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Special Report

An Analysis: The Illicit Prescription Drug Epidemic Just Keeps Getting Worse

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office. He is the author of the book “Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan 1815–2008″.
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com
 
The following are a few of the true stories from the cinema verite of America’s Prescription Addiction already playing in real life near you. Half of Americans received at least one prescription in the last month, and almost three billion prescriptions for 100 billion pills were dispensed last year. Both numbers are on a steady increase.

Scene #1 – In the early morning hours the “patients” are lined up out the door and around the block of the suburban Detroit clinic.  Each has a well rehearsed set of subjective symptoms that will produce a scrip for Xanax, Vicodin or another drug that they can sell on the street. Muted cheers as the doctor pulls up in his expensive European sedan, gives them a friendly wave, and then enters the side door of the office. By noon he will have completed his “treatment” of those in the line, and he will retire to the doctors’ lounge at a nearby hospital where he can check his stocks on his laptop.

Scene #2 – The federal prosecutor and case agent view the latest day’s video of a court-authorized Title III from a camera inserted into another doctor’s office, this time in the inner city. The investigation had shown that no “patients” ever entered this office. The doctor enters the office and, using the list of names and drugs given to him by his assistant, proceeds to write out dozens of prescriptions for patients he never sees. What is striking to the prosecution team is that he always puts on his starched white coat and checks his appearance in the mirror before sitting at his desk to complete his task.

Scene #3 – Fourteen year old Sally digs through her parents’ medicine cabinet before leaving the house to join her friends. She thought there was some Valium left from last week but decides to settle for a few of these OxyContins her father had left over from some back surgery. A friend would bring some alcohol to share with the group. Her parents would receive a call later that night from the hospital emergency room where she had been taken after she went into seizure at the party.

Scene #4 – Max was a good student at the state university, but this semester’s course load was a ball-buster, and his performance on final exams next week would determine whether he would keep his scholarship for the rest of the year. Fortunately he had a buddy down the hall who had been diagnosed as ADHD and who would always slide him a few Adderall to boost his concentration level.

Scene #5 – Dr. Anderson gets a call as he is leaving the house with his family to see a Friday night movie. He has to take it because it is his turn to be on call. A desperate sounding patient of the clinic where he works is in a great deal of pain from a recent surgery. She needs a prescription for a pain killer called in to the pharmacy so that she can get through the weekend. Although he knows it will mess up the movie schedule, the doctor takes the time to check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database and discovers that the patient has been getting the same pain pills from two other physicians and an emergency room in the last month. He refuses the request and makes a mental note to address the issue with her regular physician.

 

Like most things, along with the use comes the abuse. Over one-fifth of Americans have taken prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. One-quarter of high school students have abused them, a 33% increase in the last four years. Six of the ten most popular illegal drugs used by 12th graders were originally obtained by prescription, and half of them came from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet.

The epidemic of illicit prescription drug abuse continues to gain speed.  Its use exceeds the combined use of cocaine, heroin, and all inhalants. Marijuana is the only illegal drug used more than pharmaceuticals.

Drug overdose deaths exceeded automobile accident fatalities last year, and most of these (about 24,000) involved prescription drugs, especially addictive painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

The annual health costs from non-medical prescription drug use exceed $100 billion, not including the cost of lost productivity. There has been a staggering increase in the number of newborns addicted to painkillers. Their period of withdrawal is long, costly, and painful for the infant.

The reasons for the epidemic are predictably complex, but a lot of it stems from the prevailing attitude that any adversity can be avoided, denied or at least ignored by popping a pill. Most adults and kids mistakenly believe that non-medical use of prescription drugs is not as dangerous as illegal drugs on the street. When the unwitting source of supply is that benign family doctor and the drugs have passed FDA inspection and come in that cute little pill, how serious can some recreational use be?

Place that misperception in the middle of a proliferation of prescription drugs manufactured in the United States and the dire results reported above are predictable. Enterprising pharmaceutical companies have conducted research that has saved lives and alleviated the pain of countless numbers. And they have profited handsomely and marketed the risky drugs relentlessly. Purdue Pharma receives more than $3 billion in revenue annually from sales of OxyContin. Pretty good considering that three of its executives pled guilty in federal court in 2007 for misbranding the drug with intent to defraud the public and the company paid $635 million in fines and penalties for falsely claiming that the drug was not addictive. Check out the CNN Money article for the fascinating full story.

That’s the demand side of the equation. On the supply side, the factors supporting the epidemic range from venal criminality to well meaning but under-trained physicians. Although they are the most flagrant, health professionals in the first category are responsible for only a small percentage of the prescription drugs being abused.

The doctors and pharmacists who operate “scrip mills” and “pill mills” for big bucks are like any other criminal enterprise and should be treated accordingly. The physician in Scenario #1 above is awaiting trial but is on bond and practicing in his office. The physician in Scenario #2 was convicted, sentenced to 10 years in prison. Afterwards, he’ll be deported back to Nigeria.

More prevalent on the criminal side are the rings that operate especially in metropolitan areas to send “patients” to see a series of primary care physicians for the purpose of obtaining prescriptions for the drugs of abuse. If successful in convincing the doctor of his/her need for pain killers, the prescription is filled at a pharmacy and the pills dropped off in exchange for a cash payment.

