Plastic Surgeon Helps Alleged Drug Dealer Avoid Arrest by Replacing Fingerprints

A plastic surgeon who replaced the fingerprints of an alleged drug dealer with skin from the bottom of his feet pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal charge of harboring and concealing a fugitive.

Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias, a U.S. citizen who lived in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., and practiced medicine in neighboring Nogales, Mexico, faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 11.

A plea agreement requires Covarrubias, 49, to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation of a Harrisburg-based drug ring. All other charges were dismissed.

The charges stemmed from surgery Covarrubias performed on co-defendant Marc George, 42, of Jamaica. The doctor replaced George's fingerprints with skin from his feet to help him avoid apprehension, authorities said.

George, accused of being a drug and cash courier, paid the doctor about $20,000 to replace his fingerprints with skin from his feet to help him avoid apprehension, authorities said. He was still limping badly when he was arrested at the Nogales border crossing in September 2005 on a charge of money laundering.

Covarrubias' attorney, Stephen G. Ralls, said the doctor had "a lapse of judgment" but did not know specifically what George was wanted for. The doctor had no previous criminal record, Ralls said.

Covarrubias was being held as a flight risk at the Adams County Jail in Gettysburg.

Prosecutors allege the drug ring conspired to buy marijuana from Tucson, Ariz., and elsewhere and distributed more than a ton of it in central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and other areas between 2004 and 2006.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe, the lead prosecutor, said all but one of the 35 defendants in the case have signed plea agreements and most have pleaded guilty and been sentenced. The other defendant remains at large, he said.

George has signed a plea agreement and is expected to plead guilty at a hearing next week.