Dr. Feelgood: ‘Bad City’ Exposes Secret Life of Scandalous USC Dean

The Dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine had it all: $1 million salary, sterling credentials, and lucrative research grants. But when a troubled 22-year-old overdosed in a Pasadena hotel suite the 66-year-old had booked for them, Dr. Carmen Puliafito’s double life as a meth abuser and drug procurer should have ended his career. But it didn’t. Not until a relentless Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, battling USC, the Pasadena police, and his own newspaper’s editors, finally broke the story.
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Excerpted from BAD CITY: PERIL AND POWER IN THE CITY OF ANGELS By Paul Pringle.
Copyright © 2022 by Paul Pringle. Reprinted courtesy of Celadon Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing.

The tip about the dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school hinted at something so salacious, so depraved, so outrageous that it seemed too good to be true. Or too awful, if you weren’t a journalist. It came to the Los Angeles Times through a staff photographer, Ricardo DeAratanha. He got the tip at a house party, purely by chance, and emailed it the next day to a colleague. DeAratanha wrote, “I came across someone last night, who witnessed an apparent cover-up involving the Dean of the School of Medicine at USC. It involved lots of drugs and a halfdressed unconscious young girl, in the dean’s hotel room.” He went on to say that the tipster would have more details. 

More often than not, the most tantalizing tips become a fool’s errand, a fruitless prospecting for truth from rumors and exaggerations and outright fabrications.

Not this one.

This tip was about Dr. Carmen Puliafito, a Harvard-trained eye surgeon, inventor, and big-dollar rainmaker who straddled the highest reaches of the medical world and academia. He was a wizard in the operating room and an innovator in the laboratory. Puliafito estimated that he had raised $1 billion for USC. He brought a brainy refinement to the charity circuit of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, mixing as easily with designer-dressed movie stars as he did with the residents in lab coats at the Keck School of Medicine. And yet as luridly improbable as it seemed at first, the tip about Puliafito turned out to be not only on the mark, but merely scratched the surface. And what was revealed beneath that surface was a deep vein of corruption and betrayal that webbed through the Los Angeles establishment and corroded some of the city’s most essential institutions, my own newspaper included.

The tipster, Devon Khan, was a reservations supervisor at the Constance, a boutique hotel on the edge of Pasadena’s central business district. At around 4 p.m. on March 4, 2016, he got a call from the front desk. A clerk told him that the guest in 304 wanted to stay another night and specifically in that room. The guest sounded “jittery.” Before Khan could suggest a solution, the front desk phone rang again. It was the housekeeping supervisor; she needed a manager on the third floor right away. Khan took the elevator. As he stepped out, the housekeeping supervisor told Khan there was an unconscious woman in 304.

Khan knocked. An older man with a wan, off-center face opened the door halfway. The man appeared to be in his sixties and was dressed in rumpled jeans and a stretched-out polo shirt; he had dimmed, spidery eyes, and his thinning hair went in several different directions. A security guard and the housekeeping supervisor told Khan that the day before, when the man and woman were out, a maid had found drugs scattered around the room. The security staff was alerted and photographed the drugs. Management did not ask the man and woman to check out. When it came to drinking and drugging, the policy of the Constance was to live and let live. The photos were a precautionary measure, in case the guests got out of hand in a way management couldn’t  ignore.

Puliafito parties with young friends including Sarah Warren, his obsession (far right). (COPYRIGHT © 2022 BY PAUL PRINGLE. REPRINTED COURTESY OF CELADON, AN IMPRINT OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHING)

At the man’s request, a bellman had already brought a wheelchair to 304. When the man let Khan in, resigned that he could no longer keep him out, Khan was aghast: the woman, blond and very young, looked as if she had been plopped into the wheelchair like a sack of feed. Her head rested heavily on her shoulder. She wore only a white hotel robe and pink panties. Her limbs hung straight down, as if weighted; one leg dangled off the chair where a footrest was missing. Khan could not be sure she was breathing. “Ma’am?” he said. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” Nothing.

