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Who is Nicola Riley, the Utah abortion doctor charged with murder?

Published January 21, 2012 12:48 pm

High achiever believed in women's right to choose.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note • The first of two stories, this draws on records released by medical licensing boards in New Jersey and Maryland, including interviews with physician Nicola Riley, injured patient D.B. and her mother, C.B. See part two at http://bit.ly/zX80Sh

A knock at the door three days after Christmas catapulted Nicola Riley's life into chaos.

The Utah doctor was home with her daughters and disabled mother when 10 police officers arrived to arrest her on a warrant from Maryland. She had injured a teenager during an abortion there in 2010. Aborting the 21-week male fetus, prosecutors now charged, was murder.

As Riley, 46, sat in the Salt Lake County jail, the nation's anti-abortion network demonized her. Online commenters labeled her a "monster."

But her patients in Utah defended her as a compassionate doctor focused on patients who often struggle to find care. She has been one of a handful of doctors providing abortions and welcoming transgender patients.

Under scrutiny by medical officials, Riley's contradictions have emerged: a West Point graduate who stole jewelry and landed in a military prison; a medical school hopeful who erased the court martial from her biography; a new doctor who told licensing officials that others were to blame for the fraud that ruined her military career.

The tumult that led Riley to perform abortions with a doctor she knew was not licensed in Maryland began long before the knock on the door.

A false start •Wearing a dark blazer, Riley was poised for success as she stood with classmates for a 1982 photo at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Then a junior, Riley would head for West Point after attending the Catholic girls school, held in two mansions in Manhattan's upper east side. Classmate Emabel Muller didn't know her well, but remembers her as a "very studious, very quiet, polite" student who "never got in trouble."

Riley studied psychology at the elite officer training academy, where the yearbook her final year described the 1987 graduate as a "woman of many faces," with a "vivacious personality" and an "open heart."

Three years later, the U.S. Army first lieutenant was standing in the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs, Colo., pretending to be someone else.

Using the identities of fellow soldiers, Riley and two enlisted women plotted in July and August 1990 to steal jewelry, according to Army documents. Riley snagged jewelry, watches and other merchandise worth more than $3,000, from a $17.49 pair of pearl earrings to a woman's ring priced at $1,875.

Riley pleaded guilty to five counts and was sentenced to serve up to 30 months. She served a year at Fort Leavenworth and two years on probation in New York, she said in 2010. Dishonorably discharged, she left the army in 1993.

Three years later, Riley tweaked her identity again.

Applying to medical school at the University of Utah, Riley said in a 1996 essay that she "left the military with numerous decorations, a multitude of experiences, and friends spanning the globe," according to a recent investigation by the Maryland Board of Physicians.

Her court martial and incarceration had vanished.

U. spokesman Christopher Nelson said the school didn't run criminal background checks until 2002 and didn't know of Riley's criminal background until Maryland investigated her.

She was accepted. In 1997, she started classes at the U.

Launching a family, career •Riley was "liked and respected" in medical school, where she was open about her pro-choice stance and her desire to specialize in women's health care, said classmate and friend Matthew Andersen, a Salt Lake City doctor.

"Even in medical school she talked about doing abortions," he said. "She said there's not enough doctors willing to do it."

A year after starting medical school, Riley's first daughter was born premature, at 27 weeks, in September 1998. A hole in the baby's heart was fixed shortly after birth, according to court documents.

After graduation in 2002, Riley, then 37, married the girl's father, Dustin Eric Coyle, then 27, a fellow medical student who is now an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake County.

Riley worked as an intern and resident at St. Mark's Hospital for two years. The couple's second daughter was born in 2003.

As a mother of young children and new doctor, Riley continued to focus on women's health. Andersen recalls a handout Riley wrote for women seeking a premarital gynecological exam. It explained the mechanics of sex and tips on how to have an orgasm.

"For a lot of young married women from Utah, they're not going to ask their doctor that," he said. "The fact she had spent her time to make a handout for those women who were getting married and never had sex before ... she was clearly trying to address an unmet need, which shows part of her personality."

With her residency ending, Riley applied for a Utah medical license in 2004. She acknowledged she had spent time in prison while serving in the military.

But she said her convictions for conduct unbecoming an officer were based on her failure to report that two subordinate soldiers were committing credit card fraud. She told similar versions to licensing officials in Wyoming in 2008 and Maryland in 2010.

Her own false signatures for the jewelry disappeared.

