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Police Link Doctor to Man's Death

The former King/Drew physician trainee is suspected of killing a onetime patient in a Calexico, Calif., hotel room last month.

May 13, 2004|Richard Marosi and Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writers

A doctor is suspected of killing a deaf-mute man in Calexico, Calif., whom he had met and treated while a physician trainee at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, authorities said Wednesday.

Dr. Warren Claudius Lemons, 39, summoned paramedics to a Calexico hotel room April 14 to attend to a man in respiratory distress. Macarthur Townsend, 22, was declared dead shortly afterward.

During a search of Lemons' hotel room and car, police found Townsend's medical chart from King/Drew along with 140 videotapes, some of which showed the genitalia of male patients, said Calexico Police Sgt. Gonzalo Gerardo.

Gerardo said the tapes appeared to have been made at a medical facility. Police were investigating whether the facility was King/Drew, a public hospital run by Los Angeles County. Lemons was a family medicine trainee there from 1999 to 2001.

Lemons was escorted off the hospital property by security officers in February, when he no longer was an employee, county officials confirmed Wednesday. County spokesman John Wallace said Lemons had been caught after setting up videotaping equipment in an empty patient room. He was accompanied by an unidentified man and had a hospital ID on him, Wallace said.

Wallace said he could not say if the videotapes seized by police were shot at King/Drew.

"Before we jump to that conclusion, we need to know what's actually on the videotapes," he said.

Wallace also said that it appeared Lemons requested and gained copies of Townsend's medical records on Jan. 23, 2004 -- although he was not authorized to do so.

"It appears he had his employee ID and was a familiar face in the hospital" even though he no longer worked there, Wallace said.

The revelations come at a bad time for King/Drew, just as regulatory agencies and accrediting bodies are criticizing patient care at the hospital and calling into question its physician training programs.

The California Medical Board last week urgently suspended Lemons' license as police continued to investigate his role in Townsend's death. Lemons was taken into custody April 15 on suspicion of murder, but was released 48 hours later. He has not been charged in the death, but he is the lead suspect, Gerardo said. Police are awaiting the results of toxicology tests before deciding how to proceed.

After police arrived at his hotel room, Lemons told them that he had probably given Townsend "too much medicine" while practicing respiratory intubations on him, according to a medical board legal petition.

Typically, those procedures involve a breathing tube being placed down a patient's throat under anesthesia or sedation.

"I must have messed up," Lemons is quoted as telling police officers, according to the medical board petition.

Lemons also said that he was bathing Townsend and that Townsend liked for him to touch his genitalia, but that no sexual intercourse occurred, the medical board report said. The Calexico paramedics found Townsend naked on a small table next to a sofa bed with powerful drugs and anesthetics around him, according to the medical board documents.

In addition to Townsend's medical chart and the videotapes, police said their search yielded various medications, lubrication jelly, baby oil and straps.

Townsend's family told investigators that Lemons had met Townsend when he was a patient at King/Drew. Lemons himself said that he had treated Townsend for cancer and sickle-cell anemia, according to the medical board petition. The family said they were friends and had kept in touch over the years, Gerardo said.

Townsend lived with his sister's family in Lynwood, according to the family's attorney, Michael Levinsohn. Despite his disabilities, he became fluent in sign language and was attending community college.

The Townsend family "is shocked and devastated by his death. They intend to vindicate him and their rights in every way possible," Levinsohn said.

Lemons could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His lawyer, Robert A. Jones of Houston, said his client was not guilty and would be exonerated.

"When everything is said and done there will be no merit in the accusations against him either before the [medical] board or before the criminal courts," he said.

"Given the opportunity to present his position in this case, it isn't going to be what people think it is," Jones said. "It is sad about the sensationalism that is going to be put to it."

Jones said doctors look at naked people every day. "If you see the videotapes, you will find that there is nothing about those tapes that amounts to anything that is the basis for their accusations or their position."

Calexico authorities had viewed only 10 of the 140 three-hour tapes so far, Gerardo said. Seventy-three have been forwarded to state authorities assisting in the investigation.

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