ivoh fellow Jed Lipinski on how a father sought justice for his son & became an anti-opioid crusader
By: Jed Lipinski
Jed, a 2017 ivoh Restorative Narrative fellow, covers public health and criminal justice for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He has written for the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Politico, Slate, Vice and other outlets. His writing has won awards from the Associated Press and the New Orleans Press Club. In 2016, he was awarded a fellowship by the National Press Foundation for his coverage of the opioid epidemic in Louisiana.
Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of the Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh fellow Jed Lipinski reported “Justice for Danny” for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. It was originally published on October 7, 2017 and is being republished with permission.
Among the Christmas ornaments, Mardi Gras costumes and crawfish boiling equipment in Dan Schneider’s attic, a stack of cardboard boxes stands out. They bear handwritten labels scrawled with a black Sharpie: “Danny Murder Investigation,” “Tunnel of Hope,” “Dr. Cleggett WWEP.”
Schneider seldom opens them anymore. His wife wishes he would throw them away. But he insists on keeping them around.
“I ain’t never getting rid of this stuff,” he says.
Those dozen boxes archive a pivotal period in Schneider’s life, when a series of events transformed him from a laid-back suburban pharmacist into a vigilante private eye.
Those boxes also contain a story never before told about New Orleans in the early grips of what has become the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history. They catalog the local rise of opioid addiction and the police, pushers and medical professionals who profited from it. They provide a glimpse into the frustrated efforts of federal and local investigators to thwart a crisis that few saw coming — and that was enabled by society’s desire for a miracle cure for pain.
But most of all, the boxes hold the story of one man who, despite the odds against him, set out to right a wrong in his community and rewrite a dark chapter in his family’s life.
It all started around 2 a.m. on April 14, 1999. Schneider and his wife, Annie, woke to the sound of a knock at the door. Two young sheriff’s deputies were standing in the doorway. They asked to come inside.
Seated in the kitchen, the two men explained that the Schneiders’ 22-year-old son, Danny Jr., had been shot in the head while sitting in his truck in the Lower 9th Ward. From the crumpled bills in his hand, investigators suspected he was trying to buy crack.
The Schneiders didn’t believe them. Danny had gone to a friend’s house that night to study, they said, and was now asleep in his room upstairs. His 18-year-old sister Kristi ran off to check.
She came back screaming: “He’s not in his room, Daddy!”
Schneider was blindsided by the news. As he later wrote in a public statement, Danny was a “polite, gentle and compassionate” young man who delivered pizzas at night while studying drafting at Nunez Community College. He had a steady girlfriend – a smart and pretty junior at University of Southern Mississippi – whom he intended to marry. He had no criminal record and, as far as Schneider knew, had never stolen to support a drug habit.
And yet there were warning signs. Danny’s grades had fallen that winter, and he’d dropped a few classes. Days before he was killed, he’d entered his father’s bedroom and announced his desire to discourage kids from trying drugs. Schneider took this to mean his son was drug-free. Now he sees it as a cry for help.
Danny Jr. was not the first young person from St. Bernard Parish to die in a Lower 9th Ward drug deal. In the previous year, three young men from the parish had been shot to death after trying to buy drugs just blocks from where Danny Jr. was killed. His father had sympathized with their families. But he privately blamed the victims, dismissing them as low-lifes who should have known better.
His son’s killing changed his mind. If drugs could take Danny’s life, he thought, they could take anyone’s.
At the time, Schneider was working as the head pharmacist at Bradley’s, an old drugstore in the tiny rural town of Poydras, population 3,886, one of five towns that make up St. Bernard. In a matter of years, it would become a minor hub for people seeking drugs across the Gulf South. Schneider would watch as a powerful new painkiller took hold of his community.
But unlike many others, he refused to do nothing about it. He would soon find himself recruiting informants, collaborating with federal agents and hunting down the most notorious pill mill doctor in New Orleans history.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50.
Deaths from opioids – a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin as well as heroin and fentanyl – have eclipsed the peak years for car crash deaths in 1972, gun deaths in 1993 and AIDS deaths in 1995. More than half a million Americans died from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2015, and more than 60 percent of those deaths involved an opioid.
Yet even as opioid-related fatalities reach unprecedented highs, makers of prescription painkillers have continued to lobby lawmakers to weaken or kill measures intended to limit their availability.
Forbes recently added the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, to their list of America’s wealthiest families. Much of their fortune was built on the time-released painkiller OxyContin, Purdue’s most successful product.
Some changes have been made. Louisiana and other states have pushed through legislation limiting opioid prescriptions for first-time patients to a seven-day supply. Such measures can reduce the number of painkillers diverted to the black market.
Still, experts say, over-prescribing of high-potency opioids for common conditions such as back pain has created a national culture of painkiller use and abuse. As doctors cut back on opioid prescriptions, fearing reprisals from the DEA, painkiller addicts have increasingly turned to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid available for sale online.
New Orleans has not escaped this trend. In 2016, drug-related deaths surpassed the city’s murder count for the first time in history, according to the Orleans Parish coroner. Opioids were found in 166 fatal overdoses, more than twice the 2015 total.
But before the opioid epidemic had a name, a rash of deaths in St. Bernard Parish foreshadowed the prescription drug crisis that would soon engulf the rest of the nation. In 1999, St. Bernard had one of the highest rates of drug overdose in the country, higher than any parish or county in the Midwest and across much of the South. It was here that Dan Schneider spent most of his life.
Schneider was born in 1950, the third of four children in the Upper 9th Ward. At 3 months old, his family, like legions of their white middle-class neighbors, moved into one of many newly built subdivisions in nearby Chalmette. This exodus, heaviest during the 1950s and ’60s, would leave the 9th Ward predominantly black and St. Bernard almost exclusively white. But as the drug trade blossomed in the ’80s and ’90s, an underground economy would develop between residents of each place.
