Jul 17, 2017
Two decades ago, Anthony Pignataro was a big shot in Western New York and beyond.
The West Seneca plastic surgeon cruised around Buffalo in a red Lamborghini and gained national notoriety for inventing a “snap-on” hairpiece that he drilled into the skulls of bald men.
That all changed in 1997, when Pignataro’s long but hidden history of medical malpractice first came to light with the death of Sarah Smith.
The 26-year-old Depew mother went into cardiac arrest during a breast augmentation surgery performed by Pignataro and died days later. Pignataro became the first doctor in Western New York history convicted of a homicide and jailed for a patient’s death.
State investigators turned up a slew of mistakes in his other surgeries and stripped Pignataro of his medical license. A state judge told him, “You will never practice medicine again -- anywhere in the world.”
Then things really got strange.
Soon after Pignataro was released from prison in 1999, his wife, Debbie, became mysteriously ill. Doctors found arsenic in her bloodstream -- the highest amount ever recorded by the New York State Department of Health.
“You don’t want to believe that your spouse could be capable of something like this,” Deborah Pignataro told 7 Eyewitness News at the time.
But he was.
After prosecutors caught Pignataro setting up a murder-for-hire plot against a potential witness from the Erie County Holding Center, he pled guilty to the arsenic poisoning and was sentenced to 15 years in state prison.
“Your life to me has been...a charade of misrepresentation, self-centered, manipulative, disregard of the oaths and vows you’ve taken, disrespect for the law and, most important, disrespect for the value of human life,” Judge Mario J. Rossetti told Pignataro, according to court records cited in a 2003 true-crime book written about Pignataro.
The story could have ended there -- but it hasn’t.
A 7 Eyewitness News I-Team investigation shows that Pignataro has returned to West Seneca and -- despite the orders of judges and state regulators to never practice medicine again -- is advertising himself as a doctor under a new name.
Pignataro appears to have started the plan soon after his release from prison in 2013. Almost one year to the day after he walked out of jail a free man, he filed papers creating a business in West Seneca called “Tony Haute Cosmetique LLC,” records obtained by 7 Eyewitness News show.
Multiple public records reveal Pignataro to be the true operator of the business and court records confirm that Pignataro legally filed to change his name to “Anthony Haute.” Pignataro even uses both his original name and his new name in a posting on his LinkedIn account.
“Tony Haute Cosmetique and Skin Care” is a flashy website with photos of beautiful men, women and children.
It offers a line of all-natural skin creams – but that’s not all.
Ten times on his website, Pignataro uses the term “doctor” or “M.D.” to describe his new identity as “Dr. Tony Haute.” Posing for photos in a white lab coat, he claims to be a “renown[ed] scientist and physician” and tells potential customers that he is a retired cosmetic surgeon. The company uses the universal medical symbol as part of its logo and repeatedly says “Haute” researches his products in some sort of a laboratory.
The website does not mention the fact that Pignataro surrendered his medical license two decades ago after the state health board charged him with 30 counts of professional misconduct, including “gross negligence, gross incompetence, fraud and moral unfitness.”
It also fails to inform customers that there is no doctor by the name of Tony Haute registered to practice medicine in New York State.
Of course, anyone can sell skin creams in New York without holding a medical license.
But “Haute” goes beyond that – advertising what he calls his “Plasma Protocol,” an anti-aging treatment that he bills as “the first and only skin care system formulated from one’s own DNA-derived plasma.”
“Though based on a combination of medical treatments, the entire system is able to be used by you privately and in the privacy and comfort of your own home, no one need[s] know that you are treating yourself,” he writes. “Unfortunately, I cannot reveal more.”
Research shows DNA-based plasma treatments are not common in the United States.
Videos posted online by doctors in Europe show patients having blood drawn from their arms, placed into a centrifuge and re-injected by needlse to areas they want “rejuvenated,” such as the dark spots below the eyes.
7 Eyewitness News went to listed address of the Seneca Street business, which appears to be housed in a large home that has been converted into apartment space. It is just a mile from the Center Road office suite where Sarah Smith’s heart stopped beating.
Pignataro was not there but neighbors said they have called the police on him before after noticing packages of surgical supplies being shipped to the address and observing women coming and going from the apartment late at night.
As one neighbor put it, “Some real strange stuff happens here.”
Pignataro declined to comment when approached by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team outside of a local food distribution plant where he works. He also did not return multiple follow-up phone calls and messages.
Teri LaMarti could only gasp when we showed her pictures of Pignataro next to the so-called “Dr. Haute.”
“That’s him,” LaMarti said. “Yeah, that’s him. He’s getting away with this?”
LaMarti said Pignataro operated on her two decades ago, just weeks before Sarah Smith’s death. What was billed as a simple “tummy tuck” quickly turned into a near-death situation as she left Pignataro’s office with massive cuts to her abdomen and blood quickly draining from the wound. State medical records support her account.
Pignataro came to LaMarti’s hospital room and yelled at her, she said, attempting to discharge her even though he had no privileges to practice medicine at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo or any other hospitals in Western New York at the time.
“I just would hope that when you bring this story to light, somebody important enough to do something about it will, and they can stop this guy,” she said. “He should not be doing this. He should not be touching people.”
She added: “If someone doesn’t stop him, he’s going to hurt somebody.”
Before this story hit the air, the Erie County District Attorney's office announced it has opened a criminal investigation into Pignataro.
The New York State Education Department also released a statement, saying in full: "It is imperative, as a critical matter of public safety, that professional services - especially medical - be provided by licensed and competent professionals. By law, we are not permitted to release information relating to the investigation of a specific case involving unlawful practice. Generally, NYSED investigates cases of unlicensed practice and, where appropriate, refers them for criminal prosecution (normally to the NYS Attorney General’s Office)."
After being confronted, Pignataro took his website down.
Charlie Specht is an investigative reporter for 7 Eyewitness News. Photojournalists Jeff Wick, Lou Chilelli, Dave Morales provided assistance with this story, as did Julie Corcoran, Hannah Buehler, and Matt Hoeber.