Drug es­capades fu­eled se­cret life of USC dean

Buf­falo na­tive was med­i­cal school chief

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Pringle, Har­riet Ryan and Adam Elmahrek

LOS AN­GE­LES – In the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s lec­ture halls, labs and ex­ec­u­tive of­fices, Dr. Car­men A. Pu­li­afito was a tow­er­ing fig­ure. The dean of the Keck School of Medicine was a renowned eye sur­geon whose skill in the op­er­at­ing room was matched by a gift for at­tract­ing money and tal­ent to the univer­sity.

There was an­other side to the Har­vard-ed­u­cated physi­cian, who is a na­tive of Buf­falo.

Dur­ing his ten­ure as dean, Pu­li­afito kept com­pany with a cir­cle of crim­i­nals and drug users who said he used metham­phetamine and other drugs with them, a Los An­ge­les Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

Pu­li­afito, 66, and these much younger ac­quain­tances cap­tured their ex­ploits in photos and videos. The Times re­viewed dozens of the images.

The images, from 2015 and 2016, show Pu­li­afito and the oth­ers par­ty­ing in ho­tel rooms, cars, apart­ments and the dean’s of­fice at USC.

In one video, a tuxedo-clad Pu­li­afito dis­plays an orange pill on his tongue and says into the cam­era, “Thought I’d take an Ec­stasy be­fore the ball.” Then he swal­lows the pill.

In an­other, Pu­li­afito uses a bu­tane torch to heat a large glass pipe out­fit­ted for metham­phetamine use. He in­hales and then un­leashes a thick plume of white smoke. Seated next to him on a sofa, a young woman smokes heroin from a piece of heated foil.

As dean, Pu­li­afito over­saw hun­dreds of med­i­cal stu­dents, thou­sands of pro­fes­sors and clin­i­cians, and re­search grants to­tal­ing more than $200 mil­lion. He was a key fundraiser for USC, bring­ing in more than $1 bil­lion in do­na­tions, by his es­ti­ma­tion.

Pu­li­afito re­signed his $1.1-mil­lion-a-year post in March 2016, in the mid­dle of the spring term, say­ing he wanted to ex­plore out­side op­por­tu­ni­ties. Three weeks ear­lier, a 21-year-old woman had over­dosed in his pres­ence in a Pasadena, Calif., ho­tel room. The woman was rushed to a hospi­tal, where she re­cov­ered. Po­lice found metham­phetamine in the ho­tel room, ac­cord­ing to a po­lice re­port, but made no ar­rests. Pu­li­afito has never spo­ken pub­licly about the in­ci­dent, which is be­ing re­ported here for the first time.

USC lead­ers hired Pu­li­afito in 2007 to raise the pro­file of the Keck School of Medicine. He had helped in­vent a laser tech­nol­ogy that rev­o­lu­tion­ized treat­ment of eye dis­eases.

Af­ter he stepped down as dean, USC kept Pu­li­afito on the med­i­cal school fac­ulty, and he con­tin­ues to ac­cept new pa­tients at cam­pus eye clin­ics, ac­cord­ing to Keck’s web­site. He also is a cen­tral wit­ness in a $185 mil­lion law­suit in which the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia has ac­cused USC of mis­con­duct in its hir­ing away of a star re­searcher.

Pu­li­afito did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests or writ­ten ques­tions. Reached by phone last week, he hung up without com­ment­ing af­ter hear­ing a brief sum­mary of the Los An­ge­les Times’ re­port­ing.

Ear­lier, in an email he sent to the news­pa­per shortly af­ter re­sign­ing as dean, Pu­li­afito said he made the move vol­un­tar­ily in or­der to pur­sue a biotech job.

“Bot­tom line, I was dean for al­most a decade. It was great, but I was ready and open to jump­ing on these op­por­tu­ni­ties when they came along,” he wrote.

USC Pres­i­dent Chrysos­to­mos Loizos “C.L. Max” Nikias and Provost Michael W. Quick, who was Pu­li­afito’s boss, did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for in­for­ma­tion about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Pu­li­afito’s res­ig­na­tion.