Schneider’s father was an insulation installer with a high-school education. The family went through hard times financially, but Schneider describes his upbringing as mostly happy and trouble-free. At Chalmette High School in the late ’60s, he was an all-district tackle for the football team. Although undersized for the position, he compensated with a tenacity that impressed and at times bewildered his teammates.
Drugs, he says, were not an issue in St. Bernard. “The worst actors smoked cigarettes in the bathroom,” he says.
Schneider and Annie, his high school girlfriend, were married at 21. He earned his degree from Xavier University School of Pharmacy soon after and went to work for chains including K&B and Eckerd. For extra money, he got his real estate license and bought a miniature golf and snowball stand, Old Fashioned Snoballs, which he and Annie staffed on weekends.
After Danny Jr. and Kristi were born, Schneider designed and helped build their own two-story brick home. “He didn’t know how to do any of that, but he did it anyway,” Annie says. The living room featured a vaulted 17-foot ceiling where, every Christmas, Schneider installed a 17-foot Christmas tree. They invited the neighborhood over to trim it.
“We had a very happy life together,” Schneider says. “Then the nightmare happened.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting, the New Orleans Police Department failed to make an arrest. So Schneider, accompanied by family and friends, canvassed the neighborhood where the crime occurred. They handed out fliers begging for help. They upped the Crimestoppers reward to $10,000. Local media covered their efforts.
No witnesses came forward. Desperate to find his son’s killer, and against a stern warning from the Police Department, Schneider began investigating the case himself.
Through the spring and summer of 1999, he walked the streets of the Lower 9th Ward alone, searching for a witness. He prayed at local churches and spoke at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He learned the names of neighborhood drug dealers, and even approached a few for help.
When that didn’t work, he mailed letters to every house within a half-mile radius of the murder scene. Then he called every listed telephone number in the area. Most people hung up. Others provided tidbits of information.
As he neared the end of his list, he found a lead.
The caller on the other end lived a block from the site of Danny Jr.’s death. Yes, she told Schneider, she knew about the case. She had seen the whole thing from her driveway. In fact, the killer, a 15-year-old named Jeffrey Hall, was her best friend’s son.
Schneider was shocked at having found a witness. He continued speaking with her over the coming months, encouraging her to tell police what she had seen. Meanwhile, word spread that she was talking to the victim’s family. Someone slashed her tires. Her bedroom windows were shattered. One afternoon, she found a handwritten note in her mailbox.
“Make yourself not exist,” it read.
She fled that same day, her four small children in tow, and stayed with her mother in the Lafitte public housing development. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office later placed her in witness protection.
Despite the risks, and at Schneider’s continued urging, she finally provided a statement to the NOPD. Hall was arrested on May 14, 2000. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
At a news conference outside the courthouse, Schneider, standing beside his wife and daughter, read a statement thanking the witness for speaking out.
“In this not-so-perfect world,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion, “it’s people like our witness – one by one – telling the truth about what they have seen that will truly make a difference.”
Schneider was thrilled about solving his son’s murder. His friends at the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office told him white civilians never recruited black witnesses to killings in the 9th Ward. Sheriff Jack Stephens, who lived across the street from Schneider, told him, “I wish I had another detective like you.”
And yet Schneider was troubled by what he was seeing at work. As the investigation of his son’s death wrapped up, an unusual number of customers, most of them between 20 and 50 years old with no obvious ailments, had started arriving at Bradley’s with large prescriptions for OxyContin. Around 90 percent of those prescriptions, he noted, were written by an internal medicine and pediatrics specialist in New Orleans East named Dr. Jacqueline Cleggett.
Most of the prescriptions were similar, with 40 milligram or stronger OxyContin pills prescribed in combination with Xanax and the muscle relaxant Soma, Schneider says. (The cocktail is known in drug circles as the “holy trinity,” as users believe taking all three together extends the high.)
Occasionally, the regimen included hydrocodone medications like Vicodin. This was despite cautionary warnings that combining these drugs dramatically raised the risk of respiratory depression and death.
Schneider was familiar with OxyContin. Approved for use by the FDA in 1996, it provided a time-release dose of the opiate oxycodone, which had proven beneficial when prescribed for the treatment of chronic or intractable pain in cancer patients. Advocates had taken to calling OxyContin a “miracle drug.”
What they often failed to point out was its huge potential for abuse and addiction. Crushing or chewing the tablets easily defeated their time-release mechanism, delivering 12 hours of pain relief at once. In early 2000, medical journals, as well as local newspapers in Maine and Ohio, began reporting that OxyContin had become a target of drug abusers and addicts, who crushed the pills and inhaled them or injected them like heroin.
By that summer, OxyContin had hit the streets of St. Bernard. Before The New York Times and other national outlets caught wind of the trend, Times-Picayune reporter Steve Cannizarro wrote a front-page story titled, “Potent new painkiller on the street.”
Citing federal and local authorities, who said the pills were being sold for $20 to $30 apiece, Cannizarro wrote that OxyContin “may soon replace Vicodin as the most heavily abused prescription drug.” John Doran, head of the Sheriff’s Office’s narcotics division, said, “Heroin addicts are starting to use it as a substitute (for heroin).”
Disturbed by the development, Schneider began warning young patients who came into Bradley’s with OxyContin prescriptions. One of them was a nursing student in her late 20s from St. Bernard. Another Cleggett patient, she showed no signs of chronic illness or injury, Schneider says. He suggested the drug was too potent for her. He recommended Ibuprofen instead.
She listened politely, but bought the prescription anyway. Then she stopped coming to Bradley’s.
