction, where he worked, the humor turns to horror.

In July 2021, a woman known as K.M. (like all of the victims referenced in this story, she's identified by her initials only) was admitted to St. Mary's after another local hospital was unable to properly treat the severe injuries she sustained in an accident involving one of her beloved horses. St. Mary's is both the largest medical facility between Denver and Salt Lake City and the only Level I trauma center in the area, and K.M.'s husband credits the team of doctors assigned to the case with saving her life.

Following major surgery, K.M. was transferred to a standard room, and her husband was allowed to spend the rest of the day with her — still a relative rarity at the time, given protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She was heavily sedated and would stay that way for days, but her husband was impressed by the care she received — at first, anyway.

Upon his arrival early the next morning, however, the curtains were drawn around his wife's bed, "and I could hear somebody on the other side of them," he says. "I hesitated a minute — I thought they needed privacy. But then this guy comes out, and he acted kind of startled and strange. And around midday, I had another encounter with him. This time, the door wasn't closed, but the curtains were pulled, and he came out again."

During that moment, he recalls, "I thought, 'You're a weird bastard' — and when I asked my wife what happened, she was really out of it. But later in the afternoon, she woke up, and I asked about him. And she said, 'I don't have any guy nurses.'"

These memories resurfaced on November 1, when news broke that Lambros had been arrested after an investigation that began that summer, when he'd been spotted taking an explicit selfie with an exposed patient. At the sight of Lambros's mug shot, "I recognized him and was like, 'Oh, my God!'" K.M.'s husband says. "I looked at my wife and said, 'That's the weird bastard in your room that I told you about.' And she started mentally spinning in circles."

"I looked at my wife and said, 'That's the weird bastard in your room that I told you about.'"

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She's far from the only patient sedated at the hospital over the past few years to have such a reaction. On December 20, when Denver-based Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC filed its initial suit against St. Mary's and its owners, SCL Health and Utah's Intermountain Healthcare, two victims were listed as plaintiffs — women identified as J.V. and M.C. But in an amended complaint filed on January 24, the total, including K.M., is up to fifteen.

Attorney Siddhartha Rathod expects this number to keep increasing. After all, Lambros worked at St. Mary's for more than a decade; he was hired in June 2012 and fired on October 25, 2022, in the wake of his arrest. Moreover, many women who may have been sexually assaulted while they were insentient don't remember what, if anything, happened to them, and it's unclear how many illicit actions Lambros may have recorded.

Thus far, Rathod says, his firm's investigation into Lambros has substantiated approximately four terabytes of data originating from his devices; that translates to approximately 700,000 cell-phone photos or 65,000 hours of cell-phone videos. But law enforcement has successfully accessed only a handful of clips to date. Perhaps the most shocking is one in which Lambros whispers to the camera, "Don't ever get rid of these videos. ... You need to keep them forever. ... This is your Dexter collection" — a reference to the Dexter books and TV series, about a serial killer who took personal items from each victim to remind him of his crimes.

Rathod also points out that "Lambros had ample opportunity to destroy video evidence," since months passed between the first alert about the selfie and the day he was busted. "And we have an expert who tells us people like Lambros don't start collecting and filming videos," he adds. "They start with peeping, and then they move on from peeping to touching over clothes to looking under clothes to touching under clothes. They don't get to photographing and videos until much later. And we also know there's one victim in the case from 2016. So it's highly unlikely that the majority of those videos weren't destroyed. Many people will never know what happened to them."
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St. Mary’s Medical Center is an institution in Grand Junction.
Michael Roberts
St. Mary's certainly doesn't exude the type of evil of which Lambros is accused. It's among the most important and respected institutions in western Colorado, as I know from personal experience.

I'm a Grand Junction native, and St. Mary's has been significant to me since my first breath: I was born there. And the connections between my wife's family and the hospital, which the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth established in 1896, go much deeper. Her physician grandfather moved to Grand Junction in the late 1940s and secured an office a block or so from a previous St. Mary's location, near downtown, because he served so many patients there. His son, my wife's father, followed the same path, becoming a family doctor and establishing a practice in Grand Junction in 1965.

My wife was four years old at the time, and in a very real sense, she grew up at St. Mary's, whose main building at 2635 North Seventh Street remains the centerpiece of a medical campus that's expanded exponentially in the past half-century. She used to accompany her dad to the hospital when he made his rounds, hanging out at the nurses' station or playing with the cords on the old-fashioned switchboard. In the months before her freshman year at Kansas's University of St. Mary, created by the same Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth that founded St. Mary's, she landed a part-time job operating that very switchboard, and she took shifts over subsequent summers and even the occasional weekend after she transferred to Western State College in Gunnison.

