Venice Beach Ambush: A Beverly Hills Surgeon on Being Pistol-Whipped and Left for Dead

Bruce B. Lee, MD Split-H 2016
Courtesy of Bruce B. Lee, MD

In a nightmare scenario, a well-known physician was brutally attacked inside his BMW after leaving a seaside restaurant. Now, after surviving the bloody beating, he offers an exclusive account of the night he was nearly killed.

Venice Beach was warm and festive when Dr. Bruce Lee left the Townhouse bar and restaurant and walked across Windward Avenue toward his car. It was around 10:30 p.m. on a weekend, but crowds of people strolled along the broad avenue under bright lights. Lee, 61, absorbed the mood, relaxed and happy, as he slid behind the wheel of his green BMW 750. The plush beige leather seats cushioned him as he stretched back to maneuver around a van on the passenger side that had angled in sharply. He had just straightened out the BMW’s sleek rear so that it ran parallel to the van when he heard some commotion. Someone was shouting about a bike and money. His right foot, clad in a black dress shoe, gently slid onto the brake pad and Lee turned to look out the window. Two faces, a man and a woman, loomed in close.

Lee hadn’t expected to be in Venice on the night of July 23. That morning he had performed a lengthy surgery at the Roxbury Surgery Center in Beverly Hills, where he worked as a gynecologist. He lived in Palms, near Culver City. It wasn’t just any surgery, but one that he had invented, using machinery that he had also invented.

Every year millions of American women were diagnosed with uterine fibroids. An estimated 80 percent of women would, at some point in their lives, get fibroids, to the tune of roughly $34 billion a year that included direct medical costs, obstetrical complications like miscarriages and lost workplace productivity. Big number, but Lee says it's an underestimate. For years, the most common treatment was also the most radical: a hysterectomy. It was Lee who came up with a better solution, a less expensive, less invasive outpatient surgery called the Acessa procedure. It rarely cost more than $10,000, which might seem like a lot, but was actually a pretty good deal, Dr. Lee thought. In and out of the operating room in a matter of hours, back to work in a couple of days. He had treated Hollywood actresses who were between projects. He’d even starred on an episode of CBS's The Doctors in May. They'd introduced him and one of his patients and called the operation a "game-changer" for uterine fibroids.

That morning, after the surgery, he’d gone home, made some patient calls, read some recent research. He grew tired and fell asleep. What was supposed to be a short nap turned into a long one. His fiancee, Kimberley, called, waking him into one of those surreal in-between times, as if the routine hours somehow had become scrambled.      

“I feel asleep,” he told her. "I didn’t eat dinner.”

“You better get something,” she replied.

She had important meetings with out-of-town visitors that night and wouldn’t be able to join him. They would get together tomorrow. Lee put on a pair of dark gray blue jeans and a blue-green short-sleeve golf shirt, a pair of black dress shoes and headed out the door. An acquaintance had recommended this place in Venice. He decided to try it out.

Now Lee looked out the window at the faces bearing down on him. There was no question, they were screaming at him, saying he’d hit a bike. Had he? He wasn’t sure. He hadn’t felt anything, but then again, would he have? That van was pretty close, maybe he hadn’t been paying attention. But now they were shouting something else: He had to pay! $150! $150! It seemed a very specific amount, but then maybe that’s how much a bike was worth. He rolled down the window. A slight-looking African-American woman with curly, almost bushy, hair stared intently back. At her side was a man. Both were in their 20s, early 30s at the latest. Lee rolled down his window and let his foot gently off the brake pad so that the BMW continued to roll backward into the street. $150!

“What bike?” he asked, as gently as possible.

He was intent on getting out of that parking spot, but he was still jammed between the van, another car and, now, this shouting pair, who continued to scream. "You hit that bike! You gotta pay! $150! You gotta pay!" And then, very suddenly, Lee wasn’t alone anymore. Sitting in his passenger seat, cushioned in the same soft leather he was in, was a man. Like the pair, he was African-American, mid-20s, dressed casually, about 5'10", medium build. Lee had injured his bike, the man screamed, and now Lee had to pay for the bike. $150! “If I damaged your bike, I’m more than happy to pay you,” Lee said. All the same, Lee was formulating a plan. He continued to back up.