As the year 2000 came to an end, he reflected on the impact of his son’s death. “It’s difficult to think this,” he wrote in his journal, “but my brain, my life somehow seems improved because of this tragedy. I feel more charitable. I’m closer to God. I seem to have a purpose, where before the tragedy I was a little depressed or indecisive about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
He continued: “I wish it would not have happened. I wish I could go back to where I was and have Danny. But I’m going to try to do good and make the best of things.”
With his son’s killer locked up, Schneider redirected his energies toward the OxyContin problem. For the moment, Cleggett was only a name on a prescription slip. But others knew better. An experienced investigator for the DEA, speaking of Cleggett’s clinic, would later say: “I’d never seen anything like it.”
According to court records, Jacqueline Cleggett grew up in the small southern Mississippi town of Moss Point. She got her medical degree from the Morehouse School of Medicine, at a historically black university in Atlanta, and completed a residency program in internal medicine and pediatrics at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. Around that time, she divorced her husband, an emergency room physician, and gained custody of their three children.
Throughout the 1990s, court depositions show, Cleggett pursued an ambitious if itinerant medical career in New Orleans. After a brief stint as a family practitioner, she found higher pay as a contractor for Gulf South Medical Consultants, where she specialized in soft tissue exams for personal injury clients. Dr. Stewart Altman, a colleague at Gulf South, remembers Cleggett as a “competent and personable” physician who spoke often about her kids.
In the late ’90s, while still working for Gulf South, she launched a small private practice in New Orleans East. “She’d see patients in the evenings and work for us during the day,” Altman later recalled. “I told her: ‘You’re going to knock yourself out doing this.’ But she felt she could handle it.”
By early 2000, Cleggett later stated in a deposition, her private practice had become “too demanding.” She quit Gulf South and relocated her office to a large two-story building on Chef Menteur Highway, a high-crime area where prostitutes roamed at night. That spring, she earned a certificate from the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
Located next to an overgrown lot, the two-story, 6,000-square-foot space had once housed a scuba diving shop with an indoor pool. For security, she hired New Orleans police officers from the 7th District to work detail shifts. Her live-in boyfriend, a commissioned member of the Civil Sheriff’s Office, guarded the door.
Across the top of the facade, Cleggett installed a giant neon sign reading: “JACQUELINE R. CLEGGETT, M.D. Internal Medicine & Pediatrics.” A smaller sign on the side of the road advertised her new status as a pain management specialist.
At a certain point, Schneider realized he could no longer ignore Cleggett.
The few other doctors who prescribed OxyContin, he noticed, did so for patients with histories of chronic pain. They also tended to start at low doses.
Cleggett’s patients, by contrast, skewed young and tended to have no chronic pain background. And yet Schneider says he rarely saw prescriptions from Cleggett for anything less than 40 mg OxyContin tablets. Nor did he see prescriptions from her for other common medications like antibiotics, as he did from most internists.
“It was all painkillers, all the time,” Schneider says.
He started asking customers about her. Those who agreed to talk complained of long lines outside the clinic. To his astonishment, they said her office hours lasted until 4 or 5 in the morning. Others told Schneider she took cash only and charged a $150 “stat fee” for faster service, pushing the total cost of a visit to $400. Still others reported that patients kept filing in and out even after Cleggett left the office, suggesting someone else was writing prescriptions for her.
Based on these conversations, Schneider began turning certain patients away. Presenting out-of-state ID (“What, they don’t have pharmacies in Mississippi?” Schneider would say) or showing up early for refills (“The dog ate my medicine”) were cause for rejection. He required the rest to sign a statement, scribbled on the back of their prescriptions, saying that OxyContin was highly addictive and could easily cause overdose and death. If patients complained or threatened the store’s staff, Schneider escorted them outside.
Bradley’s owner, Claude Riche, a pharmacist himself nearing retirement age, questioned Schneider’s antics. A bottle of OxyContin extra-strength, Cleggett’s stock-in-trade, earned the store a $100 profit – more than almost any other prescription drug. Riche acknowledged OxyContin was dangerous. But Schneider says his boss believed it wasn’t their place to reject legitimate prescriptions.
According to Schneider, Riche had gone through his own righteous-pharmacist phase years earlier, reporting suspicious doctors to the authorities. But the only effect it had was a loss of business. The offending physicians simply told patients to avoid Bradley’s.
Schneider was stuck. He’d gone to pharmacy school to fill prescriptions, after all. And he needed the work. But he was starting to feel complicit in the local OxyContin crisis.
Schneider sped along Interstate 55 in Tennessee in his champagne-colored Lincoln LS. It was early January 2001. His family had driven to Minnesota for the NFC divisional playoffs, only to see the Vikings crush the Saints, 34-16. As they drove back to Chalmette two days later, Schneider, still depressed by the game, vented to a friend in the passenger seat about the New Orleans East doctor who was pumping OxyContin into St. Bernard.
Have you seen her office? the friend asked. Schneider admitted that he hadn’t. So after dropping Kristi off at home that night, he and Annie drove out for a look.
The crowd was visible from two blocks away. Parked cars, many with out-of-state plates, lined the shoulders of Chef Menteur Highway. Schneider backed into a side street, cut the lights and stared.
Under the streetlights’ yellow glare, they saw a line of around 80 people stretching out the front doors. A few men in business attire and a woman in nurse’s scrubs mingled with a motley crew of biker types and other tough characters, Schneider says. Nearby, a uniformed NOPD officer stood guard. Schneider and his wife watched in wonder as a man on crutches hobbled in, then casually walked out minutes later with the crutches in hand.
“Oh my God,” Annie said finally. “How is this legal?”
Evidence of the opioid scourge was becoming too obvious to overlook. Around the time of the Schneiders’ late night excursion, Time magazine published the first of many articles it would write about OxyContin. Titled “The Potent Perils of a Miracle Drug,” the article said OxyContin had created a “crime wave” in rural Maine and other parts of the country, including the “New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish.”
