Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire

By Kevin Deutsch

Baltimore, Md.- Talk about seeing a story from both sides.

As a veteran crime reporter, I’ve leveled allegations against legions of accused criminals, covered dozens of perp walks, and shouted countless questions at cops and other public officials accused of wrongdoing.

But until last week, I never knew what it felt like to be on the other end of reporters barbed — and biased — questions.

The object of their scorn: my new book, Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire. In it, I tell the explosive true story of how drugs stolen in Baltimore during the April 2015 riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death led to a wave of fatal pill and heroin overdoses, and reveal how two tech-savvy teenagers — partnered with some of Baltimore’s most violent gang members — formed a major drug dealing organization responsible for a wave of killings across the U.S.

The book is based on interviews with more than 300 drug dealers, gang members, opiate addicts, law enforcement officials, treatment experts, and others who were involved with or have knowledge of the Pill City organization and its devastating impact. I also relied on records compiled by some of the syndicate’s leaders, as well as internal documents and records from law enforcement and other government agencies.

My reporting was thorough and exhaustive, and ruffled the feathers of just about everyone involved.

Such stories are bound to infuriate. When reporters conduct investigations that go beyond the inquiries of law enforcement and competing journalists, they are sometimes criticized for their work, and I’d been fully prepared for blowback.

Unsurprisingly, the first people to voice their displeasure with my book were drug dealers I wrote about. Shortly after Pill City’s Jan. 31 release, I received a series of threats from several of these Baltimore gang members, promising me I’d face retribution for reporting certain details. I also got angry calls from law enforcement personnel in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, asking me why I hadn’t shared the information I’d gathered for my book with their respective agencies.

But some of the most relentless attacks, to my surprise, came from fellow crime journalists.

Reporters at The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore City Paper — which is owned by the Sun — immediately attacked Pill City on their social media feeds, questioning its accuracy and credibility. They reached out to me and my publicist with interview requests, saying they were skeptical of claims made in the book. Unlike the gang members and cops who’d contacted me to voice their displeasure, these reporters didn’t have guns or badges. What they did have were powerful platforms to attack my work, and they set about that task without any veneer of objectivity.

Eager to defend my reporting, I sat down with reporters from both outlets, answering as many of their questions as I could without revealing information that might identify my sources. These reporters asked me to hand over information that would corroborate parts of my account — an unusual request for crime journalists to make from their competitors, especially since a reporters’ work product is privileged, and the drug looting spree remains under investigation.

I explained that my first priority was protecting sources and materials related to them; Even when subpoenaed to testify in the case of a murdered police officer, I’d refused to hand over a single record or note. (http://www.politico.com/media/story/2013/01/news-successfully-quashes-subpoena-for-a-reporter-in-hero-cop-peter-figoski-murder-case-000947).

I also repeated to these reporters what I’d clearly stated at the front of my book: that certain details, including names and locations, were changed or obscured to disguise the identities of my sources, a common practice in nonfiction accounts, especially one as provocative, current and controversial as Pill City. People risked their lives, the safety of their families, and their careers to share their stories with me, and I’d done everything I could to maintain their anonymity (http://columbiajournal.org/illegal-drug-revolution-kayla-tanenbaum-kevin-deutsch-author-pill-city/).

Rather than ask me about the friends and sources I lost to heroin and pill overdoses and gun violence during the reporting of Pill City — or inquire about parts of the book that deal with treatment disparities in communities of color, shortfalls in government funding, and other important subjects related to the opiate epidemic — the Baltimore reporters’ questions focused on how, when, and where I obtained certain details from my sources. I’d written the book to shine a light on the opiate epidemic in African-American communities, but these interviewers showed little interest in that angle.

On Feb. 11, the Sun published a story on its web site with the headline Baltimore officials question claims in new book about 2015 pharmacy thefts. The next day, the piece appeared on the front page of the Sun’s print edition.

In the article, Sun reporter Justin Fenton — who’d interviewed me at the Sun building for his piece — quoted several law enforcement and other government officials questioning the book’s conclusions, saying they had no evidence to back up my claims about the Pill City organization.

I wasn’t surprised at their response, given the wealth of exclusive information revealed in Pill City, and the fact that the DEA said they had failed to recover even a single dose of looted drugs, arrest any drug looters, or launch any kind of prosecution of those responsible for looting drug stores(http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/blog/bal-drugs-stolen-during-unrest-story.html).

Some of the government officials I’d relied on for information in the book called me after the Sun story appeared. They said their bosses at the DEA and Baltimore Police Department were furious over my book, and wanted the drug looting story to “go away.”

