Does this true crime book sound true to you?
Assuming that the events depicted in reporter Kevin Deutsch’s new true crime book Pill City actually happened, it’s one of the most astounding pieces of crime reporting in years.
If only Deutsch could prove that the events in the book actually happened.
The book’s remarkable story has earned Deutsch appearances in Vice, C-SPAN, and Newsweek. But, since its release in late January, both Pill City and Deutsch’s previous reporting has been besieged with myriad questions about his truthfulness—and about whether some of the people he claims to have interviewed actually exist at all.
If the accusations are true, Pill City is shaking up instead to be an outrageous journalism scandal.
What the reporting on Pill City has neglected to mention so far, though, is that if you read the book’s actual text, it’s very difficult to believe the events described happened. At one point, a gang associate is stabbed with a knife because he won’t put down his BlackBerry!
At best, Pill City comes off like a rejected spec script for The Wire, at worst like a hastily produced straight-to-DVD movie. As I worked my way through Pill City’s nearly 300 pages, I often would read passages to whoever was nearby: to their delight, and then surprise, that something this outlandish would be published with so little proof it actually happened.
A drug dealer watching his underlings work compares it to an episode of Undercover Boss. A beloved anti-drug pastor whistles “Amazing Grace” seconds before he’s killed — and his murderer picks up the tune as he leaves the crime scene. At one point, Pill City’s organizers even swill wine and cut a deal with associates of “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.
I’ve included some particularly hard-to-believe passages from Pill City below. But first, some background on the challenges to Deutsch’s reporting.
The story so far
Deutsch, a New York-based freelancer who’s worked for Newsweek, the New York Times, and Newsday, claims to have had intimate access to law enforcement and both sides of a brutal gang war provoked after the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Most of the violence centered around, of all things, an app created by two high school honor students that Deutsch calls “the Uber of drug trafficking”: the titular “Pill City.” The name also describes the alliance between the two students — “Brick” and “Wax” — and the Black Guerrilla Family gang, a powerful combination that Deutsch claims manage to corner the drug trade in Baltimore and several other cities with pills and heroin looted during the riots.
Deutsch’s supposed level of access is really astonishing. He recounts gangland repartee exchanged seconds before a murder. In another part of the book, one character reveals that he has lied to his brother for decades about their father’s dying wish for him, completely skewing his brother’s life towards crime. But he’s willing to finally reveal this secret to Deutsch.
Many, in Baltimore and elsewhere, aren’t buying it. Since the book’s release in late January, Deutsch has been challenged nearly every week with new questions about either Pill City or his other work.
Proving details in Pill City are wrong is difficult, because nearly every character in the book, including doctors, addiction counselors, or murder victims who typically wouldn’t need anonymity, have had their names changed.
Deutsch claims he’s protecting his sources; coincidentally or not, that also makes his tale of a massive gang war difficult to verify.
Still, the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore City Paper have both published stories punching significant holes in Pill City. Law enforcement and crime figures say they’ve never heard of anything like the events described, dates for murders described in the book don’t match with actual murders recorded in Baltimore, and a Baltimore shock trauma unit whose operations Deutsch describes has no record of his visits. The murder of the anti-drug pastor, described as a tragedy that send a good part of the city into mourning, appears to have no analogue in the real world.
David Simon, the creator of The Wire and a former Baltimore crime reporter himself, has turned challenging Pill City into his latest Twitter crusade. The Baltimore Police Department said in a statement to me that they have “no evidence or information that corroborates the claims made in the book.”
Curiously, a section of the book is named “Jimmy’s World”—also the title of a fabricated, Pulitzer-winning 1980 Washington Post story about a nonexistent 8-year-old heroin addict that was later entirely debunked.
Meanwhile, Deutsch’s freelance reporting has also been slammed. The Times pulled several quotes in a story he wrote after they failed to find evidence the people quoted actually existed, and both Newsday and Newsweek are reviewing his stories.
The media site iMediaEthics has launched an investigation into Deutsch’s work outside of Pill City that, to my mind, conclusively proves that several people he’s quoted don’t exist. Deutsch counters that he’s been the victim of sources who lied about their names.
Deutsch has strenuously pushed back on the attacks, albeit not by proving that the claims in his articles actually happened. Instead, he’s written several fuming blog posts and one op-ed for the New York Observer claiming that his critics are just jealous of his scoop.
And then there’s this: a mysterious Twitter account, created amidst the debate about Pill City, that claims that it’s all real.
“DonVITO89" later tweeted that he would answer questions about the book’s accuracy, but didn’t respond to requests for comment. Deutsch called a question from iMediaEthics about whether he made up the account to defend his book “absurd.”
Deutsch didn’t respond to my requests for comment. As of February, publisher St. Martin’s Press told me in emails that they were sticking by the book. They reiterated their commitment to the book in a March 14 email to me.
“We have every reason to believe, and no reason to doubt, the author’s veracity and the accuracy of his book,” the statement reads.
Our Heroes: Brick and Wax
Pill City’s honor student protagonists are two teens, Brick—so-called because he bashed in the head of a man who was molesting him with a brick as boy—and Wax, who earned his nickname because a poster on a hacking forum said that he had “waxed” a hacking challenge as a boy.