Khan took in the room. Strewn over the carpet were empty beer bottles, a plastic bag of whippets—the small canisters of nitrous oxide inhaled for an illicit high—and a palm-size container for a butane torch, the type favored for lighting a meth pipe. Burn marks scarred the bed. It didn’t take a medical degree to conclude the woman had overdosed. The man was silent. He was old enough to be the woman’s father, or even her grandfather. Khan noticed a small camera tripod sitting on top of the television. What kind of degenerate is this guy? 

“Are you OK, ma’am?”

There wasn’t the slightest flutter along the alabaster face, although Khan could now see that she was breathing, if only faintly. He decided to move her and the man to 312, and leave 304 in just the state it was in for the police. Khan guided the chair out of the room and into the hallway, the man awkwardly keeping pace with the woman’s calf in his hand. “Can you hear me, ma’am?” Khan said as they rolled down the hallway. Before he gave the man the new key, he asked for an ID. The man produced his driver’s license: Carmen Puliafito. Khan told Puliafito he would call 911.

“That’s not necessary,” Puliafito said. “She just had too much to drink.” He paused. “Listen, I’m a doctor.”

A doctor? Bullshit. A doctor would have called the paramedics himself.

“I’m caring for her,” Puliafito said.

The paramedics and police were summoned.

“I would be derelict in my responsibilities if I didn’t seek medical attention for her,” Khan told Puliafito.

When the paramedics arrived and the  woman was placed on a gurney, they called out, “Sarah? Sarah? Can you hear us, Sarah?”

The following Monday, Khan bumped into a colleague who had been on duty after he left Friday. Khan asked him if the police arrested the man involved in the overdose.

“No,” the coworker said. He shook his head. “Nothing happened.” Khan was taken aback. “What do you mean ‘nothing’?”

“It’s like, when the police got here, they already knew who the guy was. They didn’t arrest him; they didn’t do anything.”

He shrugged as if to say it couldn’t be explained. “Oh, and the guy really is a doctor.” 

Khan still didn’t buy that. “No way,” he said.

“Yeah . . . he’s the dean of medicine at USC.” 

Two months earlier, in January of 2016, Dr. Carmen Puliafito was behind the wheel of his Porsche, tooling up Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. He was headed to Creative Care, one of many luxury addiction treatment centers that had set up shop in Malibu with ocean views, gourmet chefs, and masseuses. Places like Creative Care charged upward of $30,000 a month and drew clients like Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, and Robert Downey Jr., a selling point for addicts who lacked fame but not money.

Puliafito had plenty of money. He made more than $1 million a year at USC, and he and his wife owned a Pasadena home valued in the vicinity of $6 million. And during the short time he had known Sarah Warren—the woman who Khan beheld passed out in room 304—he had spent lavishly on her, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was paying all her living expenses, starting with the rent on one apartment after another in Pasadena and then Huntington Beach. He covered her car payments, her community college fees, even her cable TV bills. He paid for her furniture, clothing, makeup, and dental work. And there were the trips to New York, Miami, and Boston—even Switzerland.

Sarah and Puliafito share a pipe during one of their frequent meth jags. (COPYRIGHT © 2022 BY PAUL PRINGLE. REPRINTED COURTESY OF CELADON, AN IMPRINT OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHING)

The expenses meant nothing to Puliafito. Sarah had become the singular focus of his life. She called him Tony, from his middle name, Anthony. He told her he loved her. More important than love was his need to control her. The minute she slipped out of his grip, the minute she really got clean, it would be over—he would mean nothing to her. Puliafito could not let that happen. Which was why he was making the hour-long drive to Malibu, nosing the  Porsche off the PCH and into the narrow curves of Trancas Canyon Road. Sarah had checked into Creative Care that very day. Her parents persuaded her to do it. This was her second stay at the place. She walked out two weeks into her first, some months ago; it had just been too hard to give up the drugs.

