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Published January 05 2012

Wife of accused surgeon: Propofol not my choice

FARGO – The wife of a Fargo surgeon accused of drugging and raping her in their home disputes his insistence that he was trying to help her, a claim Dr. Jon Norberg repeated Thursday before the state medical board revoked his license.

In a statement provided by her divorce attorney on Thursday, Dr. Alonna Norberg told The Forum that her husband inappropriately gave her the powerful anesthetic propofol without her consent “to impair me and gratify himself sexually.” She said he shouldn’t have characterized propofol as a “good” and “safe” drug, as it is not when used in a home instead of a hospital.

Her estranged husband made the comments after a court hearing Tuesday, and a Fargo TV station reported them, publicly identifying her in the process.

Alonna Norberg said she didn’t speak publicly before to protect the privacy of her children and herself.

“I would have preferred that these matters remain private to shield my children, but the legal cases and news coverage make it important that I correct the public record,” she said in the statement.

Not informed of plea

Jon Norberg entered Alford pleas Tuesday to charges of misdemeanor sexual assault and felony reckless endangerment in Cass County District Court.

An Alford plea doesn’t admit guilt. It acknowledges that the strength of the evidence would likely cause a jury to convict at trial. It does, however, legally count as a guilty plea.

Norberg said he took the plea agreement, which reduced a Class AA felony charge of gross sexual imposition to the Class B misdemeanor, because he didn’t want to risk a “kneejerk response” of jurors to propofol, which has been stigmatized by the death of pop star Michael Jackson.

He will be sentenced in two or three months.

Prosecutor Gary Euren, an assistant Cass County state’s attorney, told reporters Tuesday that Alonna Norberg was OK with the plea agreement. But Euren said Thursday that he was speaking about the agreement in general and not the Alford pleas, which he didn’t have time to discuss with her before the hearing.

“It came up in the courtroom just before the judge walked in, so no, I did not consult her about that,” he said.

Euren said he spoke with Alonna Norberg after the plea hearing Tuesday, and she wasn’t happy that her husband didn’t admit guilt.

In her statement, she said that there was “ample evidence” for convictions on all felony charges, but she told prosecutors that it would be best for her and her children if they could avoid a trial. She said she understood Jon Norberg “would admit his guilt and plead guilty” to the felony and misdemeanor charges.

Euren said prosecutors take the wishes of victims into account when plea bargaining.

“But the bottom line is our client is society as a whole, or Cass County as a whole, and we have to look and see what’s best for everyone involved and under all of the facts and law that pertain to the case,” he said. “Most of the time, that pretty well dovetails with the victim’s situation, but sometimes it doesn’t, or doesn’t exactly.”

In comments to reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, Jon Norberg called the matter “a tragic thing that’s come out of me trying to do something to help my wife, who’s been chronically ill for a long time.”

Norberg said he was trying to do something good for his wife, and “when I asked her for a divorce, it was turned against me.”

His attorney, John Goff, suggested Jon Norberg may have been set up.

“I’m saying that a lot of circumstances came together, including I think some calculation, whether it was just Jon Norberg’s wife or with the assistance of (her) divorce lawyer and the investigator involved in that case. I think it’s pretty clear that there was some thought that went into this, yes,” Goff said.

Alonna Norberg, who also is a physician, said in her statement that she initiated the divorce. She’s listed as the plaintiff in court records.

Accuser identified

The Forum typically does not identify victims in sexual assault cases, but on Thursday, Alonna Norberg, via her attorney, agreed to her name being used. Prior attempts by The Forum to get her consent to disclose her identity had been unsuccessful.

Fox affiliate KVRR was the first local media outlet to identify Alonna Norberg as the victim, airing Jon Norberg’s comments referencing his wife during its newscast Tuesday.

Jim Shaw, news director at KVRR, said the station has a policy not to reveal the names of sexual abuse victims, but it was the reporter’s impression that Euren, the prosecutor, ­“didn’t have a problem with it, and that her name was going to come out anyway in some unspecified way.”

“This is from the prosecutor, who was – our impression – was speaking on behalf of the victim,” Shaw said.

Euren said he never approved the release of Alonna Norberg’s name as the KVRR story stated. Here’s the text of Euren’s comments to reporters on the identity issue after Tuesday’s hearing:

“We appreciate the fact that you’ve stood by your policy in not identifying the victim. I know it’s created some problems in the public view because there are people who know who it is and there are people who don’t know and who have made assumptions of who it may be. I’m not going to say do it or don’t do it. I’ll leave that to your discretion. I think other events are going to unfold in the next few days that may make it so that it’s fairly public knowledge who it is anyway. I fully expect that his medical license will be indefinitely suspended and … my belief is there may be an identification at that time anyway.”

Greg Diehl, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, said publicly naming victims of sexual abuse can add to the trauma they’ve already experienced. With crimes of violence, there’s also fear of repercussion from the offender, he said.

Publicizing an accuser’s name also may discourage other victims from reporting assaults, Diehl said.

“Because it is a very private issue, very traumatic, I think there’s that sense that if somebody knows their name is going to be blasted across the press, they’re less likely to come forward,” he said.

Particularly in high-profile cases, identifying the accuser also can lead to people blaming and even threatening her or him, Diehl said, citing the Kobe Bryant case as an example.

Board revokes license

The state Board of Medical Examiners voted unanimously Thursday to indefinitely suspend the medical license of Jon Norberg.

Norberg, an orthopedic surgeon, told the board during the teleconference that he “did the wrong thing for the right reasons.”

“I take responsibility for this, and I am being punished for this domestic act due to the courts,” he said. “These were unique circumstances. I would never do anything like this again.”

Norberg said he hopes the board will allow him to be reinstated in the future and he’s prepared to take any necessary steps to correct his behavior and get his suspension lifted.

“I think I can do much more good than harm, and I think that I’m an asset to the medical community,” he said. “This was something that was my wife in my home, not with care of a patient.”

However, John Olson, the special assistant attorney general who serves as attorney for the board’s investigative panel that recommended the suspension, said Norberg obtained propofol from his clinical practice and administered it to his wife.

“In that regard, Mrs. Norberg was Dr. Norberg’s patient, clearly,” Olson said, calling it a “very, very serious case.”

Olson said Jon Norberg told panel investigators that he gave his wife propofol to relieve pain and sleep deprivation stemming from an autoimmune disease. But an administrative law judge also found that he gave her the drug when they were engaged in sexual activity, which one expert said was “not only improper, it was outlandish,” Olson said.

The judge, Allen Hoberg, found that Norberg administered propofol to his wife 32 times over a period of 18 months. Hoberg accepted the findings of the investigative panel, which accused Norberg of engaging in unprofessional conduct, committing gross negligence and administering a dangerous drug illegally.

Norberg wasn’t qualified or recognized by his employer, Sanford Health, or Essentia Health, where he had privilege to practice, to administer propofol, Olson said.

The fact that Alonna Norberg was being treated with other narcotic medications at the same time her husband was giving her propofol “is a dangerous situation and should not be allowed to occur under any circumstances,” Olson said.

The indefinite suspension is essentially a revocation, in that only the board can decide to lift the suspension and reinstate Norberg’s license, with or without restrictions, Olson said.

Norberg had been on voluntary leave from Sanford Health since Sept. 7. In a statement Thursday, a Sanford Health spokesman said other physicians have cared for Norberg’s patients since he went on leave and that “it’s difficult to lose a talented and technically skilled surgeon.”

Alonna Norberg also worked for Sanford as a pediatric physician before leaving on good terms in 2008, Sanford spokesman Daren Huber said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528