Now, they said, those same bosses were working with Baltimore media to help discredit my work.

This, even though numerous events recounted in Pill City are a matter of public record, and have been well chronicled in news stories cited in the book’s sources section (I even thanked the Sun for their reporting in the book’s acknowledgements section). According to law enforcement agencies, the looting of the 31 pharmacies and one methadone clinic during the unrest in Baltimore led to a glut of powerful drugs flooding the city’s illegal drug markets, a surge in related violence and killings, and an alarming rise in fatal opiate overdoses — all themes of my book. It’s not in dispute that gang members targeted pharmacies, according to the DEA, or that the string of 32 drug looting incidents had no precedent in this country.

(Some samples of the news stories chronicling those subjects can be found here:

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2015/06/04/us/baltimore-drugs-violence/index.html

Here: https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2015/06/25/politics/baltimore-drug-market-freddie-gray/index.html

Here: https://www.google.com/amp/www.theblaze.com/news/2015/07/30/the-baltimore-looting-has-led-to-a-problem-that-is-very-unusual-for-the-dea/amp/

And here: https://www.google.com/amp/s/wbal.relaymedia.com/amp/article/dea-gangs-targeted-pharmacies-to-loot-during-riots/7093860

Where those news stories left off, my reporting was just beginning. After the riots, I focused specifically on finding people involved in acts of drug looting, as well as a series of related gang assaults and major drug robberies in Baltimore’s underworld. And once I found them, I chronicled their stories in as much detail as possible.

That work did little to assuage these journalists, who insisted they wouldn’t have missed a story this big in their own backyard. I rejected that notion, saying the idea that they’d become aware of anything more than a sampling of the stories, characters, and crimes that play out without the knowledge of most journalists was naive. Baltimore is a complicated, beautiful, one-of-a-kind place, with more going on than even the finest reporter or publication or even several could ever dream of discovering. I’d uncovered one piece of this city’s story and devoted more than a year of my life to chronicling it, traveling across the country in pursuit of stolen opiates, talking to people whose lives have been shaped by drugs and drug dealing, and doing everything in my power to get this account out to the public.

The Sun apparently didn’t like my answers. In addition to Pill City, Mr. Fenton began to question newspaper and magazine reporting I’ve done during my criminal justice journalism career, which has spanned nearly 15 years and included stints as a staff writer at The Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, the New York Daily News, and Newsday, as well as freelance assignments for The New York Times, Newsweek, and Columbia Journalism Review (http://www.cjr.org/q_and_a/immersion_journalism_ted_conover.php).

Around the same time, the former dean of Baltimore crime journalists, David Simon — a friend of both reporters I sat down with from the Sun and City Paper — began questioning the veracity of my work on Twitter. I respect Simon, a former Sun reporter and creator of The Wire, but I’ve never met or spoken with the man, and he has no idea what sacrifices myself and others made for this book (http://www.newsweek.com/baltimore-riots-launched-uber-drug-dealing-how-two-teens-launched-drug-548075). His allegations about Pill City are wholly without merit.

After the Sun story appeared, there was more media scrutiny: a reporter from the Los Angeles Times began asking questions about my reporting, sending emails that falsely accused me of concocting sources for previous stories. He’d clearly been comparing notes with the Sun. Both papers are owned by the same company, Tronc, and routinely share information.

On Wednesday, following an inquiry from the Sun, Newsday editor Richard Rosen said the paper was conducting a review of my work — journalism that is hard-hitting, accurate and honest, and which I take great pride in.

After years of bombarding accused criminals with questions about their alleged misdeeds, I now understand what it’s like to be on the other side of false allegations — the subject of misguided attacks from a pack of reporters and editors ganging up not on an accused criminal, but on one of their own.

After years of hearing cops, politicians, public relations professionals, and others complain about the press banding together to attack them, I can finally sympathize.

To have one’s reporting wrongly attacked by fellow journalists is one of the most disheartening experiences I can imagine. At a time when journalism is under assault, to turn on a competitor for doing his job isn’t just self-defeating — it’s disgraceful.

So let me be clear: My book is an authentic, nonfiction portrayal of what happened in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death. I’m proud of my work, and encourage readers to judge it for it themselves — to learn the truth about the April 2015 pharmacy looting spree, inner-city addiction trends, and the future of high-tech drug dealing in this country.

Pill City is a true story told under extraordinary circumstances. I reported it aggressively and honestly, and stand behind every word.

Kevin Deutsch is an award winning criminal justice journalist and author of two books, The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips, and Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire. He teaches journalism at Queens College and lives in New York City.