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3 women say prominent former UCLA gynecologist sexually abused them

Three women detailed their alleged abuse at the hands of former UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps, who faces separate criminal charges for sexual battery.
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/ Source: TODAY

Three women are speaking out about abuse they say they endured from a prominent former UCLA Health gynecologist who will appear in court on Thursday amid criminal charges of sexual battery and exploitation involving at least two patients.

Ellen Cater, Gabriela Vasquez and Julie Orsatti spoke exclusively with Natalie Morales on TODAY Thursday about their experiences with Dr. James Heaps.

"I have flashbacks to this day,'' Orsatti said.

Vasquez, who was a medical assistant at UCLA Health, says she told her supervisor about a disturbing exam she underwent from Heaps in January of 2017, but that it wasn't until December of that year that UCLA began an internal investigation.

"UCLA needs to be held accountable for putting him first before us,'' Vasquez said.

(From left) Gaby Vasquez, Ellen Cater and Julie Orsatti told Natalie Morales they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of former UCLA Health gynecologist Dr. James Heaps. TODAY

Heaps was charged with sexual battery in June and is currently out on bail. He has pleaded not guilty and his medical license has been suspended.

The three women who spoke on TODAY are not part of the criminal case, but have filed civil lawsuits against Heaps and the regents of the University of California.

They also are part of a group of about 100 women with similar allegations against Heaps, including eight UCLA students, five of whom say Heaps sexually abused them while treating them at the school's health center, where he saw patients between 1983 and 2010.

"(Dr. Heaps) has no doubt of his innocence, as do hundreds, if not thousands of his former patients,'' Heaps' attorney said in a statement to NBC News. "Dr. Heaps never did a transvaginal ultrasound for any purpose other than medical, only touched patients during examinations for medical purposes and never made comments or asked questions for non-medical purpose."

Heaps continued practicing until retiring in June of 2018. Cater says she saw him just two days before his office closed.

"I was allowed to walk into the room after sitting in a waiting room full of other women waiting to see him,'' she said. "I walked in, got undressed. He sexually assaulted me again."

A week later, she, along with Heaps' other patients, received a letter announcing his retirement.

"UCLA, I deeply believe, absolutely knew at that point,'' she said.

Retired UCLA Health gynecologist Dr. James Heaps has been accused by more than 100 women of sexual misconduct and faces charges of sexual battery involving at least two patients. TODAY

UCLA acknowledged to NBC News that Heaps retired while he was under investigation and that it "regrets the way his departure was characterized."

The three women say they all went to see Heaps because he came highly recommended as a gynecologist with a specialty in oncology.

"I sat there thinking, this is a gynecologist oncologist, much more training and education than most doctors I see,'' Cater said. "I knew I felt uncomfortable, but I should really trust him."

Orsatti said she saw him about every three or four months in 2017 and 2018.

"He kept saying, he kept giving me diagnoses that scared me,'' she said. "I never walked out of that office without crying."

Cater recalled a similar experience.

"I was also told I could get cancer and die, and since seeing another gynecologist, I've learned I'm not at high risk,'' she said. "He put fear in me to guarantee that I would keep coming back every few months."

Heaps' attorney told NBC News that the doctor would "never ask patients to come in for appointments more than necessary or overstate anyone's risk of cancer."

Cater and Orsatti said Heaps touched them inappropriately during their visits.

"He had his hands all over my body," Orsatti said.

"Using his entire hand and palm of his hand all over, lingering for too long,'' Cater said. "And looking and telling me that my breasts were beautiful."

Vasquez says she expressed concern to Heaps when he directed a chaperone to leave while conducting an exam on her.

"He was introducing the ultrasound and he was simulating as he was having sexual intercourse with me,'' she said. "And I said, this is not OK, this is not right. I immediately went to my supervisor, and I reported this to her, and nothing was done."

Jennifer McGrath, an attorney representing Heaps' accusers, told Morales that there were allegations of sexual misconduct against Heaps at least as of 2014 and "there was not further action taken with regard to that."

UCLA Health told NBC News it's looking into the handling of one 2014 complaint they acknowledge receiving, and was unaware of another allegation against Heaps that was posted on Yelp a year later until its investigation was underway.

The UCLA Title IX office released the results of an internal investigation in November that found "there is sufficient evidence that (Dr. Heaps) engaged in behavior that constituted sexual assault" when he examined the woman who filed the 2017 complaint.

The report also contained instances of his staffers defending him, including a medical assistant present during the exam in question stating that she "never witnessed nor heard of anything inappropriate" during exams.

His accusers are demanding to know what took so long for UCLA Health to publicly acknowledge their accusations, but have found strength in knowing they're not alone.

"It's felt very lonely, because you don't have anybody to turn to who has a similar story, and yet we do, we just didn't know each other,'' Cater said.

UCLA has already settled some cases involving allegations against Heaps for more than $3.5 million.

"An independent review is examining what occurred and whether our policies and procedures are consistent with best practices,'' UCLA said in a statement to NBC News. "As an institution we recognize that we must do more to provide the safe, supportive and respectful environment our patients and staff expect and deserve."

Heaps is the latest prominent doctor at a California university to face charges of sexual misconduct. Former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall was arrested in July and charged with sexually assaulting 16 young women under the guise of medical exams.