When re­porters vis­ited Nikias’ of­fice to ask about the for­mer dean, his chief of staff, Den­nis Cor­nell, told them: “The pres­i­dent will not be speak­ing to the Times on this mat­ter.”

The Times in­ter­viewed six peo­ple who said they par­tied with Pu­li­afito in Pasadena; Hunt­ing­ton Beach, Calif.; and Las Ve­gas, as well as at USC. They ranged in age from late teens to late 30s. None were USC stu­dents.

One of them, Sarah War­ren, was the woman who over­dosed in the Pasadena ho­tel room. She told the Times she met Pu­li­afito in early 2015 while work­ing as a pros­ti­tute. She said they were con­stant com­pan­ions for more than a year and a half, and that Pu­li­afito used drugs with her and some­times brought her and other mem­bers of their cir­cle to the USC cam­pus af­ter hours to party.

“He would say, ‘They love me around here. The med­i­cal stu­dents think I am God,’ ” War­ren said.

Pu­li­afito has no known crim­i­nal record, and pub­lic records show no blem­ishes on the med­i­cal li­censes he holds in Cal­i­for­nia and three other states. A re­view of court records in those states found no mal­prac­tice claims against him.

He is highly re­garded in the field of oph­thal­mol­ogy and reg­u­larly ad­dresses doc­tors at na­tional con­ven­tions and train­ing sem­i­nars. Over the last decade, he has coau­thored more than 60 med­i­cal jour­nal ar­ti­cles on reti­nal dis­ease and other top­ics. Since 2008, he has served on the gov­ern­ing board of the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Re­gen­er­a­tive Medicine, the state agency that over­sees stem cell re­search.

It was a tip about the in­ci­dent in the Pasadena ho­tel that led the Times to dis­cover Pu­li­afito’s other life.

Just be­fore 5 p.m. on March 4, 2016, an em­ployee of the Ho­tel Con­stance, an up­scale Colorado Boule­vard land­mark, called 911 to re­port that a guest had suf­fered an ap­par­ent over­dose.

The ho­tel em­ployee trans­ferred a Fire De­part­ment dis­patcher to a third-floor room. A man an­swered, iden­ti­fied him­self as a doc­tor and said his com­pan­ion’s con­di­tion was not se­ri­ous, ac­cord­ing to a record­ing of the call.

“My girl­friend here had a bunch of drinks and she’s sleep­ing,” he told the dis­patcher. Asked whether the woman had taken any­thing else, he replied, “I think just the al­co­hol.”

Af­ter the am­bu­lance ar­rived, an­other ho­tel em­ployee placed a 911 call to ask that po­lice be sent, too. “I got some­body in one of the rooms, they (were) do­ing drugs in the room,” the em­ployee told an emer­gency op­er­a­tor, ac­cord­ing to the 911 record­ing. He added, “I think they (were) do­ing crys­tal meth.”

Paramedics took the woman to Hunt­ing­ton Memo­rial Hospi­tal. Au­thor­i­ties did not re­lease her name. The Times iden­ti­fied her as War­ren through in­ter­views, so­cial me­dia and prop­erty records.

War­ren, now 22, has been in an Orange County drug treat­ment pro­gram since Novem­ber, and said she no longer has con­tact with Pu­li­afito. She talked about their re­la­tion­ship in a se­ries of in­ter­views.

She said she and Pu­li­afito had been par­ty­ing at the ho­tel for two days. Then she “took too much GHB” – gamma-hy­drox­y­bu­tyrate, the so-called date-rape drug. War­ren said the drug left her “com­pletely in­ca­pac­i­tated.”

Af­ter she awoke in the hospi­tal six hours later, Pu­li­afito picked her up, and “we went back to the ho­tel and got an­other room and con­tin­ued the party,” she said.

The videos re­viewed by the Times are con­sis­tent with War­ren’s ac­count.

