How the DEA Finally Caught Kermit Gosnell

Amid criticism of America's continued war on drugs, Dr. Kermit Gosnell -- who could have been arrested for murder years earlier if medical oversight agencies had been more vigilant -- was only taken down when he crossed the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Matt Rourke/AP

It was early 2009 when C.T., as he was known to the government, went to a Philadelphia health clinic to cop pills off of an allegedly dirty doctor. He met the front office staffer, a woman named Earlene Baldwin who casually wrote down his order. It was like a corner take-out joint, but for various narcotics. According to the federal indictment filed in December 2011, after Baldwin filled his order, C.T. slid her a $30 tip for the doctor's kind services. She placed the tip in an envelope to be passed to the doctor when he showed up at the office later that night.

According to the government, the doctor wasn't trying to hide what he's doing. In fact, they say he had a staffer tape a memo to the front desk notifying his repeat customers -- it seems a stretch to call them patients, as they allegedly received at most a cursory medical evaluation -- that since business is booming, prices were going up. And since they say he was writing an average of 1,900 prescriptions a month, the dollars were definitely piling up, reportedly hundreds of thousands of them. The pill business was apparently so good the doctor installed a dedicated phone line line for filling take-out orders.

But this wasn't your typical pill mill, where a doctor churns out high volumes of narcotic prescriptions. The doctor in question was Kermit Gosnell. His business was the Women's Medical Society on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia, where he is alleged to have killed newborn babies under the guise of legitimate abortion services. If convicted, Gosnell seems poised to become the most infamous medical professional since Josef Mengele.

Even though Gosnell is said to have operated more or less in the open -- making little attempt to dispose or conceal the remains of dead children that he kept stored on site, in a medical facility that was reportedly known to reek of body fluids and cat urine, on a highly visible and heavily trafficked corner on Drexel University's campus -- it wasn't until he started pushing pills that he was arrested.

For years, as laid out in the Gosnell murder trial's grand jury report, red flags were raised with various regulatory and oversight agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of State, Department of Health, and the Board of Medicine about Gosnell. Little action was taken. On one occasion, a state investigator had an off-site interview with Gosnell, who denied allegations of malpractice, that didn't lead to an inspection of his facility. His business went uninspected as newborn bodies allegedly stacked up for 17 years.

It was in the final years of Gosnell's practice that, if the allegations against him stand, he got heavily into the pill business. The move into drug selling would make strategic sense for a profit-driven person. During the earlier years of his practice, Philadelphia was a two drug town. Coke and heroin dominated the street drug scene throughout the '80s and '90s. There wasn't the kind of mass demand for unscrupulous doctors we see today.

But in Philly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like much of the nation, new prescriptions drugs like OxyContin were gaining traction in the black market among young, inexperienced, typically white, working class drug users who a generation earlier probably would have gone straight to heroin. Additionally, in the hustler scene populated by young black and Latin drug sellers, codeine cough syrup taken in combination with Xanax -- called "pancakes and syrup" on the streets -- skyrocketed in popularity. Its praises were widely sung around Philly by the likes of rapper Beanie Sigel. Suddenly on the streets of Philadelphia there was a new drug landscape where an array of pharmaceutical narcotics competed with old standbys for the top-selling spot. Dirty doctors around the nation were stepped in to fill the black-market demand for meds, knowingly diverting pills out of the legitimate stream of prescription distribution and into the hands of dealers and addicts.

Prosecutors say Gosnell dove into this new market, taking cash tips in addition to appointment fees to write prescriptions for all of Philadelphia's new favorite pharmaceutical narcotics: OxyContin, Percocet, Xanax, and codeine cough syrup.

His run as a pusher, as detailed by the prosecution, ended spectacularly. Gosnell was scribbling out as many as 200 narcotic prescriptions a night. It's an irony of America's continued war against drugs that while Gosnell apparently could have been busted for murder years before had various medical oversight agencies been more vigilant, he only got arrested when he messed with the DEA. The grand jury report in the murder trial, with its horrific descriptions of babies' feet preserved in jars in a back room, has gotten more press. But the indictment handed down in his drug case lays out all the gory details about his less-publicized alleged dope operation, which, unlike his illegal abortion business, was quickly and efficiently shut down.

Take the case of T.J., as he's named in the indictment. The government says that in October of 2009 he called Gosnell's office girl Latosha Lewis on her cell phone to place pickup orders for narcotics. Lewis gathered the charts associated with the different names he provided, drawing up orders for the prescriptions and then passing them along to Gosnell, who allegedly signed them without ever laying an eye on the patient. T.J. later picked up his stack of prescriptions for what would be considered on the streets a very fat sack of dope: 180 80 milligram OxyContin pills, 200 Percocet, 180 1mg Xanax, and 20oz of codeine syrup. For this narc haul with a street value of roughly $10,000, T.J. is said to have paid $20 to Gosnell's practice for each name associated with the various prescriptions, given $100 directly to Gosnell, and slid a cash tip to Latoya Lewis for the hookup. Gosnell reportedly paid Lewis less than $10 per hour, so you can imagine the appeal of fast extra money.

This went on and on, with T.J. purportedly returning to Gosnell time and again, paying cash for prescriptions ultimately amounting to a mountain of pharmaceutical narcotics that were likely later distributed to "case workers" -- the midlevel operators who supply Philly's drug corners -- and ultimately on the street and into the hands of addicts.

It turns out that the whole time T.J. had been under the eye of DEA, the Philladelphia police department, and the state's Serious Drug Offender Unit, who had their sites set on Gosnell. All figured him for just another pill mill doctor. On February 18, 2010, when the raid went down, law enforcement discovered what they described as heavily doped, barely conscious women queued up for abortions in a cat-feces and blood-spattered space that was "filthy, deplorable, and disgusting." Then agents said they found the jars filled with dead baby feet.

Baldwin and Lewis have pleaded guilty to the drug charges associated with the pill mill and have witnessed against Gosnell in his murder trial. Jurors have heard gruesome allegations of the most grisly crimes prosecuted in Philadelphia since authorities discovered what was in serial killer Gary Heidnik's basement. One must wonder if without the DEA, the Women's Medical society would still be open for business. Regardless of how staunchly opposed to the war on drugs one may be, considering the grand jury report's exhaustive details about how multiple levels of state agencies failed to shut down Gosnell's practice, it seems that were it not for the DEA the alleged horror show might still be ongoing.