Additionally, some enterprising independents have carved out a profitable living by doctor shopping for whatever prescription drugs are selling on the street. Vicodins sell for $10 and up, OxyContin for from 50 cents to $1 per milligram. Called Oxy or Cotton or Blue, the 40 mg pills sell for around $30 and is the most popular illegal drug right now in many cities. Other prescription drugs that can be available on the street include Xanax, Dilaudid, Demerol, Valium and Adderall. The “Holy Trinity” of abused drugs is the combination, taken together, of OxyContin, Xanax, and Soma (a muscle relaxant).

One independent operating in a Detroit suburb, when confronted, proudly displayed her system of repeated prescriptions from a dozen different doctors. She kept a strict calendar of when the pills from each prescription were due to be used up. She never sought a renewal before that date and showed up in person to request another scrip. She was presentable, had the required pain symptoms and avoided all behavior which medical offices have learned to identify from “drug seekers.” The result was that she could count on making $5,000 to $10,000 a month.

Non-criminal suppliers like well intentioned doctors are also part of the problem. Not only do they sometimes fail to detect drug-seeking behavior, but in an abundance of caution they also resort to the most serious (and abused) pain killers even though other options exist.

The fact is that many doctors are uncomfortable with treating patients for pain. The extent of the patient’s suffering is often impossible to verify by objective test, and pain tolerance can vary greatly from patient to patient. Physicians feel like they are on a slippery slope of, on the one hand, wanting to relieve the patient’s suffering and, on the other, avoiding the problems of addiction, not to mention getting anywhere near conduct in which someone could accuse them of not having a demonstrable medical purpose. The observable distinction between a stoic patient in need of pain treatment and one who wants a medication to sustain his or her addiction (or, worse, for sale or recreation) can be pretty elusive.

The other difficult tension for physicians is that there have been many studies that have shown that doctors under-treat pain. Doctors of end-stage cancer patients have been known inexplicably to use less effective pain drugs in order to avoid the prospect of addiction. Patients with chronic, as opposed to acute, pain problems have particularly had difficulty getting adequate pain medication.  There is some indication that the medical establishment is starting to take steps to remedy this problem

However, a debate currently raging in the medical and professional community illustrates this dilemma. The debate is over the use of opioids for treatment of chronic pain. Some think that its efficacy is not sufficiently established or, at least, such drugs should be limited in terms of duration and the maximum daily dose. This caution stems from the dramatic increase of emergency room admissions and deaths from opioid use. One such group is called Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, or PROP.

A group with different views on the use of opioids for chronic pain patients calls itself PROMPT, Professionals for Rational Opioid Monitoring and Pharmacotherapy. Who says these geeky guys and gals don’t have fun with their medical acronyms?

All debate aside, the fact of the matter is that few doctors have received the training necessary to respond to this dilemma. Medical schools, residencies, and required continuing medical education have traditionally ignored the subject. Again, some medical education programs are now addressing the subject.

One development which has great promise in helping weed out drug seekers and in identifying and treating patients with the potential or reality of addiction is the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP). Although the program has great potential, its use as a force to improve medical care and reduce abuse has been limited.

PDMP are statewide electronic databases which collect data on controlled substances dispensed and make that information available to authorized users. Although such programs undoubtedly could be important tools to identify and combat abuse, their present formulations have severe limitations. The primary one is that each state has legislated its own system with widely diverse requirements, data fields and formats.  Few states allow the information to be disseminated to anyone outside the state. Even if PDMP is utilized, patients can avoid detection by simply crossing state lines and seeing a doctor there.

Many states have essentially cut law enforcement out of the loop and do not provide either direct access or reports of suspicious behavior to police or drug diversion agencies. These reports would be a gold mine of data for investigative leads and evidence for the prosecution of abusers, as well as sources for administrative actions against offending doctors and pharmacists.

Another problem is that the use of the program is almost entirely voluntary. The great majority of doctors, pharmacists, and hospitals simply decline to use it. A patient’s history of obtaining drugs from multiple sources is, in most states, available by computer, but this extra step is considered just one more bureaucratic burden. Most physicians by far, like in Scenario #5, above would have authorized the prescription and gone to the movie on time. A handful of states, led by New York, are in the process of making PDRP checks mandatory, at least under some circumstances.

Other suggested reforms are catalogued in the extensive report, Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs : An Assessment of the Evidence for Best Practices, www.pdmpexcellence.org. Nowhere in the 100-page report does anyone suggest the obvious option that a single national program, mandatory to all controlled substances dispensers, be instituted. Nor has anyone else apparently suggested that such a solution be considered.

A national system would essentially halt doctor-shopping and drug seeking enterprises and greatly reduce the quantity of prescription drugs available for abuse. Perhaps the controversy over the Affordable Health Care Act makes such a proposal unworkable. However, the situation seems comparable to the realization not too many years ago that a nationally required system of lower speed limits and seat belts would save lives. Whatever initial objection to the nationalization of the solution to that problem has been eliminated by the proven results.

The illicit prescription drug epidemic is here and getting worse and is costing tens of thousands of lives. The proposals suggested here, better physician education, more resources and involvement by law enforcement, and an effective PDMP program, would not eliminate the problem, but it would have a significant impact. An impact that could improve medical care and save lives.