A record­ing made the night be­fore the over­dose shows Pu­li­afito and War­ren in a room at the ho­tel. War­ren asks him to help her crush metham­phetamine in prepa­ra­tion for do­ing a “hot rail,” a method of snort­ing the drug.

“Ab­so­lutely,” Pu­li­afito replies. War­ren is later shown bend­ing over a tray with sev­eral lines of white pow­der.

Sources with ac­cess to these and other videos and photos of Pu­li­afito al­lowed the Times to view the images on the con­di­tion they not be pub­lished.

A week af­ter the ho­tel over­dose, a wit­ness filed an anony­mous com­plaint through a city web­site urg­ing Pasadena au­thor­i­ties to in­ves­ti­gate Pu­li­afito and the po­lice han­dling of the in­ci­dent, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the com­plaint ob­tained through the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Records Act.

Three days later, the same wit­ness phoned the USC of­fice of Nikias and told two em­ploy­ees about Pu­li­afito’s role in the ho­tel in­ci­dent. The wit­ness spoke to the Times on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Phone records con­firm that the wit­ness made a 6-minute call to Nikias’ of­fice March 14, 2016 – 10 days af­ter the over­dose. A week and a half later, Pu­li­afito re­signed as dean.

Con­cerned that Pasadena po­lice were not in­ves­ti­gat­ing, the wit­ness then ap­proached the Times. The news­pa­per asked the Po­lice De­part­ment for its re­port on the over­dose.

Ini­tially, a de­part­ment spokes­woman said that there was no re­port, apart from a call­for-ser­vice log. Af­ter the Times made re­peated re­quests for ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion, the de­part­ment ac­knowl­edged that an of­fi­cer at the scene should have pre­pared a re­port. The of­fi­cer was or­dered to do so in June 2016 – three months af­ter the in­ci­dent.

In the re­port, Pu­li­afito is iden­ti­fied as a wit­ness to the over­dose and a “friend” of the vic­tim. The rest of the doc­u­ment is heav­ily redacted.

The de­part­ment also re­leased an ev­i­dence re­port that shows of­fi­cers seized a lit­tle over a gram of metham­phetamine from the ho­tel room. The name of the drug’s “owner” is redacted, and the Pasadena ad­dress listed as that per­son’s res­i­dence does not ex­ist.

Un­der state law, pos­ses­sion of metham­phetamine could be charged as a mis­de­meanor. Asked why no one was charged, Pasadena po­lice spokes­woman Tracey Ibarra said of­fi­cers would have had to de­ter­mine who was “re­spon­si­ble” for the drugs. She de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about the ex­tent of the of­fi­cers’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion. War­ren said they never in­ter­viewed her.

Al­though Pu­li­afito told the 911 op­er­a­tor he thought that his com­pan­ion was un­der the in­flu­ence of al­co­hol alone, Ibarra said the woman was “ob­vi­ously un­der the in­flu­ence of nar­cotics – the same nar­cotics that were in the room.”

Ten years ago, USC went look­ing for a trans­for­ma­tional leader for its med­i­cal pro­gram. U.S. News & World Re­port, in its an­nual re­port on the best Amer­i­can med­i­cal schools, ranked Keck 25 spots be­low UCLA in re­search. That was too low for USC lead­ers, who saw a top-rated med­i­cal school as cru­cial to their na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. They needed a dean who could de­liver the money and mar­quee re­searchers to make Keck an elite in­sti­tu­tion.

“Some­one who could take a great school and make it even bet­ter,” then-USC Pres­i­dent Steven B. Sam­ple, a for­mer Univer­sity at Buf­falo pres­i­dent, said at the close of the 2007 search process. “We found that per­son in Dr. Car­men Pu­li­afito.” Sam­ple died at age 75 in 2016.

Pu­li­afito, a 1969 grad­u­ate of St. Joseph’s Col­le­giate In­sti­tute in the Town of Ton­awanda, grad­u­ated magna cum laude from Har­vard Med­i­cal School and has helped in­vent a laser tech­nol­ogy – op­ti­cal co­her­ence to­mog­ra­phy – that rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way doc­tors around the world di­ag­nose and treat eye dis­ease.