It didn’t look good this time around either. Puliafito called her on the house phone—cell phones were confiscated at check-in—to say she had left her illicit stash of Xanax in his car. Sarah had no prescription for Xanax, and she could never get one in rehab, but Puliafito kept her supplied. When she took enough Xanax—several times the normal dosage—it took the edge off her cravings for meth and heroin. She told Puliafito on the phone to bring the drugs up. And the dean of the Keck School of Medicine was doing just that. He was delivering drugs to a young addict in rehab, breaking the law and shattering every ethical standard of his profession.

Puliafito pulled off Trancas and parked in the lot of the Creative Care compound.  Smuggling in the Xanax wouldn’t be easy. Staffers at the center knew Puliafito from his visits during Sarah’s previous stay, the brusque and meddling doctor who threw his credentials around and barked at them that Sarah needed this or required that. They remembered that the relationship between Sarah and him, supposedly a professional         one, did not seem right. And they knew his Porsche.

Even before he encountered Sarah, Puliafito had become bored with the straightlaced life of a dean, a physician, a husband, and a father. It didn’t matter that he held one of the loftiest positions in his profession or that he had grown rich. Puliafito was an Italian kid from the suburbs of Buffalo, the son of an electrical engineer. He was exceptionally smart and ambitious and was admitted to Harvard and then Harvard Medical School. He graduated magna cum laude and put in the extra years to become an ophthalmologist, coinventing optical coherence tomography, a breakthrough technology that employed light waves to take images of the retina.

This is Carmen,” Sarah told her parents when she introduced Puliafito. “He’s paying for things.

The medical side of academia had taken notice. At the University of Miami, Puliafito led the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and oversaw its return to the No. 1 position in the all-important rankings by U.S. News & World Report, the annual beauty contest of American universities. The rankings were key to recruiting  the aristocracy of professor-researchers who were magnets for eight-figure research grants. During Puliafito’s term at Miami, research funding for the school tripled.

In August 2007, the provost of the University of Southern California—C. L. Max Nikias, a man with a boxy smile who spoke with the vaguely Spanish-sounding accent of his native Cyprus—sold Puliafito on heading its medical school. Nikias, who would become USC president three years later, was smitten with Puliafito’s achievements at Miami, particularly his success in landing those lucrative research grants. That sort of performance was just what the Keck School of Medicine needed. Keck was in a long and unending competition with the medical school of the University of California, Los Angeles, across town, which was more prestigious. Puliafito accepted Nikias’s offer. He and his wife, Janet Pine, a psychiatrist, made the move to L.A. with their three children.

They bought one of Pasadena’s signature homes, a century-old Tudor revival mansion whose 11,000 square feet presided over more than an acre and a half of rolling lawns and mature trees along a graceful curve of South Los Robles Avenue.

Puliafito had been dean for little over eight years. When he wasn’t talking jargon to a ballroom of physicians and researchers, he was representing USC at gala fundraisers, grinning in publicity photos with Warren Beatty and Jay Leno, and chatting with business titans such as Larry Ellison. And yet none of it was enough. Puliafito was tumbling headlong into his mid-sixties. He and his wife were in their fourth decade of marriage. He needed something more engaging. Something thrilling, risky, even dangerous.

Sarah Warren was that something. 

Sarah had never meant to hurt anybody. Not her parents, Mary Ann and Paul Warren. She loved them, and she knew they loved her. She just had no plan when it came to the bad decisions she made.

It started when the Warrens were living in Spring, Texas, on a street hushed by trees, in a house that embraced them with spacious rooms. Sarah was a teenager possessed of the type of restless intelligence that was both a gift and an affliction. Earning good grades was a breeze, but she was always bored in the classroom. She loved to sing and had the voice for it. But after performing in a school production of Oklahoma!, she grew bored with that, too. Boredom could lead to trouble, especially when boys and booze became available. “Listen, I was a difficult child,” she said years later. “I needed more stimuli. I was wild.”