The piece quoted John Doran, who described OxyContin abuse as an “epidemic” in the parish. The Sheriff’s Office had confirmed five fatal overdoses, Doran said, though he believed the number was higher.
That same week, Schneider got a call from Pete Tufaro, a narcotics agent and longtime friend. Tufaro informed him of yet another fatal OxyContin overdose in the parish. The victim was the same nursing student Schneider had counseled months before.
Schneider was floored. He feared his store had sold her the fatal dose. In subsequent conversations with the coroner, he says, he learned that she may have acquired pills from multiple sources. Even so, he blamed himself. He’d suspected she was addicted, yet he’d allowed her to walk out with a bottle of pills.
And as far as he could tell, no one else was taking action. NOPD officers were evidently working private details for Cleggett’s clinic. If the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners was not in cahoots with her, it was incompetent. How else could it have allowed this 24-hour pill mill to stay in business?
Schneider thought back to his role in his son’s murder case. “It got me thinking, ‘Hey, I’m a pretty good f—– detective!'” he says. “‘If anyone’s going to do something, maybe it’s got to be me.'”
He knew going after Cleggett was risky. From conversations with patients, he’d heard that many people – including street-level drug dealers and known criminals – were making handsome profits by selling pills she prescribed. At $1 per milligram, a bottle of 90 extra-strength OxyContin retailed for around $7,000. How would they react to a pharmacist trying to cut off their supply?
As an initial precaution, Schneider stopped throwing Cleggett’s name around at the pharmacy. He began referring to the case by a code name: WWEP, short for Wicked Witch of the East Project.
Schneider all but stopped sleeping in the wake of the nursing student’s death. He started tape-recording interviews with patients willing to talk. He drove out to Cleggett’s clinic at night and, with his new digital Canon camcorder, shot surreptitious footage of the crowds. His vigilante investigation had begun.
By mid-January of 2001, he’d collected enough evidence to submit to authorities. First he reported Cleggett to the IRS. “I didn’t believe she was reporting all that cash,” he said.
Then he contacted the FBI. Soon after, an agent dropped by Schneider’s house, where he picked up a cardboard box of taped patient interviews and mini DV cassettes with late-night surveillance footage. The agent thanked him but advised him to quit snooping around Cleggett’s place of business.
Next, Schneider paid a visit to the DEA headquarters, located in a gleaming office tower overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. Alone with an investigator, Schneider unburdened himself of everything he’d learned about Cleggett. The investigator was unimpressed, Schneider recalls. He asked instead for names of OxyContin dealers in St. Bernard, which Schneider could not provide. As he later wrote in his journal: “He didn’t seem to understand the significance of it all.”
Discouraged by the tepid response from authorities, Schneider broadened his network of contacts beyond his customer base. Dr. Brian Bertucci, a primary-care physician and the deputy coroner for St. Bernard, told him the Chalmette Hospital ER was overflowing with young overdose victims. A local funeral home director, Floyd Herty, told Schneider they were hosting funerals for them nearly every week.
“Death is part of life,” Schneider remembers Herty saying. “But young kids dying like this?”
Jay Authement, a paramedic with Acadian Ambulances who’d worked the night shift in St. Bernard since 1979, was responding to two or three overdoses every weekend, up from one or two per month. At the scene, he’d often find a bottle of OxyContin lying on the floor. After the victims were revived with naloxone, the opioid antidote, many of them came clean. “They’d tell me, ‘I saw a doctor out East yesterday,'” Authement says.
Meanwhile, at Bradley’s, Schneider was arriving at 9 a.m. to find three or four Cleggett patients waiting for him to open. Another 40 or 50 showed up throughout the day, Schneider says. He continued to turn more and more away, inflaming tensions with his boss.
Schneider argued that dispensing too many narcotics made the store a target for shady characters. A recent spate of pharmacy robberies had put him on edge. That February, a man had walked into a Covington pharmacy and announced, “I’ve got a bomb, I’ve got a gun, and I’m going to blow this place up and kill everybody if you don’t give me 1,000 OxyContins,” according to a police spokesman.
Still, many of Schneider’s pharmacist friends shared Riche’s view that Schneider should stay out of it. Privately, he thought they worried about their bottom line. Cleggett’s business was helping them compete against the chains. If he shut her down, maybe they’d have to shut down, too.
The simmering conflict between Schneider and Riche finally boiled over that March. Riche insisted he stop interrogating customers, but Schneider refused. A shouting match ensued, and Schneider says he quit on the spot.
Newly unemployed, Schneider let a few pharmacists in St. Bernard know he was available for part-time work. Cleggett was now his full-time obsession.
A month later, Schneider was standing behind the counter at Sue Dean’s, a nondescript pharmacy in the shadows of Chalmette High, when a haggard amputee with a greying ponytail ambled in. The man handed Schneider a prescription for OxyContin, and was instantly engaged in conversation.
“I see you’re dealing with Cleggett,” Schneider said, downplaying how much he knew. “I hear she’s got quite a business.”
“Boy, does she,” the man said, laughing.
“NOPD working security, open 24 hours, lines out the door?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” the man said, curious where Schneider got his information.
It was Schneider’s first day of relief work since quitting Bradley’s, and already he’d run into a Cleggett patient. And not just any patient. The man was Charlie Rousseau, a former patrol officer for the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office. As they continued talking, Schneider marveled at the chance encounter.
As Rousseau disclosed, he had lost his leg in a 1980 car accident. The crash ruined his career. But his missing limb came in handy eight years later, when then-sheriff Jack Stephens recruited him as an undercover agent for a sprawling drug round-up titled “Operation Zero Tolerance.”
