When Michael McCall rolled up to a street corner in his big white sport utility vehicle, it was party time for Buffalo's prescription painkiller addicts, federal investigators charge.
A heavyset man with the gift of gab, McCall would park his rig, open the windows and conduct business. People from all walks of life flocked to the SUV like kids looking for candy, paying as much as $60 or $70 for a single pill — painkillers that McCall's gang obtained by conning doctors into prescribing them medicine they didn't need.
"The doctor-shoppers know exactly which doctors in this community are easy marks to get prescriptions from," said William R. Burgin, a drug treatment professional. "There is a network of these people."
The story of how McCall allegedly obtained and distributed painkillers to hundreds of addicts is part of a disturbing, fast-growing trend that has helped to create a new class of American drug addicts.
With federal agents watching from hidden locations, customers gave McCall cash for oxycodone, hydrocodone and other narcotic painkillers.
McCall's ring also provided the pills that were sold from two busy drug houses on the city's East Side, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said. And through one of his associates, McCall supplied the drugs for a group of young prescription pill pushers in Cheektowaga, headed by a pill-popping gas station attendant named Justin Doyle, the DEA alleged.
When McCall and 32 of his gang members were arrested last July, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. called the drug ring the largest of its kind ever broken up in Western New York.
McCall made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling the drugs over a period of four to five years, and agents believe his ring fueled the habits of hundreds of local addicts.
McCall used much of the money he made to pay for an addiction of his own — lottery gambling, agents said.
When police raided his apartment in a Cheektowaga senior citizens complex last summer, they found thousands of old state Lotto tickets, stacked up on almost every available table, dresser and counter space.
Inside McCall's Cadillac Escalade, cops found 450 Lotto tickets, all purchased on the same day, wrapped together in a long paper receipt that McCall received when he bought the tickets.
"We believe he was buying at least that many lottery tickets every day," said one cop who knows McCall. "He also played the illegal street lotteries, Bingo and slot machines."
Officially, the 57-year-old McCall was unemployed. His bad back enabled him years ago to get a Social Security disability pension and quit his job as a maintenance worker at Erie County Medical Center.
His unofficial, outside-the-law job was buying prescriptions — usually from patients being treated by doctors for pain management — and selling pills to addicts.
>An able recruiter
Because of his bad back, McCall used prescription painkillers himself. He knew his way around doctors' offices and pharmacies. He learned that there were certain medical offices in the Buffalo area where he could sit in the waiting rooms for hours, chatting with patients.
"[McCall] would chat with patients in waiting rooms and find out what kind of drugs they were getting ... After awhile, he would tell them about ways they could make good money selling him some of their drugs," said Dale M. Kasprzyk, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo DEA office.
"Do you use all your pills?" McCall would ask. "If you have any leftovers, give me a call."
He offered patients $500 or more for their prescriptions, authorities said.
McCall also went to churches to try to recruit people, and in one case, he even managed to recruit a script seller at a church picnic, police say.
Over a period of several years, McCall found about 10 prescription drug users who agreed to sell him some or all of their drugs.
Some of the people who sold their prescriptions to McCall were receiving treatment for legitimate injuries, police said.
Other people who sold their scripts to McCall were professional "doctor-shoppers" who became experts at getting prescriptions from doctors by lying about back pain or other ailments.
McCall told his script sellers which local doctors were the easiest to get pain medications from, investigators said. At times, McCall coached them on exactly what to tell the doctors.
Forty-year-old Olivia Paschell was one of McCall's script sellers, police said. The North Buffalo resident worked in the dentistry unit of Erie County Medical Center, where McCall had worked before quitting with a back injury.
Paschell began getting painkiller drugs from doctors after she was injured in a 1988 car crash. Last year, according to her attorney, Paschell got into some financial trouble, and McCall found out about it.
He asked her to sell him her prescription for "Big Boys" — the street name for 80-milligram OxyContin tablets — for $1,000, and Paschell agreed.
Last June 13, McCall called Paschell on his cell phone and advised her on how to persuade her doctor to prescribe a 90-day supply of oxycodone, rather than the customary 30-day supply.
"Tell the doctor you need to go up to 90, 'cause ... you've been in a lot of pain. You've been taking three pills a day," McCall told Paschell, with federal agents listening in on a wiretap.
"You think he will?" Paschell asked.
"Yeah ... all he could do is say yes or no," McCall said.
Four days later, after an appointment with her physician, Dr. Marati Gopalakrishnan, Paschell called McCall with some news.
"I got 90 of them," she reported.
"I told you," McCall said.
Gopalakrishnan, an internist with an office on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, was considered the easiest mark of the doctors that McCall's group visited, according to law enforcement officials.
After the DEA busted McCall and his gang, the 75-year-old Gopalakrishnan turned in his license to prescribe narcotics and then retired.
Contacted by The Buffalo News, the doctor contended he provided appropriate care but acknowledged he was easily duped by some patients into giving them pain drugs and could have done more to prevent it.
"I tried to help people, poor people," he said. "It was not about the money. I am not greedy.
"I had patients who said they came from other doctors. In retrospect, I should have had more staff and done more urine testing and called those doctors," he said.
