Baltimore officials question claims in new book about 2015 pharmacy thefts

New book claims to tell real story of 2015 Baltimore pharmacy thefts, but city officials have questions

A new book claims two honor roll teens from Freddie Gray's neighborhood masterminded the April 2015 looting of pharmacies across Baltimore, then created an "Uber-like" encrypted delivery app to spread the drugs throughout the country in partnership with the Black Guerrilla Family, the hacktivist collective Anonymous, and El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel.

The result, the book says, helped fuel the nationwide spike in urban violence and drug overdoses.

If you've never heard that story, Baltimore police say they haven't either. They say they investigated the pharmacy thefts and the drug sales and violence that followed and found no evidence of the operation described in the book.

"We have no intelligence that lends any credence to this story," said T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesman.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Baltimore health officials whose work is referenced in the book, and authorities in three cities that the book says investigated the drug operation also said they have seen no evidence to support the thesis.

The author of Pill City, former Newsday reporter Kevin Deutsch, says the book is a true story, the product of more than a year of on-the-ground reporting across the country involving hundreds of interviews and thousands of records. He says the Baltimore drug heists represent the largest single coordinated theft of drugs in history.

Deutsch described the scheme as well-known throughout the country, but in an interview this week with The Baltimore Sun said he had to change the names of everyone he spoke to, as well as locations, physical descriptions and other details throughout the book. He said he did so to protect the still-at-large criminal sources who let him in on the plot, law enforcement officials who spoke without authorization, and addicts and doctors who knew about the operation but feared reprisal.

"People were so afraid to talk about it, they were hesitant to be involved in the project at all," Deutsch said. "I had to make some very hard choices with the book. My first priority was protecting people."

Told law enforcement and health advocates were bewildered by the book's claims, Deutsch said he "stands by my reporting 100 percent." He said he could not provide information that would help corroborate his account. "That's not my job to do," he said.

Pressed in a follow-up email, Deutsch sent links to news stories about the pharmacy lootings and to the Dark Web, and links to some of his previous work. "I've spent my career uncovering and writing seemingly unobtainable stories," he said.

Publisher St. Martin's Press said it "stands by the book as a work of nonfiction and we stand by Kevin Deutsch's reporting."

In a statement, it added: "The book was legally vetted before publication. In this case, we have every reason to believe, and no reason to doubt, the author's veracity and the accuracy of his book."

Bob Steele, a longtime ethicist with the Poynter Institute, said readers may have questions when authors change names and other information.

Generally speaking, "the more the author alters the facts, the more questionable the veracity of the story," said Steele, who has not read the book. "If you do this more than rarely — such as throughout a book — then the truth and the authenticity of the story in the book becomes questionable."

Pill City tells the story of "Brick" and "Wax," two teens from the Gilmor Homes with sharp entrepreneurial skills. When word of a possible riot begins to trickle through Baltimore, they make an "investor pitch" to the Black Guerilla Family gang proposing a mass of looting of pharmacies and illicit stash houses that can then be sold using an encrypted app they had developed.

Deutsch writes that 44 of the gang's affiliates across the country downloaded the teens' software to receive drug orders and make doorstop deliveries in 110 "economically depressed neighborhoods."

Law enforcement officials say encryption, from simple iPhone messaging to identity-masking apps, is indeed being used in drug distribution. They also agree that the pharmacy thefts likely disrupted Baltimore's drug markets, but question the storyline presented in the book.

"I thought it was entertaining. He put in everything you could," said Todd Edwards, a Baltimore DEA agent. "The Sinaloa Cartel, stuff about the 'Dark Web,' the Russian mob."

Devin Allen, a West Baltimore photographer, says for years people he knows have been struggling with pill addiction, mostly Percocets and Buprenorphine. "I heard a lot of different stories [after the riots] — I have friends that are gang members," Allen said. "When something happens in Baltimore, everyone knows. I've never heard [the claims in the book] before."

Deutsch says a Bloods gang contact from his previous book The Triangle, who moved New York to Baltimore, helped him meet local gang members. In addition, he said, he got people to talk by buying potential sources "a lot of dinners, a lot of lunches, and handing out plenty of cigarettes."