Leading up to the bust, Rousseau portrayed himself as an addict whose amputated leg left him in constant agony. “He gave (dealers) a line about being in tremendous pain, about the constant tortures of life, about how a little weed would help the pain go away,” an attorney said at the time. The crackdown led to 67 arrests, nearly all of which were attributed to Rousseau.
Now, he was on disability and taking OxyContin. Schneider sensed Rousseau was embarrassed to be filling prescriptions from a doctor that Rousseau himself called a “legal drug dealer.” So one day in April, Schneider invited Rousseau to join him on an undercover mission. He’d heard Cleggett occasionally worked out of a separate clinic on Read Boulevard, and he wanted to park outside and watch the door. Rousseau agreed to come along.
Schneider was aware that Cleggett drove a black Mercedes. So he sprang to attention when one pulled up. A woman stepped out and walked inside. “That’s Cleggett,” Schneider recalls Rousseau saying.
A short time later, another car drove up, this one an old Ford LTD. The two men watched in silence as the FBI agent who had previously visited Schneider’s house climbed out. Dressed in plainclothes, he strode into the same building.
Rousseau called an old friend on the force and asked him to check the license plate. The friend said it was registered to the agent.
Schneider didn’t know what to think. His paranoia told him Cleggett had the means and connections to pay off an FBI agent. Then again, the agent might have been undercover, actively working the case. Not wanting to give themselves away, he and Rousseau quickly drove off.
That night, Rousseau called Schneider at home. After running the agent’s plate, Rousseau’s friend had received an angry phone call from the FBI, which was automatically alerted by such searches. The bureau acknowledged that it was investigating Cleggett, Schneider says. But the investigation was ongoing. The FBI insisted Schneider cease immediately or risk charges for meddling in a federal investigation.
Rousseau agreed that Schneider should ease up. He didn’t want to get in trouble with the FBI either. But then Rousseau offered an alternative.
Why don’t you contact the medical board? he said.
Schneider had ruled that out months earlier, but he was running out of options. On April 1, 2001, he addressed a two-page letter outlining his investigation to Charlie Fleetwood, an NOPD veteran who now worked as an investigator for the board. “If it were to help,” he wrote in closing, “I could provide more details or specifics.”
As he dropped the letter in a mailbox, he thought this might be his last shot.
After his visit to the DEA’s office that winter, Schneider had concluded that the agency was not interested in pursuing Cleggett. In fact, the DEA had been methodically building its case against her for more than a year.
Had Schneider looked closely on the nights he spent staking out her clinic, he might have noticed a small black camera lens bolted to a telephone pole across the street. The DEA had installed the camera in the fall of 2000. On many nights since, Iris Myers, a narcotics investigator from the 7th Ward, could be found sitting in her car a few blocks away. As she watched live footage from the feed on her laptop, she corresponded with undercover agents who walked in to buy prescriptions.
In addition to undercover work, the DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squad – a partnership with state and local law enforcement – had been monitoring 10 Louisiana pharmacies that filled Cleggett’s prescriptions. Over a 12-month period between 2000 and 2001, it found that Cleggett had prescribed around 2,030 bottles of OxyContin for those pharmacies alone. Assuming each prescription came with a $250 office visit, they had earned Cleggett at least $500,000 in cash.
One morning in March 2001, more than a year after launching the investigation, members of the Tactical Diversion Squad unit pounded on the front door of Cleggett’s home, a turreted stone mansion in an upscale part of New Orleans East. They tried to convince her to surrender her DEA license — the document that entitles doctors to prescribe controlled substances. They failed. At the sight of a dozen NOPD officers and DEA agents in her foyer, Cleggett turned hysterical, screaming at them to leave. Myers was taken aback; she was used to doctors cowering in the face of law enforcement.
A month later, the squad returned with a search warrant. As members walked through her house, they were appalled by its condition.
Piles of clothes lay everywhere. The master bathroom was cluttered with presigned prescription slips and half-completed patient charts. On the bathroom counter, Myers spotted a half-empty bulk bottle of hydrocodone pills. She assumed Cleggett was taking, if not addicted to, the same pills she was prescribing — a not uncommon occurrence in her experience as a DEA investigator.
Unlike the previous inspection, Myers recalls, Cleggett was calm; she seemed almost amused by the agents’ presence. As Myers and others confiscated the prescriptions and patient charts, Myers recalls Cleggett staring at them with contempt. What she said next stayed with Myers for years.
“She told us, ‘Everyone who’s responsible for this – DEA, NOPD – you’re all dead.'”
Meanwhile, Cleggett’s patients were wreaking havoc across the New Orleans area and the Gulf Coast.
Around noon on May 18, 2001, Dorothy Bivona left her home in Violet for a 1 p.m. appointment at Cleggett’s office. Earlier that morning, Bivona, an unemployed 48-year-old, had cut an OxyContin tablet in two and taken half, defeating its time-release property. As she drove north on Paris Road at 60 mph, she lost control of her 1989 Ford Mustang and crossed the raised median. Her car plowed head-on into a Saturn driven by Ronald Clawson, a Covington man with a wife and teenage son.
Medics rushed Clawson to Charity Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Bivona, who sustained minor injuries, told police that she “may have blacked out” before the accident. She eventually pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and received five years of probation.
A month later, on June 29, an accused drug dealer named James Price was arrested for selling OxyContin to an undercover narcotics officer in Picayune, Miss. An article about the arrest in The Biloxi Sun Herald noted that, in the past six months, two young women had been found dead of OxyContin overdoses in Price’s bed.
During that time, according to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Cleggett had prescribed Price thousands of high-potency OxyContin pills. A Picayune detective said the street value of those pills exceeded $100,000. (Price later pleaded guilty to charges of selling a controlled substance and prescription forgery. He served three years in a state prison before he was released on probation, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.)