In 1982, my wife's father succumbed to diabetes at age fifty, shortly after taking part in the experimental trial of a new insulin pump — an apparatus that's now become standard. He died at St. Mary's, as did my own father many years later, in 2009. Around that time, his widow, my wife's mother, began working in the medical records department and continued to do so until two weeks before she lost her fight with cancer in 2018.

By then, St. Mary's boasted Grand Junction's tallest structure — a tower renovated in 2010 tops out at 146 feet — and its stature is symbolic of the hospital's powerful role in the local economy. After years of financial ups and downs epitomized by "Black Sunday" — the day in May 1982 when Exxon killed the local oil-shale business by laying off 2,200 employees — Grand Junction began marketing itself as a destination for retirees thanks to its temperate climate, beautiful scenery, first-rate airport, quaint shopping district and excellent health care, anchored by St. Mary's. The tactic worked: In June 2022, Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine placed Grand Junction in the number-two position on its list of standout places to retire, and St. Mary's is prominently name-checked in its explanation for this ranking.

Today the area has many medical facilities, but St. Mary's transcends the category. According to the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, the hospital is the community's second-largest employer, behind only the Mesa County Valley School District, and the merger of SCL Health — the Kansas nonprofit whose name references its founders — and Intermountain, which became official last April, could well produce even more jobs. At age 127, St. Mary's seems primed for bigger things.

But as the hospital was growing, something awful lurked in the shadows.

In June 2022, after what may have been a dangerous reaction to blood-pressure medication, lawsuit plaintiff J.V. was on the brink of death. "My airway collapsed and my throat swelled shut," she says. "I started at a different hospital, but they couldn't care for me, so they sent me to St. Mary's. When I arrived there, I'd already been intubated and was on life support."

Survival was by no means assured, and J.V. remained in the hospital's intensive care unit for more than a week under heavy sedation. "I was alone down there for eight days," she says, in part because Lambros, during a phone call, had discouraged visits from her mother; she lived an hour away from the hospital, and he said a trip would be useless since her daughter was unconscious. Nevertheless, J.V. recalls, "I knew he was doing something to me. But in my head, I was like, 'I'm in the hospital. This can't happen in a hospital.'"

"I knew he was doing something to me. But in my head, I was like, 'I'm in the hospital. This can't happen in a hospital.'"

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A sense of foreboding about Lambros still lingered when she awakened in early July. "Every time he'd come in, I'd get a taste and smell in my mouth, and I didn't like it," J.V. says. "So I knew something wasn't right, and I flat-out told my mom he was bad and for him to stay away."

In fact, J.V. refused care from all nurses affiliated with St. Mary's until her discharge five days later — yet shortly thereafter, the bills started arriving. She was hit with monthly payments of $905 toward a total fee of $32,000.

Then, in late October, she got a call from St. Mary's representatives informing her that Lambros had been arrested. "I didn't know I was a victim," she stresses, "and they said they weren't sure. I didn't find out until November, when I met with the DA [Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubinstein], that I was."

Videos from June 24 and June 25 of Lambros abusing an unconscious J.V. were recovered by the Grand Junction Police Department. The clips are graphically described in an arrest affidavit and include the snippet featuring the Dexter collection remark.

Learning what had happened to her when she was defenseless has been incredibly harmful to J.V., she says: "It's very hard to want to call a doctor or be around any medical people. I'm on anti-depressants, anxiety medication, and I just know I can never get back what he took. Not having control and somebody using your body when you have no say is just so wrong."

Meanwhile, J.V. was still being billed by St. Mary's. The payments weren't canceled until after the lawsuit was filed.

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Christopher Lambros was arrested last fall.
Grand Junction Police Department
The complaints maintain that St. Mary's, SCL Health and Intermountain Healthcare are "vicariously liable" for Lambros's crimes. One reason for that, attorney Rathod says, is that "the hospital had been on notice of the risk of patients being sexually assaulted" since at least April 11, 2017, when Adam Stice, a visitor to the hospital, was witnessed fondling and photographing a woman in the medical center's emergency room without her consent. Stice was arrested and ultimately sentenced to ten years in prison for assault and unlawful sexual conduct, and a lawsuit over the incident was filed against St. Mary's in 2018; it was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Rathod believes that "this individual was caught because of cameras in the room — and St. Mary's has cameras throughout the entire hospital," along with a tracking system linked to employee badges that lets supervisors see where staffers are at all times. "Many of our clients' rooms had cameras, and there are cameras in the hallways of St. Mary's, too. But either the cameras weren't hooked up or St. Mary's wasn't watching" when Lambros was abusing patients, he suggests.

"The cameras give patients who are unconscious the belief that someone is watching them and protecting them," Rathod continues. "So if they were monitoring these cameras, why didn't they see the multiple assaults by nurse Lambros?"

That question is key to M.C. and her husband, whose photo of the camera in his wife's room is part of the first lawsuit. "I saw it and I felt safer," he says — but not for long.

