WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Dr. Dennis Charney stepped forward to address the court here, the man who tried to kill him standing no more than 20 feet away.
He stated his full name for the record and then began detailing what happened. How one morning as he picked up his iced coffee and lightly buttered bagel, he heard a shotgun boom and saw blood pouring from his shoulder and chest. How he spent five days in the intensive care unit and then was scared to sleep with the lights off. How even now, a year later, he carried buckshot in his body.
He also explained how, before all that, he had studied trauma victims and their recoveries.
Charney, a bearded, barrel-chested psychiatrist, made clear that he accepted that, with the pull of a trigger, he had joined their ranks. He identified himself as a trauma victim, just as he did a family man, a scientist, and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
To the man who fired the gun, Charney would later recall, he wanted to convey a level of respect. It would show, he felt, that he was not devoting his energy to hatred. So he would refer to the shooter by his title: doctor. Because before the years of misconduct investigations, the firing, the lawsuit, and now the shooting, the man had done the work to become one.
That small sign of respect was different from forgiveness, though. And it was different from wanting Dr. Hengjun Chao, 50, to be sent to prison for a very long time.
“Your honor, I’m here today to ask that you sentence Dr. Hengjun Chao to the maximum sentence available under the law,” Charney said to the judge, as Chao stood unmoving, his bespectacled eyes cast downward, his hands cuffed behind his back.
“Dr. Chao’s attempt to murder me not only caused me to suffer grave physical injury,” Charney continued, “but it’s changed my life and the life of my family forever.”
Charney, 66, built his career studying the biology of depression and anxiety, making foundational discoveries about ketamine’s potential as a treatment. When he started working at a VA hospital, he also grew intrigued by post-traumatic stress disorder. Why, he wondered, did some people who endured horrible tragedies bounce back more easily than others?
Charney and Yale psychiatrist Dr. Steven Southwick, a longtime friend, started interviewing people who had been through severe stresses, both acute and systemic. They and other colleagues studied the cases of hundreds of prisoners of war, crime victims, and people who grew up abused and in poverty, aiming to build on a growing body of research about resilience.
They funneled their work into a 2012 book, “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges,” which offers an overview of the role that regions of the brain, chemicals, and genetic and epigenetic factors play in resilience. Stress can become chronic for some people, morphing into depression or PTSD, they wrote. But for other people, after some amount of time, “it will almost be as if the trauma had never occurred. … Some survivors will even grow stronger and wiser because of their trauma.”
Their message: Bouncing back from trauma is possible, but some people will need to work harder than others. They distilled their findings into 10 “resilience factors” — coping mechanisms that could bolster comebacks, like skills you could practice. They include maintaining an optimistic attitude, setting goals, and embracing mental and physical challenges.
“Fortunately, to withstand, overcome, and grow from these experiences, we don’t need to have superior genes, take a ‘tough as nails’ approach to life, or train with the Special Forces,” Southwick and Charney wrote. “But we do need to prepare ourselves, for life has a way of surprising us with adversity when we least expect it.”
Despite that counsel, Charney wasn’t prepared for certain realities that came with being a trauma victim himself.
He didn’t know, for example, what it would be like to hear about another shooting on the news and have that stir his own experience. Or what it would be like to move his right shoulder and feel shotgun pellets inside him — or at least think he was feeling shotgun pellets — a daily reminder that someone almost killed him.
After the shooting, Charney turned to the stories of trauma survivors he knew, looking for insights for his own recovery. But he still didn’t have an answer to a central question.
“I was hoping that I was a resilient person, because I wrote about it,” Charney said in an interview in his Manhattan office a few weeks after Chao’s sentencing, and one year and two days after the shooting. “But I never knew, was I going to be resilient?”
Charney came to Mount Sinai in 2004 as dean of research, after stops at Yale and the National Institutes of Health. By 2007, he was dean of the medical school.
Two years before Charney moved to New York, Chao arrived. He had gone to medical school in his native China and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina. The school touted Chao’s research, which centered on using gene therapy to treat hemophilia.
At Mount Sinai, where he earned a six-figure salary, he received grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and picked up an award for early-career scientists.
In 2007, however, a dispute between Chao and a former postdoc resulted in dueling accusations of scientific misconduct, with charges involving the alleged fabrication of data. From the start, senior Mount Sinai faculty suspected Chao’s complaints might have been retaliation for the postdoc’s decision to question his authority and leave his lab.
Charney appointed an investigative committee to examine the case. The committee combed through lab notebooks and hard drives, reviewing raw data and interviewing scientists.