Not long after, Westwego police received a report of a drug overdose at the BonSoir Motel, a seedy establishment on the West Bank Expressway. First responders found 17-year-old Derrick Breaux lying dead on a motel room bed. The boy’s father, Paul Breaux, admitted to injecting his son with OxyContin – twice – during a party the night before. When a death investigator for the Jefferson Parish coroner arrived, Breaux said he’d gotten the pills from a New Orleans East doctor named Jacqueline Cleggett.
Paul Breaux was booked with second-degree murder. Weeks later, as guards conducted a routine bed check around 1:30 a.m., they found Breaux hanging from an improvised rope in his cell.
Schneider was at home with the TV tuned to Channel 4 when the nightly newscast came on.
Onscreen, investigative reporter Dave McNamara stood on the edge of a busy four-lane roadway. “Unlike most doctor’s offices,” he said as traffic blew past, “this clinic on Chef Highway is busiest at night — at a time when most of its neighbors are home for the evening.”
It was mid-August 2001, and WWL-TV’s Nightwatch news team was airing its latest segment in a series on OxyContin. Until now, however, the station had not mentioned Cleggett by name.
For the past few months, Schneider had reluctantly reined in his investigation, worried the FBI might burst into his living room if he persisted. The medical board had never contacted him, confirming his belief that it was unable or unwilling to take action. He had also returned to work at Bradley’s, on the condition that he stop hassling paying customers.
Throughout this period, Schneider had attended more than a dozen funerals for young overdose victims. He often knew the family. Mingling with the mourners, he dug for details: What drugs was she using? Was he seeing a doctor? The sight of parents sobbing over the coffin – many of which were closed, since asphyxiation causes the skin to turn blue — inspired him to keep fighting.
Now, suddenly, WWL was splashing nighttime footage of Cleggett’s clinic all over the evening news. One clip captured the doctor herself, clad in a white lab coat and khakis, striding in slow motion toward the glass doors. McNamara revealed that 13 NOPD officers had worked detail shifts in a permanent or temporary capacity at her clinic over a 17-month period. On his authorization form, one officer had written: “Security for clinic which takes in a lot of cash.”
Shortly after the segment ran, the NOPD canceled the details. In a statement, a police spokesman said they were “no longer in the best interest of the department or the citizens of New Orleans.”
The segment was encouraging. But Schneider remained cautious. The feds had known about Cleggett for over a year, and she was still up and running. If they were powerless to stop her, what effect could a single news report have?
Schneider walked beneath the live oak trees at St. Bernard Memorial Cemetery. When he reached his son’s mausoleum crypt, he knelt on the pavement and laid his hand on the cold, white marble.
More than two months had passed since the WWL report, and there had been no new developments. Schneider was feeling hopeless. Over the past year, he’d repeatedly visited the graveyard to talk to his son, relating the progress of his investigation and the setbacks he’d faced. This time, he was looking for guidance.
What else should I be doing? he asked. What haven’t I thought of? Why is it so hard to do the right thing?
It was around this time that he received an unexpected phone call.
The caller identified himself as New Orleans attorney George Papale. A partner at a Poydras Street law firm, Papale also worked part-time for the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners investigating and prosecuting violations of medical practices. Papale was looking into some disturbing allegations against Dr. Jacqueline Cleggett. He’d received Schneider’s letter and thought he could help.
As Papale explained, the medical board had received multiple complaints about Cleggett’s practice over the past year. The volume was such that, in February 2001, board investigators had subpoenaed a handful of her patients’ records.
Papale spent the next few months analyzing them to see if Cleggett had violated the board’s pain management rules. If she had, the board would have cause to suspend her medical license.
The board’s pain rules, developed in 1997, were designed as a guide for doctors to conduct chronic narcotic therapy without running afoul of the law. Before treating patients with narcotics, the rules said, doctors must create “individualized treatment plans,” showing that alternative treatments were ineffective.
Once treatment began, the rules obliged doctors to closely monitor patients for signs of addiction or diversion. If they found evidence of such, they should immediately taper and discontinue the medication, then refer the patient to a psychiatrist or addiction specialist. Physicians who failed to meet these standards could have their licenses stripped.
Based on his analysis, Papale believed there was sufficient evidence that Cleggett had violated the pain rules. John Bobear, the board’s executive director, agreed. But he encouraged Papale to dig deeper.
Doctors had the means to hire high-powered attorneys, dragging the board into expensive litigation. If the board moved forward with a suspension, they would have to present their findings in a hearing. Cleggett would then have a chance to confront her accusers and poke holes in the allegations. “Everything needed to be nailed down,” Papale said.
Papale was in this frame of mind when he received Schneider’s letter.
Less than five minutes into their phone call, Papale realized how essential Schneider would be to the board’s case. As a licensed pharmacist, he was far more credible in the eyes of the medical board than drug-addicted patients or anonymous tipsters. He had firsthand observations of young Cleggett patients in his pharmacy. He had even documented conversations with Cleggett in which she seemed impaired.
When he visited Schneider at his home days later, Papale was shocked to find an entire room filled with documents, cassette tapes and surveillance footage – the fruits of Schneider’s yearlong Wicked Witch of the East Project.
“It was jaw-dropping stuff for me,” Papale later recalled.
In early January 2002, Papale had Schneider detail his experiences for the medical board in a 10-page affidavit. Contacts and leads he gave to Papale enabled the investigator to collect eight more sworn statements.
Papale suspected the affidavits and medical records might be enough to authorize a summary suspension of Cleggett’s medical license. Even so, he still wanted a “smoking gun” – something to justify an emergency suspension without need for a hearing.
According to state law, “If the agency finds that public health, safety or welfare imperatively requires emergency action … summary suspension of a license may be ordered.” A smoking gun, Papale told Schneider, would effectively “seal the deal.”