>Most doctors unaware
Most physicians in Western New York are probably not aware that doctor-shoppers and script sellers are out to take advantage of them, said Burgin, executive director of the Alcohol & Drug Dependency Services agency in Buffalo.
"But I believe there are a few doctors in the community who know exactly what is going on. They do it for the money. Maybe they're trying to retire early," Burgin said.
Paschell declined to speak to a reporter, but her attorney, Daniel J. Henry Jr., said she feels "terrible" about her crime because she now has a criminal record.
Paschell was arrested as a McCall co-defendant last July, and in January, she pleaded guilty to a felony drug conspiracy charge, admitting that she sold a script to McCall on one occasion. Under advisory sentencing guidelines, she faces up to 21 months in prison when she is sentenced April 20.
"You have people doing this who are normally law-abiding citizens," Henry said of script sellers like Paschell. "These are people who never would sell cocaine or heroin because that would be a dirty street crime. But they will sell the pills from their medicine cabinet."
Burgin responded: "If you're selling your prescriptions to drug dealers, you could be causing as much harm as someone who cuts up a kilo of cocaine and puts that on the streets. Anyone who thinks they aren't hurting anyone by doing this is just kidding himself. People overdose on prescription drugs every day, and it could be your own child or grandchild."
On top of that, taxpayers — through the Medicaid program — pay for many of the pills that wind up in the hands of addicts.
"Often, the patient gets his drugs for a $6 co-pay, under Medicaid, so the taxpayer picks up most of the cost for the pills," said Kasprzyk of the DEA. "Then, the drugs wind up on the street, where they cause all kinds of crime problems and addictions, so the taxpayer ends up paying even more money for court costs and addiction treatment."
For example, McCall typically could make as much as $1,600 on one prescription for a 30-day supply of 80-milligram OxyContin, police say.
McCall would pay a Medicaid recipient as much as $500 for a prescription, which costs the patient $6 to $30 to fill with a Medicaid card, investigators say. Then, McCall sold the 30 pills for as much as $60 or $70 each on the street — or up to $2,100 for the full prescription.
McCall sometimes picked up his script sellers and drove them to local pharmacies, where he accompanied them as they picked up the drugs. Some of the script sellers authorized McCall to pick up their pills for them, investigators said.
One Buffalo pharmacist, John Vinti, was suspicious of McCall.
About two years ago, Vinti said, some customers told him that a man kept approaching them outside his drugstore, Allscript Pharmacy on High Street, looking to buy painkiller drugs or prescriptions.
Vinti had a strong suspicion that the man was McCall, a longtime prescription customer who also bought large numbers of lottery tickets.
The pharmacist said he asked McCall to talk with him in a back room of the store.
"I told him face-to-face, 'Mike, I warned you about this once before. I don't want you here anymore. I don't want you coming here to buy prescriptions or lottery tickets."
After that, Vinti said, McCall stayed away from his store.
>Selling the product
Police say McCall's crew sold many of their pills in two run-down drug houses on Strauss Street. Customers — many from the suburbs — drove down the one-way street and stopped their cars in the middle of the street.
One drug dealer walked up to the stopped car, took the customer's cash and learned what kind of drugs the customer wanted. The dealer made a hand signal, and soon, an associate scooted out of one of the houses and delivered the pills to the customer's car. The whole transaction often took no more than a minute.
A few miles away in Cheektowaga, Justin Doyle, 22, was doing a bang-up business selling McCall's drugs from the Mobil gas station where he worked at Union Road and William Street, authorities said.
Doyle, who lived in West Seneca, was described by police as a "party animal" who used drugs almost as fast as he sold them. Doyle loved to attend all-night "rave" parties, and he used text messages to arrange his drug purchases and sales.
"wats good?" he texted Atiya Johnson, a hairdresser and alleged drug supplier for McCall, last May 2.
"Big boys," Johnson replied.
Each time Doyle got a new stash of drugs from Johnson, he would send out a mass text to his regular customers.
"4th row tickets" meant Doyle had 40-milligram OxyContins available, and "8th row tickets" meant he had 80-milligram "Big Boys."
Investigators said so many people showed up at the gas station to buy drugs that Doyle told them to pretend they were putting gas in their cars, so they didn't look suspicious. He also sold drugs at other suburban locations.
Doyle lived with his parents, but police said that when they went out to arrest him early on the morning of July 15, he was sleeping in a Lancaster "flop house" owned by a drug-addicted nurse.
So far, five people have taken guilty pleas in the cases related to McCall and Justin Doyle. Several other people are scheduled to take guilty pleas by the end of March, according to U.S. Attorney Hochul.
But McCall, Doyle and Johnson — all of whom declined, through attorneys, to comment for this story — have continued to maintain their innocence.
"The government claims that [McCall] was a ringleader, and he denies being the ringleader of anything," said his attorney, Brian P. Comerford, a federal public defender.
While he is thankful for the crackdown on McCall's group, Burgin wonders how many comparable drug organizations still operate throughout the country.
"I think we're just beginning to see an awareness of just how serious this problem is," Burgin said.
News Staff Reporter Henry L. Davis contributed to this report.