Exploitation and treachery arrived early in her romantic coming of age. Sarah’s first lover during her years at The Woodlands High School made his move on her as she wanted him to—but it was a ruse so that his buddy could sneak into the Warrens’ house and steal their prescription drugs. The thieves were soon found out; Mary Ann made Sarah retrieve the bottles of pills from her lover. Sarah was humiliated, traumatized. 

As she put it together long afterward, that experience sent her into a spiral of self-debasement. She entered her first rehab at 18. Her smarts shone through the fog of hangovers and highs. She kept her grades up and entered the University of Texas at San Antonio. It was a new beginning, a clean slate. And then her dad landed a high-paying job in Southern California. The Warrens believed L.A. could be the perfect place for the family to set out on a better course. No—not for me, Sarah countered. Mother and daughter squared off. Mary Ann prevailed. L.A.’s sunny promise proved to be overrated. The Warren family settled into a million-dollar town house a few blocks from the water in Huntington Beach; Sarah scored her first dose of California meth just down the street.

Sarah had waited a long time to run away from home, but when she finally did, she did it in a big way. She had barely unpacked her getaway clothes at an Airbnb in downtown L.A. when she decided that prostitution was the quickest and easiest means of financing her liberation. Why not? she told herself. I like sex, and I’d like to maintain my lifestyle. Within 20 minutes of posting her backpage.com ad, she had two tricks. The demand for her body grew by the hour. Then a woman pimp named Vicky found her through the Backpage ad and offered Sarah her services. Now she had someone to screen out the worst of the johns. But Sarah came to hate the work and no longer associated prostitution with sex, but with injury-grade pain: “I was in so much pain, I started crying once, and it turned the client off.”

That client wasn’t Carmen Puliafito. Tears wouldn’t be enough to turn him off—Sarah had a hard time imagining anything that would. They met for the first time at a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga. “The minute I opened the door, I realized he was crazy—and he was crazy for me,” Sarah said, remembering that he looked saggy and mottled with age, but also like money in his Robert Graham shirt, suit jacket, and creamy loafers. “He was saying, right from the start, ‘Oh my God, you are just so amazing!’ I just couldn’t believe it.”

Puliafito’s obsession with Sarah allowed her to ditch Vicky and walk away from the hooker experiment without crawling back home to her parents. The lifestyle Sarah was determined to maintain now included harder drugs, and she needed someone to pay for them. Puliafito didn’t hesitate to offer to set her up in an apartment in Pasadena, and she didn’t hesitate to accept it, even though Puliafito and his wife lived a short drive away. Puliafito often spoke about his wife, saying that she understood why he needed a “relationship” with Sarah, and that she “knows all about you . . . even how you look.” OK, that was one thing, Sarah thought—if it was true—but it would be another thing if she bumped into his wife at Whole Foods or just walking down Colorado. Puliafito didn’t care about the embarrassment Sarah would feel, even if his wife was fine with some warped open marriage. Maybe having his mistress and his wife in proximity to each other turned him on. It seemed to Sarah that was the sort of thing the rich might find titillating.

USC president Max Nikias (top) recruited Puliafito (seen above with Shirley MacLaine, Annette Bening, and Warren Beatty) partly for his ability to land eight-figure research grants. (PHOTOGRAPH BY RONEN TIVONY/PACIFIC PRESS/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES) (PHOTOGRAPH: REBECCA SAPP/WIREIMAGE)

“This is Carmen. He’s paying for things.” That’s how Sarah introduced Puliafito to her parents when she brought him home to Huntington Beach:He’s paying for things”—a man who was old enough to be their parent. She didn’t have to say what he received in return. Their daughter was putting them in their place, letting them know just how independent she had become—independent of them—and how little she cared if they didn’t approve. And the more the Warrens learned about this Carmen Puliafito, this fat-wallet dean at USC, the more they feared he would be the instrument of their daughter’s destruction. He struck them as a predator without bounds, whose money and power guaranteed he would never be held to account. It reached the point that they consulted a private investigator—an ex-cop. Sarah had pulled another vanishing act, and they suspected Puliafito was behind it. The PI traced Sarah to an apartment in Pasadena that the dean was paying for. When he reported back to the Warrens, he wrapped his findings in some advice: Accept Puliafito as part of Sarah’s life, because if they didn’t, Puliafito might abscond with her. He might abandon his job, his wife, his home, everything—and run off with Sarah, and they would never see her again.