 

FBI Files: A Peek Into Mobster Vito Giacalone’s Cat-And-Mouse Game With the Feds

By Allan Lengel
Deadline Detroit

DETROIT — Like old Tiger Stadium and the Vernors plant, Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone was a fixture in Detroit, one of the city’s best known mobsters — a Tony Soprano type whose mug occasionally graced the 6 p.m. news.

He was a suspect in the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance. He was known as a street boss who helped run sports betting operations.

And he wasn’t shy about collecting debts.

After he died last year at  88, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, which indicated it had about 20,000 documents on Giacalone.

I became interested in Giacalone as a Detroit News reporter in the early 1990s. He had just pleaded guilty to some IRS charges and was walking out of a federal courtroom downtown.

“Mr. Giacalone, would you care to comment?” I asked.  He ignored me, and with an icy stare, straight ahead, he proceeded to the elevator.

Before he went off to prison, I wrote a rather lengthy profile on him. I called his attorney David DuMouchel to request an interview. Dumouchel called Giacalone, then called me back to say that he not only didn’t want to talk, but:  “He’s not happy” that I was doing the story.

While Giacalone was alive, we got very little information on his private goings on, even though there was always a thirst for news about the Mafia.  I thought the FBI files could shed some light. 

FBI Finally Releases Some Documents

A week ago, I got the first installment from the FBI, a measly 120-plus pages or so, focusing on the mid-1980s. Many were redacted, chock full of whited out spaces to hide names and certain information , and more than 250  were reviewed and withheld. The FBI said it is working on processing the rest of the documents, determining what it can release.

The pages I received provide a glimpse of the ongoing cat-and-mouse game Giacalone played with the FBI and U.S. Strike Force attorneys, who often relied on snitches, wiretaps and surveillances to keep tabs on his life.

And keep tabs they did.

FBI documents talk about  seeing him play golf around town, including on the Wolverine Golf Course in Mt. Clemens; chatting with certain people on the course; people picked him up by car;  a dentist appointment for some gum problems; his winter stays in North Miami Beach and a desire to influence Teamsters elections.

The FBI also got word that Giacalone could be one wily guy.

Could Listen to Phone Conversations

A 1986 document mentions a source saying that Giacalone “has the capability to monitor telephone conversations. Source advised that he/she does not know how Giacalone does this, but he/she has heard on several occasions that Giacalone has this capability. Source added that Giacalone carries binoculars around in his automobile and that he used to spot surveillance vehicles.”

To read more click here. 

 

Part 2: What We Can Do to Confront the Threat of New Designer Drugs from China

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office. This is the second in a two-part series.  To read the first part, click here.
 
By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Part one of this report discussed the menace of a new generation of synthetic designer drugs from China causing a public health crisis in Europe. In America, in the last two years, enterprising rogue Chinese chemists have introduced hundreds of these new chemical combinations into the market.

This plague in America  is steadily growing worse.  Law enforcement and medical experts believe that the tens of thousands of reported cases in hospitals in the last year are just the tip of the iceberg. These numbers have essentially doubled just in the last year. The rate of reporting by the agencies like DAWN, which records emergency room admissions, and NFLIS, which keeps track of law enforcement laboratory tests on drugs, is a bleak harbinger of things to come.

Unless aggressive action is taken, we can expect the same panic the British are experiencing from this onslaught. On a more optimistic note, there are positive steps that can be taken and virtually all individuals and groups can have a role in this defense. This part will outline a strategy which can meet this oncoming crisis.

Parents —– Since the victims are largely teenagers living at home, the first line of defense has to be the parents. At a minimum all parents of teens and pre-teens should have a frank and two-sided conversation to educate their children on the life-threatening effects of these drugs, which are deceptively packaged and marketed as a “legal high.”

Teens think they are immortal and the prospect of some exciting new forbidden experience can be irresistible. Information and misinformation about the synthetics are spread by friends and acquaintances, and the availability is cheap and accessible. Many of these new consumers are naïve about drugs in general, as well as their dangers.

A teenage boy in North Dakota is currently facing murder charges because he gave a single tablet of a synthetic drug to a friend. The friend died shortly after ingesting it at a party. The consequences of such single acts are beyond the comprehension of most teens.

Read more »

ATF Official: Detroit’s Violent Criminals Are a “Throwback”

Daryl McCrary

 
By Allan Lengel
Deadline Detroit

DETROIT — Daryl McCrary is no stranger to the world of violence.

Having spent 21 years with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) he’s worked in places like Los Angeles and Baltimore. He’s gone undercover, he’s bought guns on the street and investigated gangs and violent crime.

As acting head of ATF in Detroit since October, McCrary says Detroit is as violent as any city in America, and more violent than many.

He says while he’s seen criminals in other cities modify their activity to try and avoid detection — and ultimately prison — Detroit criminals haven’t really bent much. He calls them “prideful” when it comes to street survival.

“Drive-by shootings. Home invasions. Aggravated assaults. I see a lot of things that I consider to be a throwback” to the old days.

No better example of the dangers in the city was the shootout last week between members of an ATF task force and a murder suspect they were trying to arrest near Linwood and Hooker on the city’s west side. The task force boxed in the suspect’s car. When officers approached, the suspect opened fire. One Detroit police officer on the task force was shot twice in the leg. Another Detroit cop on the task force suffered what was first thought to be gunshot wounds to the head.