The restaurant wasn’t quite what he had been hoping for. What had he been in the mood for? Hard to say. Just not that. But all was not lost. There was music. In the Del Monte, the Townhouse’s basement music venue, an older gentleman with white hair was playing piano. Lee couldn’t have said the names of the songs, but he was pretty sure it was stuff from the '40s and '50s. Old-school, pleasant and nostalgic. He ordered a house red and decided to stay a while. He’d make a can of soup for himself when he got home later. Lee liked piano music. In fact, he had composed music. He’d written the score for A Mosquito-Man, a sci-fi flick available for purchase on iTunes for $14.99, or $4.99 to rent. A Mosquito-Man was the story of Jim Crowley, who was “having a really bad day.” After getting fired from his job at the nuclear power plant, having his car towed and learning about his wife’s affair, things took a turn for the worse. An evil scientist kidnapped Crowley and infected him with a “deadly mosquito-borne virus that is spreading across the planet.” Vengeance, we learn, came in the form of the half man, half mosquito. A Mosquito-Man ran one hour and 19 minutes. Lee was listed as a producer. Not bad. Pretty cool, in fact.

The plan was that as soon as Lee had cleared this van, cleared the other car and was in the actual street with room to spare, he was going to jump out of that BMW and run. But the man sitting in the passenger seat had something else in mind. Before Lee could put his plan into action, the man motioned toward his waist. There, Lee could plainly see, was the handle of a large pistol.

“You see this?” the man said. Lee nodded. Yeah, he saw it.

“There’s no need for that,” Lee said, “I’m happy to pay you.”

To which the man shouted: Yes! Lee had to pay him. $150! If only he could get into the street, he thought, he’d ditch the car and run for his life. And then the lights went out. Just like that. The automatic roof light that had come on when the man had entered the car had now — blink — gone out. In the sudden darkness, a hunk of metal slammed into Lee’s face, breaking his glasses. A direct hit, he thought. If he cried out, he doesn’t remember.

A Mosquito-Man came out in January and went straight to DVD. Still, though, not bad. But then again, Lee had been doing music since he was a kid. Since he was 7, to be precise. He played in the classical and new-wave genres and had recorded some music with the Seattle Symphony years ago. The Santa Cruz symphony had played some pieces he’d composed. He’d even written a full-length ballet, which had been performed in Carmel. Lee sipped his wine and listened to the gentleman playing the '40s tunes, the nostalgic stuff. The guy was OK, Lee thought. Not great, but not terrible either. OK. Any way you looked at it, music was complicated. It was a little bit like a map. You had to pay attention, see where it was going to take you.

Surgery was a little like that, too. Take that surgery he’d done three or four weeks ago, for example. A woman came in with 45 fibroid tumors in the lining of her uterine wall. He’d had to rotate the uterus 180 degrees to get it into the right position in order to perform the Acessa operation. At times like these he’d sometimes use a Laparoscopic Ultrasound Transducer to see inside the uterus. Other times, he’d use the same machine to help him rotate the uterus and get it into the right position. Then it would be time to get the ablation needle into position to start zapping the tumors, like a game of Asteroids. When you attack a tumor, you deploy an electrode array that expands and extends outward from the tip of the ablation needle, which allows you to treat a larger area. It was creative that way, like music. You had to pay attention to where the composer was going to take you. But like with these '40s, nostalgic tunes, sometimes you could just relax and let it all wash over you.

The blows rained down on him. One. Then another. Then a third. At least 10 in all — and all on his face. His eyes, forehead, glasses. Everywhere.

He put his hands up to defend himself, but the blows kept coming. They were just two men in a car now, both silent, one pistol-whipping another. The couple that had been shouting at him through the window seemed to have disappeared, and it occurred to Lee that it had all been a ruse to distract attention from the man who now sat in his passenger seat beating him senseless. His foot slipped off the brake pad momentarily and Lee’s BMW crept backward into the street until the back end gently tapped the bumper of another vehicle. And then, as suddenly as he had appeared, the passenger jumped out and ran off. Lee sat stunned for a moment, then opened the door. First one and then several bystanders approached and peered in. Was he OK … did he need anything? Towels, he replied. He was bleeding profusely from various places — his nose, his cheeks, he didn’t know where else. He knew he had to stop the bleeding. His left eye had already swollen almost completely shut. Someone said they had called 911, the paramedics and police were on their way. In his stupor, Lee overheard snippets of conversation.

“We have to go,” a man said.

“But we saw everything,” a woman replied.

“I know,” he replied, “That’s why we have to go.”

As they left, Lee had one thought: witnesses. It had been an expert operation, really, now that he thought about it. The screamers had distracted him, the passenger had slipped in, all of it in under 10 seconds. They must have done it before. But for what? Lee hadn’t given them anything. He looked down. His clothes, the beige leather seats, his hands, the console — everything was covered in blood.

He’d invented Acessa by accident. He’d been asked to look into the particulars of an upcoming liver operation known as Radiofrequency Ablation in order to gauge its effectiveness and safety. As part of his due diligence Lee had pored through the literature, done a ton of reading. It looked like the liver operation was a good bet. But in the course of his reading, he’d discovered that the same operation might be particularly effective for uterine fibroids. And these fibroids could be nasty things. For one, they looked an awful lot like a cancer known as leiomyosarcoma, which obviously made a lot of his patients nervous. There was no apparent link between fibroids and cancer, but when the fibroids themselves could often grow to the size of a volleyball, getting them out in a timely, efficient and safe way was a priority. He knew several women who had declined the existing options, and were eager for alternatives.