"Ninety-nine percent of the gang members I approached would not talk to me," Deutsch said. "The narrative that's there is based on the people that would."

In addition to penetrating the city's drug underworld and two sides of an ongoing war, Deutsch also says that he was able to track more than 400 overdoses across the country specifically from drugs looted from Baltimore.

Tracing drugs consumed by overdose victims to a specific source is a difficult task, officials say. Drugs, regardless of their seller, show up the same on autopsy toxicology reports.

"Whenever I calculated an overdose death was being related to Pill City product, it was based on interviews with either the addicts, their family, or survivors, or with dealers who said they had knowledge of the person who sold the drugs to them," Deutsch said in an interview.

A doctor at Baltimore's Shock Trauma center is described in the book as having built a relationship with two addicts who end up dying in front of her from overdoses. The doctor is quoted saying Shock Trauma "treats everybody: the dealers and addicts, soldiers, civilians, all of them. You OD or catch a bullet, you come see us."

In Baltimore, however, overdose victims and gunshot victims are not treated in the same unit, according to Karen Lancaster, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Medical Center, where Shock Trauma is based.

Overdose patients go to the emergency unit, which is separate and distinct from the hospital's trauma center, she said.

"The passage in the book described as taking place in Shock Trauma would be more typical of a facility where trauma and emergency care are combined in the same unit, and that's not the case here," said Lancaster, who purchased a copy of the book after hearing that the hospital had been featured. She also questioned other descriptions that "didn't ring true."

Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said her front-line staff who work with people with drug addictions every day did not come across anything that would match the account in the book.

While Baltimore police deny knowledge of the syndicate, Deutsch writes that police here and in cities including Chicago and Newark were aware of the group and their methods, and were working together with federal authorities to discern their identities.

"For two 18-year-old kids to run a business like this, to help put together this plan ... it's genius, from a criminal's perspective," says his Jamal Grayson character, a Baltimore narcotics cop.

In Newark, N.J., Deutsch says police have connected "at least four homicides" to the Baltimore operation. Police Director Anthony F. Ambrose, a veteran Newark investigator, said through a spokesman that he has "never heard anything related to that." Thomas Fennelly, chief assistant prosecutor of Essex County, which oversees homicides investigations and major crimes in Newark, said he too knew nothing of a Baltimore connection.

Police in Chicago and New Orleans, places said in the book to be an expanding market for the Black Guerrilla Family, say they aren't aware of the gang's presence there.

"If government is attacking my reporting, I view that as a badge of honor," Deutsch said. "I don't get my news from press releases."

The book is filled with dramatic events. The daughter of the owner of a looted pharmacy falls victim to an overdose as the officer investigating the crimes is courting her. A 69-year-old drug lord said to control the city's flow of drugs is gunned down outside his granddaughter's birthday party. A character named Rev. Marvin Grier is whistling "Amazing Grace" when he is gunned down; the killer picks up whistling the tune as he flees the area.

Grier, a drug-dealer-turned-street preacher, is said to have formed a volunteer "addiction interrupters" group to patrol the streets wearing orange reflective vests that read "Life Saver" in an attempt to stem the crippling waves of overdoses.

Baltimore's Health Department employs orange-jacket wearing "violence interrupters" to squash street beefs. The Behavioral Health System of Baltimore, starting in 2015, sent outreach teams into city neighborhoods wearing orange "Life Saver" T-shirts.

The health system's Adrienne Briedenstine, who oversaw the teams, said they were professionals trained to distribute and train people to use naloxone, which reverses the effects of opiates. Both agencies said there was no murder of a violence interrupter or naloxone outreach team member.

Asked if the incident took place as described, Deutsch said, "Based on my reporting, that is true. There were addiction interrupters who did outreach in the community, who were faith-based, and did everything they could to try to interrupt this cycle of addiction."

Grier's funeral, he wrote in the book, was a major event in Maryland. Asked how it could have happened without publicity, he clarified: "For the people who knew him, it was" a major event.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°