But Deadline Detroit reported Sunday night that the officer may have actually been hit in the head by metal fragments, perhaps from a car, that came from a bullet striking the vehicle. The officer remains hospitalized. The suspect, Matthew Joseph, 23, was killed in the shootout.

To read more including a Q & A click here.

ProPublica Presents, Criminal Injustice: The Best Reporting on Wrongful Convictions

By Theodoric Meyer and Christie Thompson
ProPublica

In 1991, an unemployed printer named David Ranta was convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn.

Last week, Ranta was released from the maximum-security prison in which he’d spent nearly 22 years, after almost every piece of evidence used to convict him fell away. The New York Times reported that the lead detectives on the case “broke rule after rule” — they “kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. Ranta’s confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances.”

 Last Friday, just a day after he was released, Ranta suffered a serious heart attack.

With Ranta’s case in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the best reporting on wrongful convictions.

CASE FLAWS

Trial By Fire, The New Yorker, September 2009
In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana who had been convicted of killing his three children 12 years earlier by setting fire to his house. But as The New Yorker’s David Grann reports, the arson investigation findings that the prosecutors used to convict Willingham were based on “junk science,” according to a highly acclaimed fire investigator. The jailhouse informant who testified against him was unstable and had a history of addiction and mental illness. The year after Willingham’s execution, a fire scientist hired by a state commission concurred that the original investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson.

Are Memphis Prosecutors Trying to Send an Innocent Man Back to Death Row?, The Nation, March 2013
Timothy Terrell McKinney is facing his third trial for the murder of an off-duty police officer in Memphis. His first case was overturned after the prosecution suppressed evidence that questioned McKinney’s guilt. Multiple testimonies now suggest it would be near impossible for McKinney to have committed the murder. But as one local put it, “when it’s a police officer killed here in Memphis, you know, they quick to nail somebody.”

Defendants Left Unaware of Flaws Found in Cases, The Washington Post, April 2012
In the 1990s, reviews by the Justice Department found shoddy testing in FBI labs was producing unreliable evidence. But that news failed to make its way to defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted based on flawed forensics. “Hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration [or] a retrial,” the Washington Post found.

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive, ProPublica, June 2011
Our 2011 investigation with Frontline and NPR found mistakes made by coroners and medical examiners led to the wrongful conviction of numerous babysitters, parents and others for murdering children. Ernie Lopez may be one such case: he was convicted for murdering a 6-month-old girl, despite evidence that later suggested she may have died from a rare blood disease. (Lopez later agreed to a plea deal for a reduced charge.)

Death Row Justice Derailed, The Chicago Tribune, November 1999
The first part of an epic investigation by Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills of how Illinois had sent innocent men to death row. “Capital punishment in Illinois,” Armstrong and Mills reported, “is a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence that justice has been forsaken, a Tribune investigation has found.” The series helped convince Gov. George Ryan to put a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois the next year, which remains in effect today.

House of Screams, The Chicago Reader, 1990
Over 20 years ago, journalist John Conroy broke a story that shook the foundation of Chicago’s criminal justice system. Conroy unearthed the routine torture tactics used by then-police commander Jon Burge — from suffocation to electric shocks — that resulted in numerous false confessions and wrongful convictions.

DNA EVIDENCE

 

The Innocent Man, Parts 1 and 2, Texas Monthly, November 2012
Michael Morton spent a quarter-century wrongfully behind bars for the brutal murder of his wife, Christine. In a two-part investigation, journalist Pamela Colloff reconstructs the exhausting years spent fighting for his innocence: from the fight for DNA testing to his battered relationship with his son.

Who Shot Valerie Finley?, Boston Review, March 2013
An examination of convictions overturned by DNA testing found three-quarters involved mistaken eyewitness identification. The Boston Review examines the case against Rodney Stanberry, accused of shooting 29-year-old Valerie Finley. Finley identified Stanberry as her shooter after awaking in the hospital from a coma. Stanberry was convicted, despite an alibi corroborated by at least six other testimonies. But without DNA evidence, his innocence has been nearly impossible to prove.

A Blind Faith in Eyewitnesses, The Dallas Morning News, October 2008
Wiley Fountain spent 15 years in prison after his rape conviction before DNA testing proved his innocence in 2002. The Dallas Morning News examined his case and those of 18 other exonerated men in Dallas County — which led the nation in DNA exonerations. Of the 19 cases, 18 of them were based on eyewitness testimony, which frequently convinces juries but is often fatally flawed.

DNA Evidence Exonerates Louisiana Death Row Inmate, The Washington Post, September 2012
Damon Thibodeaux, a deckhand on a Mississippi River workboat, spent more than 15 years in solitary confinement on death row in Louisiana, convicted of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin. In September, Douglas A. Blackmon reports, he “became the 300th wrongly convicted person and 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the United States substantially on the basis of DNA evidence.”

AFTER INCARCERATION

Freed Prisoners Lose Their Innocence, The Wisconsin State Journal, December 2011
Prisoners who are exonerated typically don’t receive the same support — a parole officer, mental health treatment, help finding employment — after they’re released that other inmates do, which can make for a hard readjustment. Take Forest Shomberg, The Wisconsin State Journal reports spent six years in jail before a judge overturned his sexual assault conviction on the basis of DNA evidence. But two years later, he was back in prison with a yearlong sentence after a suicide attempt.