He had a track record of build­ing in­sti­tu­tions and rais­ing their pro­files. At Tufts Univer­sity School of Medicine in Bos­ton in the 1990s, Pu­li­afito was found­ing di­rec­tor of the New Eng­land Eye Cen­ter. A com­pli­men­tary 1993 pro­file in the Bos­ton Globe de­scribed Pu­li­afito’s “in your face” per­son­al­ity and likened him to “one of those Yel­low­stone Park mud pots: placid on the sur­face for a few min­utes, then erupt­ing for a mo­ment, then calm again.”

Pu­li­afito left Tufts to serve as di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Mi­ami’s Bas­com Palmer Eye In­sti­tute from 2001 to 2007. There, he presided over a dou­bling of fac­ulty and tripling of re­search fund­ing, ac­cord­ing to school news re­leases.

His time at Mi­ami was not trou­ble-free. Marc Brock­man, an op­tometrist at the in­sti­tute, filed a law­suit against Pu­li­afito in 2006 for as­sault and bat­tery and ac­cused the univer­sity of neg­li­gence in hir­ing him.

Brock­man al­leged in sworn tes­ti­mony that Pu­li­afito, in a pro­fane “tantrum” over an in­op­er­a­ble piece of med­i­cal equip­ment, grabbed him by the col­lar of his lab coat and choked him. Pu­li­afito de­nied wrong­do­ing.

Dur­ing the case, it emerged that the univer­sity had in­ves­ti­gated sep­a­rate com­plaints of sex­ual ha­rass­ment against Pu­li­afito, ac­cord­ing to sworn tes­ti­mony and court fil­ings in the law­suit. The records do not re­veal the out­come of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and a univer­sity spokes­woman said in re­sponse to ques­tions about the probe: “We don’t have any­thing to pro­vide.”

Pu­li­afito and the univer­sity reached a con­fi­den­tial set­tle­ment with Brock­man in June 2007. Two months later, USC hired Pu­li­afito.

When War­ren first met Pu­li­afito in early 2015, she was a 20-year-old col­lege dropout who had re­cently moved out of her par­ents’ Hunt­ing­ton Beach home and was ad­ver­tis­ing on an es­cort web­site.

She of­fered him meth, she said, and he ac­cepted. War­ren said that af­ter that first en­counter, they be­gan see­ing each other reg­u­larly.

The images viewed by the Times re­flect an easy fa­mil­iar­ity be­tween War­ren and Pu­li­afito. In the video that shows him smok­ing from a large glass pipe while she heats a piece of foil and in­hales.

Look­ing into the cam­era, War­ren says she and Pu­li­afito are mak­ing a “good old-fash­ioned do­ing-drugs video” to send to a friend.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who watched the video at the Times’ re­quest said that what it showed was con­sis­tent with smok­ing meth and heroin.

In an­other video, War­ren takes a drag from a meth pipe, and as she ex­hales, Pu­li­afito in­hales the smoke from her mouth, a technique known as “shot­gun­ning.”

Pu­li­afito rented apart­ments for War­ren in Hunt­ing­ton Beach and near his home in Pasadena so she would al­ways be avail­able, she said. He gave her spend­ing money and cov­ered her le­gal bills, she said.

Dur­ing their time to­gether, War­ren was ar­rested four times on charges that in­clude drug pos­ses­sion, drunk driv­ing and petty theft, court records show. She pleaded guilty or no con­test in each case and was placed on pro­ba­tion, given com­mu­nity ser­vice or or­dered to pay fines.

She said Pu­li­afito told her he was tak­ing care of her, but she came to view the money he gave her as “a trap.”

“It was never enough for me to save up and leave,” she said.