In April 2009, after a year of work, the committee wrote that some of the allegations fell into a “classic ‘he said-she said’ dispute,” with the postdoc saying Chao told her to manipulate data and him denying the accusations. But the panel unearthed email evidence and third-party corroboration of one claim: Chao had told the postdoc to swap data from different lab mice, a clear instance of scientific misconduct.
Chao also wouldn’t withdraw certain allegations against the postdoc when presented with contrary facts. And the committee uncovered serious problems, including omitted data, in a manuscript Chao had submitted for publication. Chao said he was unaware of the issues until the committee pointed them out.
“Overall, the Committee found Dr. Chao to be defensive, remarkably ignorant about the details of his protocol and specifics of his raw data, and cavalier with his selective memory,” members of the committee wrote. They added: “The committee came to a unanimous impression that he was willing to use sloppy data, selective data and manipulated data in order to support his thesis and generate papers for publication.”
The next month, Charney fired Chao, a decision that was later affirmed by a Mount Sinai tribunal and again by the board of trustees after Chao’s appeals. (The postdoc was also found to have committed research misconduct, and she resigned, court records show.)
Chao maintained his innocence, and felt like he had been railroaded. He filed a lawsuit against Mount Sinai, Charney, and other faculty, but the case went nowhere. A federal judge dismissed his claims in 2011, and an appellate court upheld that decision.
“A voluminous record indicates a rigorously investigated charge and finding that Chao committed research misconduct and violated professional ethical standards,” a judge wrote.
The Mount Sinai investigative committee had also found that Chao “promoted a laboratory culture of … authoritarianism” and harangued his staff when he was unhappy with their work. In interviews with the committee, some researchers speculated that he acted that way because he was from China, where they suggested that type of behavior might be more acceptable.
That led Chao to argue in the lawsuit that he had been subject to discrimination because of his race and national origin. But the judge found that while some remarks “demonstrate a speculative and naïve acceptance of stereotypes … they do not suggest that discriminatory animus occasioned Chao’s termination.” The judge also noted that Charney, who had made the decision to fire Chao, had not made any of those remarks.
With the legal case thrown out, Mount Sinai and Charney thought the dispute was over. At the time of the shooting, Charney hadn’t thought about Chao in years.
But Chao was showing flashes of anger. He bounced among jobs at other research labs, but grew tired of working for other scientists who relied on his expertise, according to former colleagues. In tweets, he railed against what he saw as racism in academics and the U.S. legal system, invoking the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and the Jim Crow South.
“Plain lies repeated by US federal judges & courts would become truth? Goebbels is laughing,” he tweeted in December 2014.
“If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anyone else again,” he tweeted in August 2015, one year before the shooting.
“Except more hypocrisy & scams, any real difference of civil rights in US today from 1930s’ Nazi Germany or Alabama before 1950s?” he tweeted in July 2016, one month before the shooting.
The morning of Aug. 29, 2016, a Monday, Charney left his home in the New York suburb of Chappaqua and popped into Lange’s Little Store & Delicatessen, a favorite of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s, where a green bench sits outside and American flags wave. He would grab his regular breakfast and head into work.
Chao was waiting. He had stationed himself in the Walgreens parking lot across from Lange’s a few minutes before Charney pulled up in front of the deli. When Charney went inside, Chao grabbed a 20-gauge shotgun from the trunk of his red Toyota Corolla.
Around the same time, Chao’s wife was at the police department. He had left her a note on the dresser that morning. It explained that by the time she found it, he might have already hurt Charney. Until then, Chao’s wife didn’t know her husband still harbored malice toward Charney, she told police.
Charney strolled out of Lange’s at about 6:55 a.m. Chao was crossing the street.
Then the sound. The pain. The blood. The iced coffee tumbling to the ground.
Charney knew instantly he had been shot, and began screaming. In that moment, he didn’t feel fear, just that he needed to get to safety, to find a way to survive, he would later tell his son.
The blast hadn’t knocked Charney over, and he scrambled back into Lange’s, still holding his bagel. Chao took a few steps toward the store, its door now peppered with shotgun pellets, then turned around and walked back across the street.
Security footage from the Walgreens showed Chao on the phone as he headed to his car. He was calling 911 to report the shooting.
The pellets had broken one of Charney’s ribs, ripped through his right shoulder, punctured a lung, and burrowed all the way to his liver. He lost half his blood. An ambulance arrived and took him to Westchester Medical Center, then, once stable, he was moved to Mount Sinai.