In the days after his call with Papale, Schneider found himself whispering the words “smoking gun” as he stood in the shower, drove to work, and stood behind the counter at Bradley’s.
Despite the small mountain of allegations he’d collected against Cleggett, he still lacked what Papale called “conclusive evidence” that she posed a clear and present danger to the public.
Now, with the words “smoking gun” glowing like a neon sign in his mind, he locked his eyes on every customer who walked through the door.
Late in the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2002, less than a week after Schneider submitted his affidavit, two women–a middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter — entered the pharmacy. After lingering in the makeup aisle, they made their way to Schneider’s counter. As Schneider stared at them with anticipation, the woman placed four prescriptions on the counter. He instantly recognized Cleggett’s signature, as well as the excessive dosing regimen: 100 Valium, 100 Soma, 90 OxyContin 80 mg, and 100 Roxicodone 15 mg, another strong opioid with a high risk for addiction and dependence.
The prescription was for the daughter, a 19-year-old named Toi Dones. Her mother claimed Dones had recently been hospitalized for a flare-up of sickle cell disease, a hereditary blood disorder whose symptoms include chronic pain. But as Schneider studied the young woman’s slender frame, he discerned no signs of illness or pain. He guessed she weighed around 110 pounds. If she takes these drugs as prescribed, he thought, she could easily overdose and die.
He rejected the prescriptions and handed the slips of paper back — but not before photocopying each one.
The following morning, Schneider reached Dones’ treating physician at Bogalusa Children’s Hospital. The physician confirmed that Dones had recently been hospitalized for sickle cell, but he expressed alarm at the volume and strength of drugs Cleggett prescribed, Schneider says. During her hospital stay, the doctor said, Dones had required only low doses of Demerol. Upon her release, Schneider recalled the doctor saying, she was advised to take Tylenol.
After two days and nearly a dozen phone calls, Schneider finally reached Cleggett. With the phone on speaker so Schneider’s pharmacy techs could listen in, Cleggett insisted the large volume of opiate analgesics, tranquilizers and muscle relaxants was appropriate for Dones.
When Schneider questioned her judgment, Cleggett lashed out. “Who the f— made you a doctor?” Schneider recalls her shouting. Then she hung up.
Confident he’d found the smoking gun, Schneider alerted Papale. He then provided a second affidavit summarizing his encounter. Dones’ photocopied prescriptions were attached.
The black SUVs and squad cars pulled into the parking lot around 2 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2002, a Thursday, alarming the few dozen patients lingering near the door. Federal, state and local law enforcement emerged from the vehicles. They had come to suspend Cleggett’s license to practice medicine.
St. Bernard deputies Chad Clark and Pete Tufaro were among them. As they approached the entrance, they immediately identified several drug users and low-level criminals from the parish. Inside, Tufaro was shocked to discover another 50 people packed into the waiting room.
A nurse directed them to Cleggett’s second-floor office, where they found the doctor in an obviously intoxicated state. While Tufaro introduced himself, Clark sat down on her couch. Feeling something hard beneath him, he reached between the seat cushions. He pulled out a loaded Glock 9 mm pistol.
“Don’t worry about that,” Cleggett slurred. “It’s mine.”
The next day, the glass doors of the clinic were locked and the shades pulled down. Now and then, people approached the entrance. Beside two American flag pennants reading “God Bless America,” they found a boldface note taped to the window: “Effective immediately. Dr. Cleggett’s office is closed until further notice!!!!!!”
Her office may have been closed, but Cleggett was not prepared to give in. Her attorney, David Bell, immediately sent a strongly worded letter to the board demanding the suspension be lifted. In a threatening aside, he attributed the board’s actions to “racial animus” toward Cleggett, a black woman in a largely white profession.
Five days later, Cleggett sued Bobear and the board, claiming the suspension was unwarranted. She pointed to language in the suspension order, which stated that the board possessed “apparently reliable information” that Cleggett had prescribed “large amounts of controlled drugs in an inappropriate manner.” Cleggett contended this information was provided by disgruntled former patients who’d been addicted to narcotics before she began treating them.
In fact, the wording of the order was intentionally vague. Papale was worried patients might take revenge against Schneider if his role in the case were made public. (His concerns were real; in recent weeks, Schneider had been getting death threats at work.) So Papale had taken a chance by withholding Schneider’s affidavits, hoping the order would stand without them.
His hopes were misplaced. Civil District Court Judge Ronald Belsome responded to Cleggett’s suit by lifting the suspension, clearing the way for her to practice once again.
Frustrated by the decision, but seeing no alternative, Papale asked for Schneider’s permission to use his name.
Schneider didn’t hesitate.
“Go for it, George,” he said.
In a motion to restore the suspension, filed Feb. 22, Papale submitted the two affidavits by “Louisiana licensed registered pharmacist Daniel A. Schneider, RPH.” He appended the photocopied prescriptions for Toi Dones, noting, as Schneider had indicated, that the volume of medication was “potentially lethal to the patient.”
After reading the motion, Belsome invited Bell and Papale to a hearing in his courtroom at Civil District Court. Based on the new records and exhibits Papale submitted, Belsome concluded that the order to allow Cleggett to continue practicing had been issued “improvidently.”
Bell protested, repeating his plea for a hearing.
Belsome cut him off.
“I don’t want to hear any more arguments, Mr. Bell,” he said. The judge then ordered the suspension of Cleggett’s license upheld.
She would never practice medicine again.
Cleggett’s life unraveled in dramatic fashion.
On May 23, 2002, she was due in court for an evidentiary hearing, where she would be allowed to show cause for why her license should be restored. But five days prior to the hearing, court records show, she was briefly admitted to the acute psychiatric unit of DePaul-Tulane Behavioral Health Center. Her diagnosis, according to the medical board, included “adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features.” Her treating physician suspected “opiate and benzodiazepine abuse.”
