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From surgeon to bank robber: What caused Dr. John Christian Gunn’s fall from grace?

Story about Dr. John Christian Gunn in the San Antonio Express-NewsA few months ago, the Texas Medical Board sent out a routine public notice listing doctors who have been disciplined. One name in the list stood out to Express-News Medical Writer Don Finley: A San Antonio surgeon, Dr. John Christian Gunn, had lost his medical license after being convicted of a felony.

Finley checked it out and discovered Gunn — a Yale-educated surgeon — had robbed a bank in Austin.

“I’ve been watching doctors do lots of bizarre things for many years, but robbing a bank was new,” Finley told me. “It seemed like a very, very strange and tragic thing.”

The spark of curiosity about Gunn led to weeks of reporting by Finley, who talked to dozens of people and dug up public documents to piece together a story about the little-known doctor. Some of the best news stories are born this way: Simply asking, “Why?”

“To me, it’s the perfect narrative,” Finley said. “Why would a well educated surgeon rob a bank?”

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Finley is a skinny, graying veteran of the newsroom best known for his deadpan wisecracks and his gift for writing about complicated topics. To really understand Gunn’s story, Finley read every public record he could get his hands on. At one point, he flew to Kentucky, where Gunn had once worked, to dig up court records. He found a medical consultant’s report that described Gunn’s track record as a doctor. There was also a bankruptcy case in Texas and other documents Finley obtained at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Don Finley, medical writer for the San Antonio Express-News
Finley’s story ran last week and it has some striking quotes about Gunn. “He in my opinion was not a very good physician. Honestly, I think he did not have much sympathy or empathy for patients and their families,” said Dr. Joseph Miller of Arkansas.

But it took a lot of work to get people to open up.

“Almost nobody wanted to talk about this guy,” Finley said. Most potential sources were afraid of Gunn’s temper.

But the weeks of reporting paid off. To me, this is why journalism is so cool — you get paid to find stuff out, satisfy your curiosity, and learn something interesting about the world that no one else knows.

And then you get to share it on the front page of the Sunday paper with thousands of your closest friends.