This keep-your-enemy-close strategy shocked the Warrens. It sounded like an admonition to surrender—to surrender their daughter. The PI used to be a cop. Why wouldn’t he counsel them to call the police on Puliafito? Or to report him to the president of USC? To the board of trustees? Maybe he didn’t suggest taking those routes because of what he’d learned as a cop—because he knew how the system worked, and it worked in the favor of people like Puliafito. His advice made sense to the Warrens only because they couldn’t calculate the risks in rejecting it. If they did, would their Sarah be put in more harm? The PI said Puliafito could keep her out of their lives. Could Puliafito do something even worse?

The Warrens took the investigator’s advice. 

One night, in the summer of 2016, six months after her overdose at the Constance, Sarah found herself sitting on the roof of the Balboa Bay Resort, a hotel on the Newport Beach waterfront. She was alone, her feet dangling over the edge. The roof was not designed for visitors.

The view through Sarah’s methamphetamine haze was of yachts and sailboats tucked into the slips of a brightly lighted marina. Sarah had been in the throes of a meth freak-out, a drug psychosis, when the impulse struck her to find a way out of her room and gecko onto the roof. The get-together at the Balboa was Puliafito’s send-off for her, a last bit of fun before she went through with her promise to return to rehab. As always, Puliafito had paid for the room and the drugs and a new bong with a bowl the size of a grapefruit. The Balboa was his kind of place—expensive, exclusive, and discreet. Discreet, that is, until the staff found it necessary to call the cops. After the meth took over, it seemed to Sarah that she was screaming. She screamed that she was like Harry Potter: I’ll use my powers to save the world! She screamed out on the balcony and then the roof, and she kept screaming as four uniformed men forced her into restraints and bundled her out of the hotel.

The frolic and scuffle at the Balboa occurred at least four and a half months after Puliafito learned I was investigating him, and if he wasn’t convinced I’d given up on the story, he obviously felt confident that I would soon enough. Why shouldn’t he have? He’d already managed to stay beyond the reach of law enforcement. Why would one reporter make him sweat? It certainly wasn’t enough to end the partying at places like the Balboa. Or to stop providing Sarah with the drugs that could end up killing her, even with a fall from a roof. He seemed unperturbed in almost a sporting way that the Times was sniffing around. But he hadn’t dismissed the possibility I might find her. So he warned Sarah that “a scumbag named Paul Pringle” was looking into him. Puliafito admonished her to never speak to me and to make sure her family didn’t either. She promised him they’d all keep quiet.

Puliafito became increasingly brazen, mixing his secret life with his position at USC. Here, he drops ecstasy before a black-tie event.

The Newport Beach police booked Sarah on charges of possession of a controlled substance, possession of nitrous oxide, being under the influence of a controlled substance, and battery on the cops and paramedics. It was Sarah’s third arrest in the six months since her overdose. If  Carmen had been locked up after the overdose—who knows?—I might have been clean by now. Instead, after she woke up at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, she called Puliafito, he picked her up, and they drove right back to the hotel to resume the party. Puliafito told her he had hidden the drugs— and the heroin, with a bong and pookie—in the stairwell two floors below their room. They retrieved the bag of goodies and checked into a new room. Sarah vowed there would be no sex; she couldn’t bear to have him on top of her anymore. Their first night at the Constance, the night before the overdose, Puliafito hired a male prostitute for her. He liked to watch her have sex—to watch it and to film it. But she had come to prefer sex with a stranger, as empty as it was, to another romp with Puliafito.