The Exonerated, Texas Monthly, November 2008
By 2008, Texas had exonerated 37 men — who had served a combined 525 years in prison — on the basis of DNA evidence. Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall tracked down 32 of them: One has tried to kill himself three time since being released. Half a dozen of them spent more than two decades in prison. One man, James Waller, works in counseling now. “Send me the worst people they got,” he told Hall, “and I can give them a story where they will want to live again.”

Larry Peterson: Beyond Exoneration, NPR, June 2007
NPR’s Robert Siegel spent two years following the case of Larry Peterson, who was convicted of raping and murdering 25-year-old Jacqueline Harrison in 1989. Peterson spent almost 18 years in jail before being freed on the basis of DNA evidence. But two years after his release, Peterson was unemployed and was only beginning the long battle for restitution for his time in prison. And Patricia Harrison, Jacqueline’s sister, still believes he did it. “If I had my way, he’d be dead,” she told Siegel.

ProPublica is a non-profit, investigative journalism website.

China Exports Dangerous Designer Drugs for U.S. Teens

Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com

Cyber information is not the only thing the Chinese are stealing from the United States. A new generation of synthetic designer drugs is robbing the physical and mental health of thousands of American teenagers. In the last two years enterprising rogue Chinese chemists have introduced hundreds of these new chemical combinations into the American market.

Although the motive is crassly profit-oriented rather than something even more sinister, the effect is sadly the same. Emergency room admissions and law enforcement reports reveal a looming public health crisis unlike that caused by any preceding class of drugs.

And there is often little either group can do about it as they struggle to react to the problem.

A dizzying variety of medical and psychological problems are listed in recent reports.

A Hawaii man tried to throw his girlfriend off the 11th floor balcony of their apartment building.

A Kentucky woman threw her two-year old son from her car onto the highway because she believed him to be a demon.

A Mississippi man stabbed himself repeatedly in the abdomen with a hunting knife to remove wires he thought were inside his body.

The list of bizarre and tragic stories of behavior caused by the psychoactive drugs goes on and on and on.

Just when the public and law enforcement were beginning to grab a hold on the problems caused by cathinones (“bath salts”) and cannabinoids (“spice,” incorrectly referred to as synthetic marijuana), Chinese laboratories have unleashed modified chemical compounds beyond the practical and legal reach of all but the most sophisticated law enforcement authorities. The public, parents, and teachers, are almost completely unaware of the new drug problem that is unfolding. Medical professionals who treat these kids in hospitals are just becoming aware of the problem.

Drug analogues and chemical compounds altered to avoid enforcement are not a new phenomenon. Since heroin was made illegal in the 1920s, amoral profiteers have developed related and uncontrolled substances whose effects mimic, or even exceed, those of the illegal substance.

Efforts to modify illegal drugs are unwittingly assisted by legitimate, academic researchers studying psychoactive drugs for medical purposes who then publish the results of their research. A current example is a Purdue University professor studying the effect such compounds have on brain receptors in animals. His scientific publications are immediately co-opted by renegade chemists who use the knowledge to create new “legal” drugs to sell to their customers.

About a decade ago rogue chemists from China and elsewhere started using similar research to develop drugs such as bath salts and spice. The market developed in a generally westerly direction into Russia, then Europe, and finally to the United States.

These drugs were cheap. They were beyond law enforcement, and easily accessible through the internet. Middlemen wholesalers sold them in gas stations, convenience and liquor stores, and smoke shops. They were advertised as plant food, incense, and other purposes for which they had no actual utility. In fact, the substances have no legitimate medical or industrial application. For example, “bath salts” is just a street name and has nothing in common with those colorful little granules you put in your bathtub to make it bubbly. The sellers side-stepped even a misdemeanor FDA violation by printing “not for human consumption” on the brightly colored packaging–sometimes adding a cartoon character to appeal to youthful customers.

Read more »

Excerpt From Book on Boston Mobster James “Whitey” Bulger

Prologue

 

By Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy

He sat in the back of a black SUV wearing blue jeans, handcuffs, and a scowl. After sixteen years on the run, Whitey Bulger had returned to the South Boston waterfront, to a town that had changed so much that he stared uncomprehendingly out the window. He no longer really belonged in this place, where once he had wielded such power, and nothing about it now belonged to him. The city’s history had outrun him, even as his own had caught up with him.

The case against Whitey had originated in the old downtown courthouse named for John McCormack, the US Speaker of the House who was instrumental in building the South Boston housing project where Whitey grew up. Now he was on his way to the new federal courthouse on the Southie waterfront named for one of his neighbors from that housing project, Joseph Moakley, the longtime congressman. When he was a young bank robber, driving an Oldsmobile convertible at a time when hardly anyone in the neighborhood could afford a car, Whitey would pull over if he saw Moakley’s mother walking home with groceries and give her a lift.

It was a small world, Whitey’s world.

The courthouse was just up the street from the spot where, in 1982, Whitey used a rifle to kill a hoodlum named Brian Halloran who had tried to turn him in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Halloran had stumbled into the crosshairs because he didn’t know that the FBI was willing to let him die to protect their secret, that Whitey was their informant. An innocent man, a truck driver named Michael Donahue, had also fallen that day, killed by the same spray of bullets—and now his family was waiting inside the courthouse, waiting to lay eyes on the man who had ripped hope from their lives twenty-nine years before.