After clearing the procedure with the appropriate authorities, Lee performed the Radiofrequency Ablation therapy on several women successfully. What he didn’t know at the time was that other doctors had tried something similar — and failed. Who knew why. Maybe they used the wrong kind of ablation needle. Lee found himself thinking of these things as he listened to the piano music. Composing was about creating a desired mood, a tonality, a sentiment. Acessa didn’t require narcotics, the incisions were tiny. Patients, like some of the Hollywood actresses he treated, could be back to work within days. It got FDA approval three years ago. California state insurance didn’t cover it. But other states, like New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and a few others, did. Shame, that. He’d have to look into it. 

It wasn’t easy stanching all that blood, but eventually he managed. His pants and shirt were soaked.The paramedics arrived first, then the police. They both asked him lots of questions and he did his best to answer. Nevertheless, his first thoughts ran to the morbid: What if he had died, or been permanently disabled? It was a real possibility. An ambulance took him to the Southern California Hospital of Culver City. On the way, he thought to himself how grateful he was that the bleeding had slowed. After a spell in the hospital waiting room where he sat shirtless and still, a nurse wheeled him to a room for a CT scan on his face and head.

“What happened?” the radiology tech asked, and Lee told him.

“I don’t know why they targeted me,” he said. Asian males were actually frequent targets because of the perception that they carried wads of cash on them at all times, the tech said. He saw it all the time.

“Really?” Lee asked, and the tech nodded.

“Well, this one doesn't,” Lee said.

The hardest thing about Acessa was the name. Lee had wanted to call it HALT, for Hysterectomy Alternative, which he thought conveyed information and was catchy. The board of the hospital where he worked at the time didn’t agree, though. It got pretty contentious, the whole naming thing. Lee had formed a company called Halt Medical, and ultimately it fell to the company’s board to make the final call. So they all got together to hash it out. The CEO, the assistant to the CEO, the vp marketing, the COO and Lee himself barricaded themselves in a room for about eight hours. Things got tense and no one could agree. Eventually, they settled on Akeso, the Greek goddess of healing. Someone had the idea to change it to Acessa, adding the “A” at the end because uterine fibroids were a female issue. Never mind that Akeso herself was a goddess. Lee eventually came to terms with the name, Acessa. As far as names went, it was a little bit like that piano player: not great, but OK. It would do.

Lee was discharged from the hospital with a mostly clean bill of health. He called Lyft and was headed home when he realized he didn’t have his keys, so he called and found out his car had been impounded. He went to the garage, paid $285, got his car, his keys, paid the Lyft driver and resumed the trip home in the BMW, worse for wear but still rolling. At home, he noticed that the would-be robber had left some items inside the car. Using a pair of wooden chopsticks, Lee bagged the evidence for the police. Then he changed out of his blood-soaked clothes and went to his bedroom. He couldn’t sleep so he just sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the wall for several hours. He didn’t eat, he didn’t even feel like showering. He wasn’t named after the movie star Bruce Lee. It just happened to be a pretty common name among Chinese Americans. Perhaps the weirdest thing was that a lot of physicians shared his name. He’d done some investigating on the matter. After a few hours, dawn began to flood into his room. He’d never learned martial arts. That would have been useful, he thought. At 9 a.m. sharp he called the cops again.

For a few days after the attack, his vision periodically erupted into blinding flashes of light. The eye is composed of a gel-like material, and that gel is attached to our retinas. With trauma, the attachment can sever, causing flashes of light, most often on the periphery of one's vision because it pulls on the retina. It’s called posterior vitreous detachment, or PVD. It’s not a permanent thing, but it bothered him for a few days. His sister came over. She was a doctor, too. Then Kimberley came, Kimberley who was shocked by what she had heard and who then became distraught. He thought about the three daughters he had raised, mostly as a single father. Two were married now. Seven weeks before, at age 61, he had become a grandfather for the first time.

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles city council authorized a $10,000 reward for Lee’s attackers. The police investigation is ongoing. Police say a large population of homeless and mentally ill in the vicinity may have been a contributing factor to the incident. “We don’t know what the motivation was in this case,” says Officer Theodore Bridges, of the LAPD’s Pacific Division. “But there was a dispute and unfortunately Mr. Lee was beaten pretty badly.”

Lee is back at work now, and his face is healing. He doesn’t know when he and Kimberley are going to pull the trigger. A date has not been set.