M.C. was intubated at St. Mary's on July 9, 2022, and her husband was by her side on and off throughout the day. "They couldn't figure out what was going on, so they wanted to do a biopsy," he explains. "I went back and spent another hour with her, but she was really out of it."

Three days later, on July 12, the operation was about to take place when M.C.'s husband, accompanied by his son, was approached by two members of the hospital staff. "They took us into an office and said a nurse was caught taking naked pictures" of M.C. by a fellow employee, he says.

This discovery prompted the inquiry into Lambros that led to his arrest. For M.C., finding out what had happened to her was "devastating." Her husband had waited to inform her until she was out of the hospital, she recalls: "He said he had something to tell me, and I thought he was going to tell me I had cancer. But that's when he told me I was sexually assaulted at St. Mary's."

At first, she says, "I didn't believe him. I thought, 'Really? Seriously?' But then I was in shock that something like that could happen to me in the ICU. You go to the hospital to be safe. That's the last place in the world I would ever think something like that would happen to you."

Over the intervening months, M.C. says, the mental trauma has made the challenge of recovering physically more difficult. "I'll be sitting in my room and start bawling. Something will snap inside me, and if someone touches me, I freak out."

She's just as triggered by the medical center. "I had to go back to St. Mary's one other time to get something done with my heart — but I'll die at home first before I go back there again," she vows. "That's unfortunate to say, but St. Mary's is to blame for this. They hired that monster, and they had to know something was going on if he had been doing it for that many years."
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Attorney Siddhartha Rathod filed an amended complaint on January 24.
Evan Semón
Asked about Lambros, St. Mary's and its corporate owners issued a statement verifying that his employment was terminated after the arrest. "The safety of our patients is our highest priority, and we take this matter very seriously," it continues. "We have zero tolerance for anyone who engages in the abuse or mistreatment of our patients. Immediately following the reported concern, the hospital placed Chris Lambros on administrative leave, removed his access to the hospital and patients, and reported the matter to local law enforcement."

A quote from St. Mary's president Bryan Johnson underscores these remarks: "What this former nurse is accused of is reprehensible and goes against everything we believe and value at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Patients put their trust in us and should feel safe in our care. We are working closely with law enforcement to protect our patients from those who intend to cause harm. We are doing everything possible to ensure our patients continue to feel safe and respected while receiving care at St. Mary’s Medical Center."

St. Mary's has set up a call center "to directly connect people with a patient representative so they can get information about their individual care," the statement adds. The number is 970-298-2273.

"We are doing everything possible to ensure our patients continue to feel safe and respected while receiving care."

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Scott Burrill, the public defender representing Lambros, says he is statutorily prohibited from commenting on the case. But Mesa County DA Rubinstein, who's overseeing the criminal prosecution, is under no such restrictions. He confirms that Lambros was originally "charged with incidents relating to two victims. But we advised the court at a recent bond hearing that there were four unique victims, of which three have been identified."

That's Rathod's understanding, too. J.V. and M.C. are the first two victims, "one is deceased — and I don't know who the fourth one is," he says.

"We were advised by the civil attorneys about their intention to file the case and were assured by them that they will work with us to ensure their case will not have any negative impact on our prosecution," Rubinstein notes. "Both the civil attorneys, as well as the representatives from St. Mary's, have been communicating with us as we try to navigate the complicated situation of protecting the victims' HIPAA rights" — enshrined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — "while still getting us the information needed to prosecute the criminal matter."

Lambros's next in-person court appearance is scheduled for February 24, and Rubinstein says, "We are still investigating. We cannot comment on what evidence we have, and also cannot speculate on what we may find."

The separate Rathod Mohamedbhai investigation is moving forward, too. "The amended complaint has allegations that nurse Lambros would show videos of himself having sex in the hospital to other nurses," Rathod says. "He was allegedly a swinger — and he was known to inappropriately sexually harass the student nurses and new nurses at St. Mary's. There was nowhere else for them to go: If you want to do trauma-level nursing in Grand Junction, you have to go to St. Mary's. But if you went to St. Mary's, you had to put up with Lambros's sexual harassment, and we believe St. Mary's knew he was engaging in inappropriate behavior at work."

Still, there were some things Lambros seemed to want hidden, as indicated by his use of curtains in K.M.'s room.

"We've talked to nurses who say the curtains around the bed should never be drawn, because there's an inner curtain across the room," Rathod notes. "And a male nurse would never be left alone with a female patient doing something like a sponge bath or changing a catheter, just like a female nurse would never be alone with a male patient in those intimate kinds of settings. But we know nurse Lambros was alone with female patients and closed the curtains."

The second time Lambros emerged from behind the curtains in K.M.'s room, her husband remembers, "he said he was 'finishing up.' And I thought, 'Finishing up what?'"

More than a year later, he and K.M. still don't have answers. But everyone's paying attention to the man behind the curtain.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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