The faded, peeling waterfront where Whitey Bulger gunned down those two men was long gone, replaced while he was on the lam by sprawling restaurants, gleaming bars, and high-rise hotels that cater to the young and the moneyed, the new Bostonians for whom the name Bulger means little or nothing. As he eyed this shiny new section of town, Whitey said a few words to his guards about the stunning transformation, about the new Boston he didn’t know.

As the SUV pulled into the courthouse’s underground garage, a Coast Guard boat idled in Boston Harbor, behind the courthouse, an officer manning a machine gun mounted on deck, an almost ludicrous show of force. The idea that anyone would mount a daring or suicidal operation to kill or spring Whitey was preposterous. Sixty-five when he fled, Whitey was eighty-one years old now, and everybody had turned on him—everybody except his girlfriend, Cathy Greig; his immediate family; and John Connolly, the FBI agent who grew up with the Bulgers in the projects and then used his badge to protect the Bulger name. Greig, who had been captured along with Whitey in Santa Monica, was in custody in the courthouse, too. Connolly was also locked up, doing forty years in Florida for helping Whitey kill a potential witness, someone who could have exposed Whitey’s Faustian partnership with the FBI decades earlier. Whitey’s younger brother Bill was a few miles away, getting ready to leave his South Boston home for the short drive to the courthouse.

Whitey rode the elevator to the fifth floor, surrounded by deputy US Marshals who kept their sunglasses on indoors. As he waited in an anteroom for his case to be called, Michael Donahue’s widow, Patricia, sat in Courtroom 10 with her three sons, Michael Jr., Shawn, and Tommy, who had grown up without a father. The special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston walked in and took an empty seat on the right side of the gallery, directly in front of the Donahues, but said nothing to them. He didn’t know them, or any of the families of Whitey’s victims, who sat clustered together.

When Whitey shuffled into the courtroom, he quickly spotted his brother Bill out in the spectators’ gallery and mouthed a cheerful hello even before he made it to the defendant’s table. For many years one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, Bill smiled and nodded back.

Whitey Bulger

Whitey’s $822,198 in cash, hidden in the wall of his apartment in Santa Monica, was of no use to him now. The thirty guns hidden in those same walls proved useless, relics of a time when he’d always had a gun within easy reach. There had been no defiant, bloody standoff with the law before his arrest, a drama that would have better served his legend. His years of gunplay behind him, the old man had surrendered quietly and almost with a smile. The Whitey Bulger standing there in the courtroom, in his ill-fitting blue jeans, white smock, and sneakers, looked like any other casually dressed octogenarian or a Southern California retiree, which is what he had been just a few days before.

Over the next few weeks, there would be more court appearances as the feds tried to figure out what to do with him. Each time, the black SUV drove him up the Southeast Expressway, the main road into Boston, taking him past some of the spots where he had buried his secrets. To the right, next to a railway bridge over the Neponset River, were the soggy graves of Debra Davis and Tommy King. A little farther up, under the sand at Tenean Beach, there was Paulie McGonagle’s. Off to the left of the highway, beneath some mounds of dirt across from the firefighters’ hall, there was the oversize makeshift grave that held Deborah Hussey and Bucky Barrett and John McIntyre. They were just six of the nineteen people Whitey was charged with killing.

Whitey hid the bodies to lessen the risk of prosecution. It’s never good business to leave a corpse behind: no body, no case. But he also did it to preserve his image in the Town, as South Boston natives call their neighborhood. It was especially important to Whitey that his role in the demise of the two women remain hidden. He was a criminal, he would readily admit, but he was an honorable criminal. Gangsters with scruples don’t kill women, and Whitey insists to this day that he did not kill Debra Davis or Deborah Hussey. He says the last years of his life will be spent clearing his name, not just in the killing of the women but in this whole matter of his being an FBI informant. “I never put one person in prison in my life,” he claimed in a letter to a friend.

This is the illusion Whitey lived by and where his legend as the good bad guy began. He will most likely die in prison, no matter how he plays his final hand. Nothing seems more certain to die there with him than that legend.

***

There have been other books written about Whitey Bulger, many of them told through the eyes of people who worked for him or pretended to. Other, more serious accounts were written when knowledge of Whitey was limited or, in some cases, incomplete or incorrect. This book aims to provide the first complete and authoritative accounting of this man, of his rise, reign, and final reckoning. We aim, in short, to present Whitey in full. Many descriptions of him, and much of the lore about him, have traded in caricature, making him a two-dimensional figure more monstrous than human, if you hate him, more human than monster, if you don’t. Whitey was more complicated, more compelling, more frightening than that.

In the sixteen years that he was on the run, Whitey’s place in the public consciousness seemed to grow less, not more, nuanced. Popular culture cluttered public perception, as it evolved in his absence. Myth overgrew reality. Frank Costello, the venal, scheming Southie mob boss played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed, was loosely based on Whitey. Costello was a sociopath, devoid of conscience or redeeming values, with blood literally dripping from his hands. Nicholson’s captivating and brilliant portrayal didn’t really capture the man it was modeled on. Others painted with an even broader brush. One former criminal associate wrote a book describing Whitey as a closet homosexual who once had a liaison with the actor Sal Mineo. The FBI, which used and protected him for decades, suddenly described the fugitive Whitey as a pervert who had sex with girls as young as twelve. After he disappeared, Whitey’s portrayal evolved from that of a cunning criminal to a sleaze.