Brick and Wax meet around middle school age and bond over a shared love of Iceberg Slim’s cult classic book Pimp, encountering each other as their mothers take them to a drug den to score.
Deutsch describes the encounter, which occurred several years before he ever met the two teens, down to their clothes: one wears “bleach-spotted khakis” and “paint-spattered Terps cap” , another is dressed in a “Chef Boyardee stained fleece.”
This is a good example of Deutsch’s method of reporting events he couldn’t possibly have witnessed, or even expect his subjects to remember accurately.
Wax and Brick soon become interested in technology, but they decide to ditch college educations or Silicon Valley for a vague intention to use their technical know-how to create a drug operation. Their opportunity presents itself when they team up with the Black Guerrilla Family to raid pharmacies for pills and rival dealers for pills, a confluence of the regulated and underground opiate markets that, incidentally, allows Deutsch to avoid addressing the fact that not all that many pills were stolen in the riots.
The teens set up their technology, which is described as an elaborate encrypted software that evades law enforcement surveillance and allows BGF chapters to “receive encrypted drug orders, make doorstop deliveries, and organize re-ups in at least 110 economically depressed neighborhoods.”
Soon, though, the teens are also deploying “algorithmic” technologies to tell dealers across the country where to go to avoid cops and push their wares. Through it all, Brick and Wax are devoted to Silicon Valley cliches that would look a bit try-hard in an Oakland coder flophouse:
Even the handwritten notes taped to their walls contain Silicon Valley-mottos like “Make Ideas Happen” and “Move Fast and Break Things” — reminders, they say, of the “disruptive” philosophy they’ve applied to the drug game.
“We,” Brick says as the boys set to work on a new page of code, “are the new disruptors.”
Eventually, Wax escapes the lifestyle for a Silicon Valley tech job, where he literally drives off into the sunset with a “twenty-something, Asian” coworker from Princeton named Lisa Wu.
They’re zooming down the freeway five minutes later, the top open in Wax’s Jaguar, Lisa’s hair blowing 10 different ways. Wax is singing along to the song on the radio, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”…
Brick doesn’t have such good luck. After murdering a drug customer and his wife over unpaid debts, Brick is killed at a gas station by a one-time drug ally as he attempts to head to Silicon Valley himself.
If Pill City turns out to be fake, some of the greatest accidental humor will have come from “The Masters Organization”—an old-time drug outfit that fails to grapple with the techie challenge presented by Pill City and is roughly analogous to drug lord Proposition Joe in The Wire struggling to deal with upstart Marlo Stanfield. Leader Jimmy Masters even tries to combine the other drug gangs into a cartel, a la Prop Joe.
Masters hates technology. Consider this passage, in which a young man refuses to put down his Blackberry when talking to Masters and gets killed for it! Emphasis mine:
The most chilling story they’d heard concerned a murder Jimmy was said to have committed back in 2001. In November of that year, the crime boss was eating breakfast with a 19-year-old drug courier, a new hire for his organization, when the kid started clicking away on his BlackBerry. Masters, cutting into a spinach and American cheese omelet, implored the kid to pay attention—he had some tricks of the trade he wanted to pass along. Still, the keyboard tapper kept at it, until Jimmy couldn’t stand it anymore.
The next night, the new hire was found in an East Baltimore trash bin, a cheese-smeared knife lodged in his chest, a crushed BlackBerry beside him.
But Masters is trying to learn. He summons his would-be gangster allies and explains the Silicon Valley concept of disruption.
In the corporate world, they got a word for what these fools are doing to our business…it’s called disruption,” says Masters, who’s been reading Wired magazine in an effort to get a hold on Brick and Wax’s capabilities.
Reminder: this book is non-fiction.
Describing all of the mind-boggling scenes in Pill City would take nearly as long as the book itself. Pill City allies murder one Masters brother with a gold revolver taken from an Iraqi militant named “Crazy Kasim.” A drugged-up Florida man popping Pill City opiates dreams of seeing his girlfriend in her new bikini—and quickly plows his car into a utility pole.
A hero cop returns to his teenage hangout, a now-ruined pharmacy where he once devoured candy. “Mr. M&M!” says the proprietor, only for the detective to take an interest in the owner’s daughter—who promptly dies of an overdose on oxycodone.
Deutsch describes in detail a variety of heroin users getting high, with their lives regularly intersecting like Crash. Former jazz guitarist turned heroin user and police informant Derek Curry wears an eye patch after losing an eye in a fight with a friend who gave his wife the drugs that killed her. Both men later reconcile, with the man Derek fought with enrolling him in rehab.
One pregnant user shoots up, oblivious to the threat to her unborn child, only to kill them both with an overdose. Another woman gets so high in front of her child that he wanders away unnoticed, first to an encounter with a opiate-hungry Derek—what a coincidence!—and then into the foster care system.
So Pill City purports to be the product of exhaustive reporting about a gang war that convulsed Baltimore—and it’s been impossible so far for Deutsch or anyone else to prove its biggest claims about the Pill City cartel or its smallest claims about individual murders. The connection to El Chapo, of course, also remains completely unproven.
At one point, a former gang member explains to Deutsch why he’s giving him the crime scoop of the year and sending him to the Pill City crew.
“I can’t snitch to no Five-O,” he says. “But talking to you, it’s different.”
Updated with St. Martin’s Press statement