A Nassau judge Tuesday dropped criminal charges against a Nassau University Medical Center surgeon who was accused of trying to strangle a registered nurse with an “elastic cord,” after, police said, they had a disagreement over a patient’s medication.
Venkatesh Sasthakonar, a veteran weight loss surgeon, emerged from the courtroom smiling amid a sea of his supporters — including some fellow doctors and his patients — who cheered and embraced the doctor.
“The first time you hear that somebody’s accusing you of this, you think this is the worst thing that can happen to you . . . each time it feels like you’re drowning,” said Sasthakonar, who became emotional several times as he described the turmoil of being arrested and suspended from the hospital in comments to reporters after Thursday’s brief court hearing. “You try to come up for air, and you’re all over the news.”
Nassau County District Court Judge Martin Massell agreed to dismiss the case against Sasthakonar, 44, of Albertson, after Assistant District Attorney Stacey Blanshaft, chief of felony screening, made the request.
Sasthakonar had pleaded not guilty and was free on a $3,500 bail after being arrested last month on charges of felony second-degree strangulation and misdemeanor third-degree assault. They came from allegations that defense attorney Bruce Barket of Garden City said were “fabricated” by a nurse who had been reprimanded by the doctor.
“After thoroughly reviewing this case, interviewing witnesses and analyzing surveillance video, it has been determined there is not enough evidence to support that a crime occurred,” said Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for the Nassau district attorney’s office.
Brosh declined to comment on questions about the specific evidence.
However, both Nassau police and Barket said there was no surveillance video of the actual incident.
Barket said that while he was “glad” the district attorney’s office had moved to dismiss the charges after “a very thorough and complete investigation,” he added: “Of course I wish they did it faster.”
“We’re appreciative of the fact that the DA’s office did the right thing . . . so there is no residual doubt that he committed any kind of crime,” Barket said. “This was torture for him and his family every day.”
However, Barket said, the initial investigation should have been more rigorous. “I would think the police department probably could have taken a step back and not acted so quickly and looked at the evidence. You know, investigate first and arrest second, maybe?”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon Nassau County police Det. Michael Bitsko said: “Police Officers responded to Nassau University Medical Center for an assault assignment. The victim, who was being treated for injuries, stated they occurred as a result of a confrontation with the defendant. Based on this sworn statement, as well as medical records, probable cause existed to effect the arrest of the defendant and he was placed into custody. Due to HIPPA [privacy] regulations there are no video surveillance cameras in this area of the hospital, therefore, there is no video surveillance of the incident.”
The accuser — described by police as a 51-year-old nurse who was treated at NUMC for “substantial pain” to her neck and released after the encounter — could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“There is very likely going to be further litigation with respect to the individual who falsely accused him of committing a crime — literally made stuff up and put it in a sworn statement,” Barket said.
Brosh declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would pursue criminal charges against the accuser.
According to a criminal complaint filed by authorities after the Jan. 22 incident, police alleged that the doctor became so upset with the nurse because she had given medication to one of his patients at the wrong time that he then took the elastic cord off his sweatshirt and tightened it around the nurse’s neck, causing her to gasp for air.
Sasthakonar told her, “I should kill you for this,” the complaint said.
Brian Finnegan, a spokesman for NUMC, said in a statement Thursday that the hospital is “aware of the recent updates with regard to Dr. Venkatesh Sasthakonar’s legal proceedings and will take such information into account as the medical board continues its internal personnel review, in strict adherence to all hospital protocols and bylaws.”
It’s unclear whether the nurse still works at the hospital.
Sasthakonar, who said he has worked at NUMC for about a decade, thanked his family and other supporters for believing in him as his wife shed tears nearby, and said he was looking forward to going back to work.
“I’m relieved today and I want to thank everyone who has stood by me for the last few weeks,” he said. “People ask me if I’m angry, how do I feel? I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.”
Dr. Lambros Angus, director of trauma at NUMC, was among the dozens of supporters who crowded the courtroom in support of Sasthakonar and said he never doubted his colleague’s innocence.
“He’s a professional, he’s a gentleman,” Angus said. “This is not his personality. This is not his character.”
Angus said, although he was not in the room during the encounter, he thought “it was probably humor that was misinterpreted. He did not choke her.”
Martha Rodriguez, who said Sasthakonar had performed surgery on her twice, said no one asked her to come to court, she wanted to be there for a man she called a “very honest doctor.”
“I just trust him because he’s just the best doctor — honest, a wonderful doctor,” said Rodriguez, 58, of Hicksville.