Sarah did not go into rehab after the impromptu rooftop rave-up at the Balboa. Puliafito moved her to yet another apartment, to put more distance between Sarah and her parents. By then, Sarah would be willing to pay him just to leave her alone. Puliafito must have sensed this, because suddenly he was talking about them getting married. He said he wanted to divorce his wife. Did he really believe she would consider marrying him? Was he that delusional? That arrogant? In the past, Puliafito tried to pass her off as his assistant at USC—or as his niece. He even had her attend receptions for his students at his mansion, with his wife there. Another time, he asked her to be his date at the black-tie opening of the Broad museum, the hottest social event of the season, with guests like Kamala Harris, Mayor Garcetti, Gwyneth Paltrow—Chrissie Hynde was the musical guest, for God’s sake. Sarah had refused to go. “Carmen, I’m a 20-year-old drug addict,” she said. “Are you crazy?”

More than a year later, he was still here—only now he was asking her to marry him. I can’t do this for another ten minutes! I have to get back into rehab!

But how? She was still on her parents’ insurance, but that wouldn’t cover everything, and she couldn’t ask them to pay more, not after all the pain—and expense—she had already caused them. If Puliafito offered to pay again, that would keep her tied to him, and there was no getting clean and staying clean with him around. And what about her cats? Through all this, she had somehow managed to adopt three cats. She could not just abandon them. She was trying to make that point with her dad, and he was insisting that he would pay whatever it cost to cure her addiction, to save her. She was grateful. But the cats—what about the cats?

The night before Sarah’s overdose, Puliafito hired a male prostitute. He liked to watch her have sex.

Then her dad started to cry. “You cannot put the cats over your own health,” he said, pleading with her. 

His tears closed the deal. Sarah packed her bags for Ocean Recovery.

Not long after, Sarah, a broom in her hands, was spending a December day at the  Magnolia Memorial graveyard in Garden Grove, a 25-minute drive from Ocean Recovery. She was sweeping the paths at the cemetery, a chore that fulfilled part of her court-ordered community service following her bust at the Balboa. And on this overcast morning, a moment came when she saw something that made her want to scream. It was an orange BMW that rolled into the parking lot. Puliafito alighted from the car. He was wearing a trench coat and a fedora. Are you kidding me? She kept an eye on him as he walked from the BMW. The fact that she was back in rehab meant nothing to him. As she stood there, Sarah remembered that Puliafito had bragged to her that he had the skills and the resources to track her down wherever she might try to hide from him. “I am a detective,” he told her.

And so here he was in his ridiculous get-up, standing in front of his tangerine chariot of a ride, which would be her escape from the drudgery of rehab. Anything she wanted, starting with drugs. All she had to do was get in. But Sarah had already made her escape—from him. She pointed out Puliafito to the man in charge of groundskeeping at the cemetery and told him the guy in the trench coat was looking for her and she wanted nothing to do with him. The groundskeeper walked over to him and ordered him to leave.

That was the last time Sarah saw Carmen Puliafito. 

Mary Ann Warren was waiting for me in the lobby lounge of the Hilton in Huntington Beach. As soon as I introduced myself, she began speaking in electric torrents, recounting how her A-student daughter had run away from home, only to reappear with an addiction to methamphetamine and a boyfriend who was the 64-year-old dean of the Keck School of Medicine. She told me about the arrests and Sarah’s failed attempts to get clean. About the time Puliafito delivered drugs to Sarah while she was in rehab in Malibu, and when he Ubered meth and heroin to her at the family’s home. Then there were the hundreds of photos and videos that Mary Ann had found on Sarah’s computer. Puliafito was either in them or appeared to have shot them. Everything was in them, she said—the drugs, the sex, everything.