A closer inspection of Whitey’s life reveals a more intriguing character, a strange and complex amalgam of the depraved and the blandly conventional. If Whitey spent his youth running away from the warmth and stability of his family home, he spent much of his adult life trying to re-create something he saw as a traditional, nurturing domestic environment. That he did so while maintaining two separate households with two separate women is just one of the many incongruities that define him. Whitey saw no contradiction in slaughtering someone with a machine gun and then, an hour later, sitting down to dinner with one of his mistresses and her children. At those nightly family dinners, he insisted that no one answer the phone should it ring during the meal and lectured the kids on staying away from bad influences.

He considered himself more paternal than pathological, nothing like the other bad guys. Yes, he was a criminal, but to hear him tell it he only hurt those who threatened his business. Whitey, though, was expert at blurring that line. Two accomplished men assisted in this preening self-portrait: Bill Bulger, who could never fully face what a menace his brother was, and one of Bill’s protégés, FBI agent John Connolly. Connolly cast Whitey as an indispensable ally in the FBI’s war against the Mafia. The truth was otherwise; almost everything Whitey knew about the Mafia he gleaned from his partner, Steve Flemmi, who enjoyed similar protection from Connolly and the FBI. Connolly reaped the rewards of being one of the FBI’s top Mafia fighters, but his ulterior motive was to ensure that the Bulgers, the family he’d grown up with and which had helped him in his formative years, would not suffer the ignominy of seeing Whitey publicly accused of sordid crimes. To understand why Connolly would risk his career and ultimately his freedom to protect the good name of the Bulger family is to understand South Boston, whose residents valued loyalty to family, neighbors and neighborhood over all else. Like the waterfront Whitey came home to, that South Boston is largely gone today, a victim of demographics and time. It is the town Whitey looked for out the window of that black SUV but didn’t see.

Steve Flemmi/dateline nbc

If this book is the first comprehensive biography of Whitey Bulger, it is also a social history of a time in Boston when a life like Whitey’s was possible. It begins during Roosevelt’s New Deal, which brought the Bulgers to South Boston in the first place, and encompasses the years when the city’s working-class enclaves were still places where political loyalty ensured jobs and social mobility, the years when the Irish took full control of Boston’s politics and sought control of its criminal rackets, too. Whitey’s rise also embraced the divisive era of court-ordered integration of the city’s schools, when those working-class enclaves felt besieged as never before. Whitey joined that struggle, waging a symbolic, sometimes violent battle on behalf of Southie—a story this book tells for the first time. Whitey Bulger also encompasses the years during which ethnic divisions pitted Irish and Italian gangsters against each other, a fight the FBI joined on the side of the Irish, enabling Whitey’s rise and ultimate hegemony. Whitey, in fact, is facing criminal charges now only because a confederation of Massachusetts State Police, Boston police, and federal drug agents dared to challenge the FBI’s role as the nation’s, and the region’s, premier law enforcement agency.

And so, in his own bloody way, Whitey Bulger’s life was fused with the modern history of the city. During his career he became one of its most recognizable icons. Boston is the city of John Adams, John Kennedy, and Ted Williams, but there are few names better known or more deeply associated with the city than Bulger’s. Certainly he is Boston’s most infamous criminal. After his capture, he suggested to a friend that he might have now replaced Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly as the most intriguing of Alcatraz’s former denizens. He might be right. And yet so much of what is known about him is crudely embellished or simply wrong.

We grounded our understanding of Whitey Bulger in our decades of covering his career as reporters for the Boston Globe and other Boston media, but not with any direct input from our subject or his family. Whitey Bulger refused to be interviewed by the authors. He ignored letters written by us to him in jail. Indeed, Whitey was more than uncooperative; he was outright hostile to this project, as he spelled out in letters to a friend from his Alcatraz years. Whitey will never forgive the Globe for the way it covered the court-ordered busing that desegregated Boston’s public schools and championed it on its editorial pages. Busing, he maintains, ruined South Boston. He has said he hates Shelley Murphy for writing stories about him and his brother Bill that were, in his view, hurtful to his family. He also considers her a traitor: Murphy grew up in Dorchester, attended South Boston High School, and was herself caught up in the busing crisis. She has also broken many of the most important stories about Whitey over the years. Kevin Cullen, part of the Globe team that outed Whitey as an FBI informant in 1988, was, Whitey said, “another lowlife…who has lied about my family and me.” Cullen lived in South Boston through much of Whitey’s reign, and many of his relatives still live there.

We believe Whitey saw a request for an interview for this book not as an attempt to get his side of the story but as a threat. “I hate the Globe,” he wrote to a friend. “Shelley, Cullen . . . they will twist my words and sensationalize it.” Despite his cynicism about our motives, we have sought to be fair to Whitey in this book, though of course there is no diminishing his crimes. We have tried, above all, to describe him in all his complexity.