Cleggett struggled to make ends meet. Despite having earned millions of dollars in cash through her clinic, according to DEA records, she filed for bankruptcy in April 2004 and sold her mansion on Lake Willow Drive. She dropped her health insurance, claiming she could not afford it, and began home-schooling her children. At one point, she took a job as an assistant manager at a Taco Bell.
During these years, Cleggett was subject to dozens of malpractice and personal injury lawsuits by former patients and their families. In court testimony, she repeatedly defended her behavior, suggesting at times that her cash-only, 24-hour operation was a form of public service.
On one occasion, a personal injury attorney asked why patients were willing to wait for hours to see her. “I could be completely narcissistic and say I was a very good physician,” Cleggett replied. But “the real and true story,” she said, was that people who took opiates for chronic pain were stigmatized by the public and parts of the medical community.
“There are very few physicians who are willing to undergo the scrutiny and possibly risk the loss of their license and profession, (which has) happened to me.”
Why was she willing to take that risk? the attorney asked.
Cleggett responded with a story. As a medical resident in the ’90s, she said, the concept of “pain management” was not widely accepted. Instead of painkillers, patients were given placebos and saline injections, and allowed to sit in agony for hours without proper medication.
“I was in no position to control that environment,” she said, “but I swore I would not treat a patient in that fashion.”
On September 23, 2006, Cleggett was involved in a serious car accident. She spent a month in a coma. When she finally woke up, a neurological evaluation released as part of a later competency hearing found she had sustained partial paralysis and “significant brain damage.”
At the time of the accident, she was studying for the medical board exams in hopes of reapplying for her license. But a medical evaluator later wrote that her injuries left “almost no chance” of her practicing medicine again. “In fact,” the evaluator added, “she may not ever be able to live and function independently.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana indicted Cleggett on Feb. 2, 2007, nearly five years after her clinic was closed. The 37-count indictment, based on evidence amassed by the DEA and the medical board, charged her with illegally distributing OxyContin, Vicodin, methadone and other drugs between June 2000 and February 2002. She faced up to 20 years in jail and a $1 million fine.
By this time, Cleggett was residing in an assisted living facility in Plaquemines Parish. An examination concluded that her “extraordinary physical impairment” left her unable to assist in her own defense.
Based in part on that assessment, then U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office advised against a prison sentence, citing the enormous taxpayer cost of incarcerating a paralytic. On July 23, 2009, in an agreement worked out with prosecutors, Cleggett pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to dispense and distribute controlled substances. In lieu of jail time, the court imposed three years of probation.
Public records indicate that Cleggett, now 54, resides in a small apartment complex in East Baton Rouge. Cleggett, her three adult children, her ex-husband, and other close friends did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Jacqueline Cleggett is not someone people forget. More than 15 years after she lost her license, she remains fresh in the memories of those who bore witness to the wreckage she caused. To them, she stands out as someone whose actions foretold the devastation of the opioid crisis.
“She was certainly not the first doctor to over-prescribe opioids,” says Craig Taffaro, a licensed counselor who served as St. Bernard Parish president from 2008 to 2012. “But she opened a door that otherwise had not been opened. What she unleashed can still be felt in St. Bernard.”
With Cleggett gone, a dozen new pain clinics popped up across New Orleans, seeking to capture her patient base. The epidemic worsened. In late 2004, the parish coroner lamented the unabated overdose death toll, attributing most of them to “recreational use of prescription pills.”
The problems persist today. In the last few years, St. Bernard has posted the second-highest drug overdose rate in Louisiana, higher than any of its neighboring parishes, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s county health rankings.
Over the past decade, Schneider has watched the opioid epidemic unfold with a deep sense of sadness and guilt. “I felt like I could have done more,” he says.
But his crusade did not end after Cleggett.
In 2005, he helped draft a law that established a moratorium on new pain clinics in St. Bernard, inspiring Slidell, New Orleans and other municipalities to do the same.
At a time when few states had prescription monitoring databases, Schneider and the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office pressured the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy to create one. The database, which went live in 2009, allows doctors and pharmacists to monitor whether their patients are receiving prescriptions from other doctors or pharmacies, cracking down on “doctor shopping.” It was recently cited as one reason for the state’s declining rate of opioid prescriptions between 2010 and 2015.
After Hurricane Katrina filled Schneider’s house with 10 feet of water, he rebuilt his life in the North Shore suburb of Mandeville. But still he pressed on, founding an anti-drug coalition back in St. Bernard and recruiting public officials, narcotics agents, pastors, educators and a probation officer to sit on the board.
“He was a relentless advocate,” says Taffaro, who worked closely with Schneider on anti-drug initiatives. “After his son died, he didn’t just bury his head with his hurt and his sorrow. He recognized he was in position to effect change – and he did.”
Now 66 and semi-retired, Schneider admits to having slowed down. Once a month or so, he steps in for the new chief pharmacist at Bradley’s, scrutinizing the occasional OxyContin prescription. He spends the rest of his time gardening, working on his ’66 Mustang convertible and playing with his two young granddaughters.
On a recent afternoon, Schneider was sitting in his backyard, reflecting on the unusual course his life has taken over the past 18 years. Amid the profusion of trees and tropical plants lie several memorials to his son: a stone bench that once stood next to his grave, and a small statue of an angel with blond hair and blue eyes.
Schneider still wonders how he would have responded to the opioid crisis had his son not died that night in 1999. Would he have turned a blind eye, deeming it someone else’s problem? He can’t be sure. All he knows is that he tried his best to do the right thing.
“I just hope my son would be proud of what I’ve done,” he says.