I made my pitch to Mary Ann about how important it was for me and my reporter colleagues to see the images of Puliafito taking illegal drugs or even being in the presence of Sarah doing them. Mary Ann nodded. “I jacked Sarah’s phone and computer and made copies. Four days later, my phone chirped. There it was: a video still of Puliafito firing up a large white meth pipe. Then the videos arrived: Puliafito and Sarah at the Constance the night before the overdose.

Sarah asks Puliafito to help her crush some meth to prepare a “hot rail”—a method of snorting the drug. “Absolutely,” Puliafito says. Sarah later bends over lines of white powder on a tray. A video shot the day after the overdose, at another hotel, features Sarah saying she overdosed on GHB at the Constance. “Carmen saved my life,” she says. In another, Sarah and Puliafito “shotgun” meth—she takes a hit from a pipe, and as she exhales, Puliafito sucks in the smoke that streams from her mouth.

Sarah met Puliafito during a brief stint as a prostitute. He lavished her with cash and drugs—even when she was in rehab.

The brazenness Puliafito displayed in allowing himself to be filmed and photographed was astonishing. These were not surreptitious recordings made without his knowledge or when he was incapable of consenting. He is smiling, sometimes provocatively, as if daring whoever might view the images to try to do something about his behavior. He apparently did not object when Sarah looks into the camera to say that she and Puliafito were making a “good old-fashioned doing-drugs video.”

One sequence stood out in the way that it spanned the two lives Puliafito was leading. He is dressed in a tuxedo, ready to head off to an event where he would mingle with other moneyed elites—the ones where he posed for photos with movie stars and billionaires. Puliafito eyes the camera with aplomb, displays an orange pill plopped on his tongue, and says, “Thought I’d take an Ecstasy before the ball.” And he swallows, the dean of the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. The sugar daddy of a troubled young woman named Sarah Ann Warren from Spring, Texas.

Two days later, Paul Warren called me. Sarah was ready to speak to me. On the record.

A blockbuster. That’s what the still unpublished Puliafito story had become by the last week of March 2017. Sarah held nothing back in her interviews with me. She described in granular detail her 21 months of drugging with Puliafito and of trading her body for the narcotics he provided. The photos and videos were visual documentation of her account.

The story appeared in print and online on July 17, 2017, one year and three and a half months after I got the tip about the overdose, and nine months after I filed an initial story, which had been killed by the Times’s top editors. My colleagues and I refused to let the story die, and our revived version was subjected to endless revisions and delays by editor and publisher Davan Maharaj and managing editor Marc Duvoisin that watered it down and removed the most damning reporting about Puliafito and USC. But it still exploded on the web. The online piece drew more readers in a day than other popular Times stories garnered in a month.

A few hours after the story appeared, Carmen Puliafito’s four-decade career in medicine effectively came to an end. 

USC issued a statement saying that Puliafito had been placed on leave and would no longer see patients. That was followed by an announcement by the Medical Board of California that it was opening an investigation of Puliafito based on our findings. The USC statement said nothing about the details of our story and made no expressions of concern about the welfare of Sarah Warren. But the university had tender words for its disgraced rainmaker and dean of medicine. 

USC president Nikias—who had thwarted our every attempt when reporting  the story to get at the acts—said the “university categorically condemns the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of drugs.” He added: “We are concerned about Dr. Puliafito and his family and hope that, if the article’s assertions are true, he receives the help and treatment he may need for a full recovery.”

Sarah has since completed rehab and remained clean. Puliafito denied being the source of her drugs and has not been charged with a crime and no longer practices medicine. The Times fired Maharaj and Duvoisin, after a wide-ranging HR investigation that grew out of my complaints and those of my colleagues about the editing of the USC story. Maharaj and Duvoisin insisted their handling of the story was appropriate. 

Bad City by Paul Pringle. (PHOTOGRAPH: CELADON BOOKS/MACMILLAN)

Click here to purchase Bad City: Peril And Power In The City Of Angels online edition.

This story was featured in the July 2022 issue of Los Angeles 

(Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

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