He spent five days in the ICU while his liver and lung functions were monitored.
Almost immediately, Charney began mapping out his physical recovery. He prided himself on his strength, and he wanted to get back to competing against his students in bench press and pushup contests. He had a kayak race in April, and he needed to make sure his shoulder would be ready. He started daily physical therapy sessions.
He also instructed his doctors that he would be speaking at the school’s white coat ceremony, when new students slip on crisp coats for the first time in a ritual marking the start of their journey to becoming doctors. It was in less than three weeks.
The devout Springsteen fan zeroed in on the song “Tougher Than the Rest.” The title would be a mantra he repeated to himself. It propelled him.
Meanwhile, others in Charney’s life considered how unusual it was that he had become, in a way, a subject of his own research. His son, Dr. Alex Charney, a psychiatric resident at Mount Sinai, spoke with his dad one night in the hospital when some of his former Yale colleagues were visiting.
“We were asking, ‘What happened? What does this feel like?’” Alex Charney recalled. “Because this is a crazy opportunity to get in the head of someone going through what you’ve been inquiring about scientifically for years.”
Charney was so driven to get out of the hospital that the full psychological impact of the shooting did not set in until he returned home. Because of his injuries, he had to sleep in a hospital bed in his study downstairs for a month, not in his bed upstairs with his wife of 45 years. For the first few nights, he knew he didn’t want to sleep in the dark, so the lights stayed on.
He was also placed under police security, so his family had to check in with an officer stationed outside when they came to visit. Loud sounds made him nervous, and he was uncomfortable leaving his house.
He didn’t dwell on any of that at the white coat ceremony, nor did he identify Chao as the shooter. But Charney, wearing his own white coat, outlined the events of that morning, pausing every so often to compose himself. He credited the bystanders, police officers, and doctors and nurses and housekeepers who had taken care of him. He cracked a few jokes.
“This ceremony is the first time I’ve returned since the attack,” Charney told the students. “During this time, I’ve reflected on concerns both great and small, the bonds we form, the choices we make, the paths we choose.”
Still, the complications from the shooting persisted. Charney developed a minor seizure disorder, believed by doctors to have been tied to the shooting, causing headaches and dizziness and numbness on the right side of his face. He would have to monitor his lead levels because of the buckshot in his body.
There was little doubt that it was Chao who shot Charney. When a police officer arrived at the Walgreens, Chao was waiting with his hands up. He had stashed the gun in the car.
“I just shot an asshole,” Chao told the officer, according to court records. A few hours later, at the police station, Chao called Charney a “rat in your community.”
At the trial, in June, Chao was the only defense witness. He said he meant to hit Charney’s coffee cup when he fired the gun, not the dean himself. He claimed he only shot at Charney because he believed the dean was colluding with a pharmaceutical company to promote an antidepressant that raised the risk of suicide. He thought he would get arrested and use the publicity to reveal Charney’s malfeasance. He had only fired once.
“Because I hate him doesn’t mean I want to kill him or injure him,” Chao said. “I want to expose him.” During the trial, Mount Sinai called Chao’s allegation baseless.
The jury took about an hour to convict Chao of attempted murder, assault, and criminal use of a firearm.
In August, Chao was back in the fluorescently lit courtroom in White Plains to face his sentencing.
First, though, Charney would speak.
Charney, more accustomed to addressing scientific conferences and medical students, stood at the lectern, a commanding presence in a dark blue suit.
He remained composed as he recounted what happened. It was an experience he seemed to have consolidated into an anecdote he could share. He used some of the same phrasing in his white coat speech and in the interview a few weeks later.
It was only when he started describing how the shooting affected his family that his voice broke. He repositioned his hands, clenching the sides of the lectern. For nine seconds, he paused. His voice quavered as he described how his wife had to wash and rebandage his wounds several times a day, and how his grandchildren had to be told in the first years of their lives that someone almost ended their grandfather’s.
His family’s distress was only magnified, Charney said, when they learned at the trial that Chao had shadowed Charney in the week before the shooting, driving by the dean’s house as his wife was playing with their grandchildren.
“A pervasive sense of sadness occurs, as you have to accept a new worldview where bad things happen out of your control,” Charney said. “I feel that.”
Chao’s attorney, Stewart Orden, said his client suffered from a mental illness. He also described Chao’s life before the shooting as “remarkable,” saying he had spent years conducting research to improve the lives of people with rare blood disorders.