USC fundrais­ing galas can be glit­ter­ing af­fairs with movie stars and bil­lion­aire donors rub­bing el­bows in Bev­erly Hills ball­rooms. Pu­li­afito glided con­fi­dently through these events, pos­ing for photos with the likes of Gwyneth Pal­trow and Pierce Bros­nan and chat­ting up tech mogul Larry El­li­son.

In these cir­cles, Pu­li­afito pre­sented him­self as an ar­chi­tect of USC’s ris­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a re­search in­sti­tu­tion. When asked about his ex­tracur­ric­u­lar pur­suits, he men­tioned his award-win­ning stamp col­lec­tion and spend­ing time with his wife, a Har­vard class­mate, and three adult chil­dren.

Don Stokes was not part of that world.

Stokes, 39, is an Orange County karaoke dee­jay with mul­ti­ple con­vic­tions for drug pos­ses­sion. Con­tacted by the Times, Stokes said that War­ren in­tro­duced him to Pu­li­afito, and that they would spend hours drink­ing and us­ing drugs in bars and ho­tel rooms with a group that in­cluded ad­dicts and pros­ti­tutes.

Stokes said Pu­li­afito gave him meth, in­clud­ing while he was liv­ing at New Life Spirit, a Hunt­ing­ton Beach sober home for re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts. War­ren said she saw it hap­pen.

Stokes said that Pu­li­afito seemed to be­lieve that show­er­ing the group with cash and gifts was a way of “ty­ing into this generation.”

War­ren said her younger brother was part of the group that hung out with Pu­li­afito and used drugs with him.

Charles War­ren, who lives with his par­ents in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, con­firmed his sis­ter’s ac­count. He said in an in­ter­view that he was 17 and had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with drugs, be­yond mar­i­juana, when his sis­ter in­tro­duced him to Pu­li­afito in the spring of 2015. Sarah and Charles War­ren said Pu­li­afito wrote them pre­scrip­tions for asthma in­halers to soothe lungs raw from smok­ing mar­i­juana and metham­phetamine. Charles War­ren, now 19, pro­vided the Times a copy of a CVS pre­scrip­tion his­tory, dated Dec. 30, 2015, for an Ad­vair in­haler that shows Pu­li­afito as the pre­scrib­ing physi­cian and Charles War­ren as the pa­tient.

In early 2016, about a year af­ter she first met Pu­li­afito, Sarah War­ren sought help for her drug prob­lem. She spent time in two dif­fer­ent re­hab pro­grams, and com­pleted the sec­ond one, at Michael’s House in Palm Springs, Calif., in Fe­bru­ary 2016. In June 2016, dozens of Pu­li­afito’s col­leagues gath­ered on a lawn at USC’s health sciences cam­pus for a catered re­cep­tion in his honor. It had been three months since he had an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion, and the school’s top ad­min­is­tra­tors took turns laud­ing his ac­com­plish­ments as head of the med­i­cal school.

Keck had climbed in na­tional med­i­cal school rank­ings: U.S. News & World Re­port ranked it 31st in re­search last year, seven rungs higher than when Pu­li­afito be­came dean.

“To­day, we have one of the, not just the area’s, but the na­tion’s pre-em­i­nent med­i­cal schools and med­i­cal en­ter­prises – and, in many ways, thanks to the lead­er­ship of Car­men,” Nikias told the crowd.

Key to Keck’s rise in stature was Pu­li­afito’s abil­ity to head­hunt the type of big-name re­searchers who brought grant money and pres­tige. He re­cruited more than 70 pro­fes­sors to Keck, ac­cord­ing to a cam­pus pub­li­ca­tion.

Pu­li­afito con­tin­ues to rep­re­sent USC in pub­lic. On Satur­day, he spoke at a Keck-spon­sored pro­gram at the Lang­ham Hunt­ing­ton Ho­tel in Pasadena – one of the ho­tels Sarah War­ren said she fre­quented with him.

Sarah War­ren, then 21, says she met Dr. Car­men Pu­li­afito, dean of USC med school, in 2015 while work­ing as a pros­ti­tute. She over­dosed in a Cal­i­for­nia ho­tel room in his pres­ence.

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