On a January morning in 1984, a policeman found a bloodstained Toyota pickup near the Holiday Inn in Burbank, its passenger window shattered by a bullet. The truck belonged to a 50-year-old druggist from Northridge named David Wheaton Hall. He wasn't at home. His boss hadn't seen him for days.
A mystery was what federal drug agents wanted. They had staged Hall's vanishing act, Hollywood blood and all. And they had flown him away from Los Angeles, where he had spent 12 months as a civilian turned undercover operative in a state and federal investigation of prescription drug trafficking.
Hall was still "dead" 16 months later when prosecutors called a press conference to announce the filing of criminal and civil actions against 34 people caught in a "sting" called Operation Rx. They did not mention his name. Yet they now say they owe it all to Hall, a portly, gray-haired man who was leaning anonymously against a back wall.
Law enforcement hadn't been on Hall's agenda when, still adrift two years after a divorce and bankruptcy, he drove south from a sleepy Central California town looking for work. He stumbled into a drug underworld in South-Central Los Angeles and notified the authorities. They started him on a year of three lives: pharmacist, drug dealer, agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Hall came forward and literally put himself out there working on our behalf," state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp says. "It was a tremendous sacrifice in regard to his time and a tremendous public service."
Hall's secretly taped adventure in urban espionage led to the convictions in federal court of seven doctors, five clinic owners, three independent drug dealers and a pharmacy owner, plus a host of state actions. There is evidence that it helped curtail illegal sales of drugs. And it is still paying off with indictments.
Hall now lives under a new identity in another state. He agreed to make his story public for the first time, he says, for some of the same reasons that he turned informer--including a thirst for excitement. He said he mostly wanted to punish people who were exploiting the profession to which he had given nearly 30 years.
State prosecutors estimate that the trade in illegal prescription drugs is worth about $1 billion a year in California. The DEA says half the drug overdoses reported by U.S. emergency rooms and coroners stem from prescription drugs, which users often boil in liquid form and inject.
The profit potential in the powerful, strictly regulated medications that command the highest prices is enormous. One tablet of Dilaudid, a painkiller popular as a heroin substitute, normally costs 50 cents at retail. Brought to a user through a network of crooked doctors, unscrupulous pharmacists, drug dealers and street people, it sells for as much as $55.
The doctors write prescriptions for the drugs and sell them for $50 to $300 to independent operators. They in turn buy the drugs in volume from pharmacists and peddle them to users. A copy of each prescription is sent to the state to account for every pill, as the law requires.
"There have been individual doctors who were prosecuted before, but that involved fraudulent prescriptions to a few individuals," says Robert C. Bonner, the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles. "This investigation gave us a much better understanding of the whole distribution network, which goes far beyond just one sleazy doctor and a few junkies."
With his spectacles and cherubic, florid face, Hall looks the part of the avuncular corner druggist. But the man one prosecutor called "our Walter Mitty" is not what he appears.
His hobbies have included flying, scuba diving and prospecting for gold. He says he once stopped filling prescriptions to try making a Jacques Cousteau-style movie off Baja California--only to go back behind the counter when it didn't work out.
He speaks in nervous bursts of words. "I've always been really hyper," he says. "It's my nature. Before I quit smoking about three years ago, I smoked three packs a day. I always had one burning, or even two or three. When I do something, I do it completely. Some people might say compulsively."
Born in Seattle, Hall grew up in Fresno, earned a pharmacy degree at Idaho State College in 1959 and went home to practice. From 1966 to 1977 he owned a drugstore in the tiny farming community of Caruthers, southwest of Fresno. He was on the school board for three two-year terms.
The drugstore failed in 1977 after the only doctor in town died. Hall didn't have much luck with a second store he opened in nearby Clovis. By 1980 he'd declared bankruptcy and parted from his wife of 19 years.