“Dr. Chao’s own demons led him to find a demon,” Orden said. Chao believed “that Dr. Charney was involved in promoting drugs that led to the deaths of teenagers. He read into those. He suffered with obsession.”
Then it was Chao’s turn. A deputy uncuffed his hands, and he picked up a handwritten statement.
He spoke quietly, at times haltingly. He had made a mistake and didn’t understand the damage that a shotgun could unleash, he said. Prosecutors and Charney had painted him as obsessed and filled with rage, but he denied being a hateful person.
He apologized for his actions. He apologized to the residents of Chappaqua. He apologized to Charney and his family.
“This was a horrible act gone horribly wrong,” he said.
Like Charney, he struggled the most when it came to his family. His voice caught. He lifted his hand to his face, squeezing his brow. Orden put his hand on his client’s shoulder.
“I also apologize to my wife.” He wavered. “And family.” He collected himself. “For the pain I caused.”
In letters to the judge, relatives and former colleagues described Chao as a caring doctor, dedicated researcher, and loyal friend. He had grown up in a poor farmer’s family but accomplished so much he came to run his own lab, one said. Another noted how quick he was with a smile. A neighbor wrote that Chao would share tomatoes he grew. He was never aggressive.
A former colleague from medical school said Mount Sinai’s actions toward Chao must have caused “mental trauma.” Another said Chao needed psychiatric help, not a prison sentence.
Yiran Chao, Chao’s 24-year-old daughter, wrote that when her family immigrated to the United States, her parents couldn’t afford a car. “My dad walked me to and from preschool every morning,” she wrote, “pausing to give me piggyback rides when my four-year-old legs tired out.” She added: “He is a truly caring individual who has strived to make decisions so that my mom and I may live comfortably and enjoy life.”
Judge Barry E. Warhit was unswayed. Chao faced up to 30 years in prison; Warhit sentenced him to 28.
As Chao was led out of the courtroom, a member of his family waved quietly. She clasped her hands together and pumped them in his direction. It was a gesture of love and support, yet a conveyance of loss and sadness.
When left unattended, guilt and the inability to forgive can sap us,” Charney and Southwick wrote in their book. In practice, though, Charney is not ready to forgive.
“It’s possible I could forgive him, if I became convinced that he had changed as a person, really changed,” Charney said in his 21st-floor office, with its sweeping views of Central Park. He noted that Chao only showed remorse at the sentencing. “I don’t know how I could be convinced, but it’s possible,” Charney said.
For his part, Chao has appealed both his conviction and his sentence. His attorney has maintained Chao is mentally ill; he had a psychological evaluation done, but it is not public.
The shooting continues to affect Charney and his family; his son Alex said he sometimes feels his heart race for a fleeting moment when he sees someone who bears a resemblance to Chao. But Charney has moved forward in many ways. He has regained his shoulder mobility, is back to kayaking, and can almost bench press the same weight he could before the shooting.
He and others say he has rebounded psychologically. He still thinks about the shooting, of course, but the palpable anxiety and fear have subsided.
Charney never viewed the keys to resilience described in his book as a checklist to follow, and knew that they weren’t a one-size-fits-all cure. But many of the steps he took mirrored the advice he gave to readers.
He set goals he could aim for, starting with his determination to get out of the hospital and speak at the white coat ceremony. He leaned on his family. He reflected on the resilience stories he had heard, understanding that role models offer an example to follow. He exercised. And he found a new purpose in becoming a trauma victim.
“When people talk about how you build resilience, you can try to build it just by embracing what’s coming your way,” said Southwick. “Why not see whether there’s an opportunity in whatever you’re facing?”
Charney had reframed life’s tragedies as a source of inspiration before. In September 2014, his granddaughter, Jo Jo, was born with a rare genetic disorder. She died less than four months later, having never left the hospital.
Charney told Jo Jo’s story at a Mount Sinai commencement a few months later, highlighting it as an example of the challenges medicine still needed to overcome and urging graduates “to be the leader your patients and their families need.”
In June, when a disgruntled doctor opened fire at a hospital in the Bronx, two of the victims were transferred to Mount Sinai to be treated. One of them, a doctor, was deeply anxious, and someone suggested to Charney that he seek the doctor out.
Charney, sitting in the same surgical ICU where he had been treated, explained to the doctor that recovering from trauma was a process. That it was tough in the beginning, with few positives to dwell on. That he couldn’t move his arm. But then he told the doctor that, one day, he could use what happened.
“You’re going to recover from this,” he remembered telling the doctor. “You’re going to be a doctor for the rest of your life, and you will use this experience to be a better doctor.”