'She loved us' •Riley and Coyle split in 2005 and were divorced in 2007, court records show. As her marriage crumbled, Riley was building a career with a focus on patients who often struggle to find care.

One of the few doctors who performed abortions in Utah, she started providing them at Wasatch Women's Center in Salt Lake City in 2005. The same year, she opened her solo practice, SMP Family Medicine, where she offered routine care along with transgender hormone management.

Transgender patients said while they faced fear, distaste or ignorance from other doctors, Riley was accepting.

"Nobody wants us," said Dallas Carrizales, who has been a patient of Riley's for 3½ years as he has transitioned from female to male.

"We're the bottom of the barrel; we're like the trash in the city," he said. "She loved us. That means a lot because she's making me who I am."

Riley was a founding member of a now-defunct nonprofit called Gender Advocacy Board, created in 2006. The same year, the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, or TEA, named Riley "Individual of the Year."

"I just felt like she gave a damn about me," said Dominique Storni, who started seeing Riley in the mid-2000s for general care and for hormone management.

Storni said Riley also treated her adult son for asthma, offering $35 visits when he lost his insurance. A handful of patients shared similar examples of Riley's generosity.

"She is a woman who cares about humanity. The bulk of her practice was helping marginalized populations — people with no jobs, lower income, racial minorities, gender minorities," Storni said.

Financial reversals •By 2007, Riley seemed to be living a life many would envy. She lived in a seven-bedroom house worth $925,000, purchased after her separation from Coyle, court documents said. She earned $11,000 a month and was receiving child support. She was making car payments on a 2006 Mercedes R350 valued at $42,000 and a 2005 Volvo XC worth $30,000.

But she also owed more than $75,000 in credit card debt, documents show.

Riley was a regular at Porcupine Pub and Grille, where she became friends with bartender Josh Scheuerman. Around the time of President Barack Obama's election, she commissioned a painting of him from Scheuerman, who is also an artist.

"She always was happy," he said. "I just felt she was always genuine."

In March 2009, Riley also began working part-time at Castle Rock Medical Center, in Green River, Wyo., a town of about 12,000. The rural clinic does not provide abortions.

But in 2010, Riley faced a financial downturn.

She left her Wyoming job, later telling a judge she wanted to spend more time with their daughters, as custody evaluators had urged both parents. Feuding over their parenting and finances, Riley and Coyle eventually resorted to an independent attorney to help them communicate.

They were splitting the costs of therapy for their oldest daughter, who has struggled with behavioral issues from a young age, and tuition at a private Catholic school for their youngest.

Riley had already accepted a pay cut from the struggling Wasatch Women's Center, dropping from up to $8,000 a month to a flat weekly stipend of $700. Owner Denise Defa cut ties with Riley in a July 1, 2010, letter, admitting she could not afford to pay the $15,000 to $16,000 she owed her in unpaid wages.

A week later, Riley's attorney said in a filing that she was planning to close her own family practice, citing the low pay for caring for Medicare patients and her patients' inability to make their co-payments. She was "vigorously exploring" other ways to earn money, including arranging posts at two nursing centers, David S. Dolowitz wrote.

Riley also contacted four abortion clinics in Virginia and Maryland, later saying she had hoped to establish a work history to move her children back east. On July 30, she accepted an unusual proposal to work a few days every other week with New Jersey doctor Steven C. Brigham.

He would start abortions in his clinics in New Jersey, where he was licensed. She would finish them in his clinics in Maryland, where he was not licensed, but state law allowed clinics to perform later-term abortions.

Two weeks later, Riley was aborting an 18-year-old's fetus when she realized something was wrong.

"Get a vehicle," she told Brigham. "We're taking her to the ER now."

hmay@sltrib.com, jlyon@sltrib.com, mrogers@sltrib.com

See part two at http://bit.ly/zX80Sh

Editor's note

This story draws on records released by the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners and Maryland Board of Physicians, which included transcripts of investigators' interviews with physician Nicola Riley, injured patient D.B. and her mother, C.B. The life of Nicola Riley

This is the first of two stories exploring the life of Utah doctor Nicola Riley and the abortion she performed in 2010 that led to her December indictment in Maryland for murder. —

What's next

Utah abortion doctor Nicola Riley was arrested in Utah on Dec. 28 for a Maryland indictment for murder in the first and second degree, and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. She has been transported to Maryland and is awaiting prosecution there. On Friday, her attorneys sought her release, arguing the law used by prosecutors does not apply to doctors performing legal abortions.