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Plastic surgery became big business in the 1990s. Dr. Michael Tavis was then one of northern California’s top cosmetic surgeons — but his career came to an end when he was murdered by a disgruntled former patient.
Michael James Tavis was born in 1944 and grew up in Los Angeles. In his 20s, he enrolled at UCLA, becoming a licensed physician and reconstructive surgeon in 1974. Just four years later, he started a family. He and his wife had two children and lived in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, but divorced in 1995.
In his free time, Tavis enjoyed painting and the fine arts. While taking a pottery class, he met Deborah Seigmund, a recently divorced single mother.
“Deborah was extremely outgoing and exuberant, good-looking and she loved him. They were happy,” Dr. Tavis’ former patient Sandy Sage told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
Tavis and Deborah were married in a lavish ceremony in Paris in 1996. Upon returning home, she became a vital part in his medical practice, advising patients on plastic surgery and aftercare. The business was soon flourishing.
“He did abdominal plasties, liposuction, facelifts, brow lifts, rhinoplasties, breast augmentations. He had a great reputation,” former co-worker Mark Hurd told “Snapped.”
On the morning of July 3, 1997, the Tavises drove to work. When they arrived they were surprised to see their 8:30 appointment sitting outside. Office manager Kay Carter usually got to work before them and opened up.
The Tavises entered through the back of the office and Deborah paused to fix her makeup. She heard her husband talking to a woman who described having multiple surgeons. Tavis responded, "I'm sorry, I care," according to court documents.
Deborah then heard a succession of gunshots. She ran out the back door to another office building nearby and called 911.
Responding officers arrived to find Dr. Michael Tavis, 53, dead from multiple gunshot wounds, according to Utah’s Deseret News. On the floor near her desk was 59-year-old Kay Carter, alive but critically injured.
“Kay Carter appeared to have sustained a single gunshot wound to the head. She was not moving but she was making sound, moaning,” former Petaluma Police Detective Danny Fish told producers.
Carter was rushed to a nearby hospital. Detectives determined the killer had entered Tavis’ office from the same rear entrance as the doctor and that Carter had been the first shooting victim.
“Dr. Tavis was shot one time in the chest and then one time in the side as he turned to run and as he ran towards the waiting room area, shot two more times in the back,” Fish explained.
Due to the number of times Tavis was shot, investigators believed that the killing was personal in nature and that the doctor was the direct target.
Investigators asked Deborah if there was anyone who bore a grudge against her husband.
“She was able to recall that there had been a number of patients who had been unhappy with the surgical procedures they had received from Dr. Tavis,” Fish told producers.
Over the course of his career, Tavis had been sued a dozen times, according to the Associated Press. These included medical malpractice complaints and accusations of negligence and incompetence.
“Our investigators began working actively to follow up on them, to see if there was anything unusual in their behavior, did they have criminal arrest records, had they made prior threats, and so they began working on each of these people as potential suspects,” former Petaluma Police Chief Patrick Parks told producers.
Debra Sojka, who worked in a neighboring building, told investigators she had seen a suspicious woman inside a small pickup truck behind Dr. Tavis’ office on the morning of the murder. She had seen the same vehicle there a week before.
“I had left for my lunch break at about 1 o'clock and came back and she was in the parking lot but what was really strange was by the end of the day at 5 o’clock she was still there, same position, just staring out at our building. One week later, the day of the shooting, I get there early in the morning and here she is again,” Sojka told “Snapped.”
Investigators began looking into potential suspects from a list provided by Deborah Tavis. One suspect investigators were unable to contact was Theresa Ramirez.
Theresa Mary Ramirez was born in 1952 and grew up in San Francisco, the oldest of three children.
“Theresa was a little tiny thing. Very outspoken, she’d tell you what she thought. Never smoked, drank, swore or anything, just a pleasant person,” friend John Slaga told “Snapped.”
Ramirez was a nurse in Santa Rosa, California. Coworkers say Ramirez kept to herself and didn’t socialize with them. In 1988, Ramirez was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though the cancer was only in her right breast, she elected to have a double mastectomy.
Ramirez went to Michael Tavis for reconstructive breast surgery. While she was initially pleased with the results, within a week she began complaining about the results, claiming her breasts were uneven.
Over the following decade, Ramirez would have numerous surgeries on her breasts. She was never happy with the results and blamed her surgeons and her health insurance providers when they balked at her ongoing procedures.
In 1992, Ramirez unsuccessfully sued Tavis, according to the United Press International. She claimed Tavis failed to disclose the risks of her silicone breast implants, which had leaked. She also filed a suit against implant manufacturer Dow Corning.
Then, on July 7, 1997, Ramirez was found unconscious in a San Francisco hotel room, having fallen into a diabetic coma, according to the United Press International. In her room, police found $5,000 in cash, a train ticket to southern California, two guns, and a notebook with a list of names.
“Each page has personal identifying information about a number of people, including Dr. Tavis, his address, his office address, his wife’s name, Kay Carter, Kay Carter’s address, her license plate number, the names of multiple other doctors that she has had contact with in the past,” Fish said. “It definitely gives you the idea that this notebook that she was carrying was a hit list.”
One name on the list was Robert Feis, who was in charge of approving Ramirez’ surgery requests. He requested Ramirez see a psychiatrist before approving further medical procedures.
“She had been operated on by multiple surgeons, most of whom refused to do more than one operation because they found her too difficult,” Feis explained to “Snapped.”
Ramirez became irate upon learning her surgery request was being denied. Feis eventually called security to have her removed from his office.
“She looked at me and glared, and said, ‘I’ll show you why,’ and put her hands on her blouse and made the motion as if she was going to rip open her blouse,” Feis recalled.
Before going to Tavis’ office on the morning of July 3, Ramirez had first gone to Feis’ workplace. Feis was fortunately out of town at the time.
Ballistics tests would match one of Ramiriz’ guns to the murder weapon, according to the Associated Press. Theresa Ramirez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. In February 1999, Theresa Ramirez was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Michael Tavis and the attempted murder of Kay Carter, according to the Los Angeles Times. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Carter recovered from her wounds but suffered permanent brain damage and lost the ability to speak. She died from complications related to her injuries in 2012.
Now 69, Theresa Ramirez is currently incarcerated at the California Institution for Women outside of Los Angeles.
For more on this case and others like it, watch "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
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