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Fingerprint Surgery Brings Charges against Plastic Surgeon

By: Gerri L. Elder

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a plastic surgeon who was accused of surgically replacing the fingerprints of an alleged drug dealer with skin from the bottom of his feet has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of harboring and concealing a fugitive.

The cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias, is a U.S. citizen who lived in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. He set up his practice in the neighboring town across the border, Nogales, Mexico.

He now faces criminal charges in connection with a surgery he performed on co-defendant Marc George, who is from Jamaica. Covarrubias and George reportedly came up with a plan to help George avoid being apprehended. Covarrubias allegedly performed a surgery on George and removed his fingerprints by replacing the skin on his fingertips with skin from his feet.

George, 42, is accused of being a drug and cash courier. He reportedly paid Covarrubias around $20,000 to effectively erase his fingerprints through the surgery. When George was arrested in Nogales, Arizona, in September 2005, he was reportedly still limping badly. He was arrested in Arizona at the border crossing on a charge of money laundering. When authorities realized that his fingerprints had been surgically removed, the case against Covarrubias began to develop.

Stephen G. Ralls, Covarrubias’ criminal defense attorney, said the doctor had “a lapse of judgment” but when he performed the surgery on George he did not specifically know what charges George was trying to avoid. Ralls says that the doctor has no previous criminal record.

Covarrubias is being held in Adams County Jail in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and is considered to be a flight risk.

Prosecutors in the case allege the drug ring conspired to buy marijuana in Tucson, Arizona and elsewhere and distribute more than a ton of it in central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and other areas between 2004 and 2006. George is accused of being a courier in the drug ring.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe, said all but one of the 35 defendants in the case have signed plea agreements. He added that most have pleaded guilty and have already been sentenced. One defendant in the case has never been captured.

George has signed a plea agreement and is expected to plead guilty to the charges against him.

Dr. Covarrubias has also worked out a plea agreement that will reportedly require him to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation of a Harrisburg-based drug ring. All other charges against him have been dismissed. Covarrubias will plead guilty and be sentenced on February 11. He faces up to five years in prison.

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