The public record about Whitey has changed considerably, and deepened greatly, over the last decade, when the first books about Whitey Bulger appeared. The passage of time has made it easier to parse what is true and what isn’t. Many who once lived in fear of speaking publicly now open up about him. We grounded much of this book in the accounts of some of the principals in Whitey’s life, including some of his key criminal comrades. Their still vivid recollections help to flesh out long-ago scenes and dialogue. Also, some of those principals—Whitey’s criminal associates Steve Flemmi, John Martorano, Kevin Weeks—have testified repeatedly in court, making it possible to corroborate their claims in interviews with their sworn testimony. We have made every effort to verify their words and deeds, but there are times when they are the only source for what was said or done. Their recollections are detailed—almost photographic, in many cases—and they ring true, or we wouldn’t have used them. But the reader, like the authors, should bear in mind that these are what they are—recollections, from men, in some cases, with mixed motives. Others—including Weeks; Patrick Nee, one of Whitey’s rivals turned associate; and Teresa Stanley, Whitey’s girlfriend of thirty years—gave multiple interviews to the authors. Richard Sunday, Whitey’s prison friend, gave the authors many interviews and access to a series of letters Whitey sent him after his June 2011 arrest, which serve as a window into Whitey’s own version of his story and his thinking.

But the bulk of the book is based on the authors’ long and detailed knowledge of Whitey Bulger, the fruit of more than twenty-five years of reporting on his exploits, interviewing the FBI agents who protected him, the criminals who worked with him, the lawmen who hunted him down, and the families he destroyed. We have covered dozens of hearings and trials, from Boston to Miami to Los Angeles, and followed his story from Massachusetts to Florida to Ireland to Louisiana to California to Iceland. It is an account made richer by interviews with some of those who spent time in prison with Whitey and by the examination of thousands of pages from his prison file. It is a story bolstered by interviews with those whom Whitey and Catherine Greig met and befriended during their sixteen years on the run, from the bayous of Louisiana to a modest apartment complex a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. And it is a story underwritten by the institutional authority of the Boston Globe, which first exposed Whitey’s deal with the FBI and has driven understanding of the narrative of his life ever since.

More than anything, this book tries to capture the contradictions that fill in the silhouette that is Whitey Bulger—a man who considered himself a patriot even as he used murder and the threat of it to amass a fortune, a man who could fall asleep moments after killing someone but couldn’t watch a sick dog be put down, a man who held loyalty to be the highest moral value even as he traded damning information about friends to the FBI. There is great sweep and nuance to his story, but it is striking, in the end, how small Whitey’s world was, just a couple of miles, as the crow flies, from the soggy graves of Neponset to City Point, where Whitey regularly had dinner at the home of his politician brother. It is an epic tale with many characters, but one ultimately sketched on a very small canvas.

Shortly after his arrest in June 2011, Whitey was flown by Coast Guard helicopter from his jail cell in Plymouth, south of Boston, to the waterfront courthouse, giving him an aerial view of the shoreline. Those old graves had been dug up, the bodies exhumed, while Whitey hid in open view on the other side of the country. Now he was back in South Boston, his hometown, in chains, made to answer for those bodies and thirteen others. As he looked down from the helicopter, it may have dawned on him that he might still be in charge in his corner of this world if he had never stepped beyond those few square miles where all the shakedowns and killings were plotted and carried out, where Whitey first met his FBI handler, where, for all his misdeeds, he was embraced and not shunned by his brothers and sisters, his nieces and nephews, and his women.

Inside that narrow space, he was untouchable, protected by a tradition of neighborhood loyalty fostered on the stoops of that housing project in Southie, protected by the arrogance and corruption of an FBI and a Justice Department that tolerated murder as an acceptable price of doing effective law enforcement. His capture after a worldwide manhunt that was, by turns, intense and incurious, epic and inept, put the spotlight back on the life, the legends, the lies and the myths, on families protected and families ruined, on the neighborhood where loyalty was everything and where now, for him, it was nothing.

Reprinted from Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. Copyright (c) 2013 by Globe Newspaper Company, Inc. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

FBI’s John Perren Named ticklethewire.com Fed of the Year for 2012

John Perren

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

John G. Perren, assistant director of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) Directorate, who has been at the forefront of the FBI war on terrorism, has been named ticklethewire.com’s Fed Of The Year for 2012.

Perren, whose tenure has been extended beyond the FBI’s mandatory retirement age, has been with the bureau since 1987.

Perren earns the award for a variety of reason. First off, someone would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated FBI agent. Additionally, he’s well respected by his colleagues, and has been known as a fair and good boss over the years, important criteria in determining this award.

Perren has worked in a variety of positions. He was the acting assistant director in charge of the Washington Field Office and was special agent in charge of counterterrorism at WFO, a position that included overseeing the Rapid Deployment Team of agents to the Middle East in probes involving attacks on U.S. citizens and American interests.

Perren was one of three On-Scene Commanders at the Pentagon following 9/11. From January to June of 2005, he was the On-Scene Commander for FBI Field Operations in Baghdad, with responsibility for over 125 FBI personnel in Iraq.

In his current position, he heads up a program the FBI describes as detecting, deterring, and defeating ” acts of domestic terrorism, as well as the actual or threatened use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Perren is the fifth recipient of the ticklethewire.com award and the second FBI agent to receive it.

Last year, Thomas Brandon, the acting number two person at ATF was the recipient.

Previous recipients have included Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (2008), Warren Bamford, who headed the Boston FBI (2009) and Joseph Evans, regional director for the DEA’s North and Central Americas Region in Mexico City (2010).