Pubdate: Sun, 22 Feb 2004
Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)
Copyright: 2004 Orlando Sentinel
Author: Dan Tracy, and Jim Leusner
Note: Series " OxyContin Under Fire "
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


For five days in October, the Orlando Sentinel ran articles about the
dangers of the powerful painkiller OxyContin. Before the final story
had been published, the newspaper was alerted to relevant omissions in
its depictions of two people featured in the series.

But it took the Sentinel almost three months after it independently
confirmed the allegations to tell readers in a Feb. 1 article that
there were errors and omissions in the stories. They are:

Not reporting that an autopsy found drugs in addition to oxycodone,
the active ingredient of OxyContin, in the system of Gerry Cover, 39,
of Kissimmee. The newspaper account of his September 2000 death
mentioned only a lethal dose of oxycodone. The paper also did not say
that he had overdosed on another pain medication three months before
being prescribed OxyContin.

Portraying David Rokisky, 36, who lived in the Tampa Bay area, as an
"accidental addict" whose idyllic life was ruined by taking OxyContin.
In fact, as the Sentinel later learned, he had a federal drug
conviction and a long history of domestic-abuse allegations and
financial problems.

In a front-page article on Feb. 5, the Sentinel promised readers a
full accounting and immediately launched an investigation into how the
reporting, editing and communication failures occurred.

Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Conn., maker of OxyContin, charged in a
series of letters to the Sentinel that these and other purported
failures undermined the credibility of the entire "OxyContin Under
Fire" series, which was published Oct. 19-23. The result of a
nine-month investigation, the stories uncovered more than 200 deaths
statewide had been linked to the prescription drug during 2001 and

"It is difficult to admit error, and we appreciate these first steps
toward correcting the erroneous record created by the series of
articles that ran in the Orlando Sentinel last October," said Purdue
Pharma spokesman Tim Bannon. "As difficult as it may be, however, the
process of correcting the record is important and must continue.
Erroneous reporting about prescription medications -- like erroneous
reporting about other public-health issues -- can have a devastating
impact on the lives of innocent patients and those who care for them.
We are committed to working with the Sentinel to set the record straight."


A handyman and father of three, Cover went to his doctor because he
was seeking relief from the pain of a mild, herniated disc. He was
prescribed OxyContin in April 2000.

That worried his wife, Sylvia, because she knew he previously had
overdosed on pain medication, a fact outlined in a wrongful-death
lawsuit she filed against Purdue Pharma and Cover's doctors in January

Reporter Doris Bloodsworth, who wrote the OxyContin series, produced
an early draft of the Cover account that mentioned his prior "bad
experience" with a strong pain reliever. But her supervisor, Assistant
City Editor Mick Lochridge, said he cut the information because it
seemed vague and he did not understand its relevance.

Bloodsworth said she did not write about the other drugs --
venlafaxine, venlafaxine metabolite, mirtazapine, alprazolam and
caffeine -- found in his system during the autopsy because an official
with the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office told her Cover was
killed by OxyContin.

Polk County Medical Examiner Stephen Nelson, retained this month by
the Sentinel to examine Cover's autopsy report, said that while the
Kissimmee man had taken enough oxycodone to cause his death, the other
drugs also could have killed him.


Rokisky said he had a high-paying job as a computer-company executive,
a condo at the beach and a happy marriage until he became hooked on
OxyContin. Then, he said, his life was nearly destroyed.

The former Albuquerque, N.M., policeman was used by the Sentinel as an
example of an "accidental addict" in daily stories that ran as
companion pieces to the main articles.

But the complaints, initially from his mother-in-law and later from Purdue
Pharma, about the way Rokisky was portrayed prompted the Sentinel to take a
deeper look into his background. Extensive checks of police and court
records in Florida and New Mexico, plus interviews with numerous
acquaintances show that the newspaper could have discovered earlier that

Pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in Albuquerque in
December 1999. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and
three years' federal probation in April 2000. After the hearing, his
now-deceased attorney told the Albuquerque Journal Rokisky "had
problems" with cocaine and steroids.

Faces sentencing after pleading guilty in April 2001 to forgery in
Albuquerque. A date still has to be set.

Was terminated by the Albuquerque Police Department in December 1997
for unspecified reasons. Personnel files are not public in New Mexico.

Was named in 34 police and court reports of domestic violence, child
custody and support disputes with his wife, ex-wife, two former
girlfriends and in-laws, from 1997 through September 2003 in Florida
and New Mexico.

Pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery on a girlfriend in February 2000
in Albuquerque and was given six months of unsupervised probation.

Filed for bankruptcy in 1993 and was named in liens, judgments and
lawsuits by various creditors in New Mexico. He also was cited in
several court orders for being in arrears for child-support payments.

Purdue Pharma said Rokisky's background should have disqualified him
from any mention in the Sentinel series.

"If he is not the innocent patient described, then he stands for a
very different proposition than the one asserted by the Sentinel. He
stands for the proposition that those who abuse medications can be
harmed by them," said Howard R. Udell, Purdue executive vice
president, in a Feb. 2 letter to the newspaper.

Managing Editor Elaine Kramer said Friday that Rokisky would not have
been profiled in the same manner if the newspaper had uncovered his
past before publication.

Rokisky, who ultimately refused to answer questions for this story,
previously told the newspaper that his background had nothing to do
with his addiction to OxyContin.

He repeatedly has denied being a drug abuser. But Rokisky failed a
drug test ordered by an Albuquerque judge Nov. 26. According to an
audio transcript of the hearing, the test found methamphetamines,
opiates, cocaine and "oxycodeine," an apparent reference to oxycodone,
in his system. Rokisky said in a Dec. 23 hearing in Albuquerque that
he had passed two subsequent tests and the November test was flawed.


Bloodsworth began researching the effects of OxyContin in December
2002 after covering a drug convention.

Much of the initial reporting dealt with obtaining and analyzing state
medical records and autopsy reports, though Bloodsworth met regularly
with Lochridge. By early 2003, City Editor Sal Recchi became involved.

Bloodsworth's research eventually led her to the Florida Detox center
in Tarpon Springs.

The clinic is run by Dr. Rick Sponaugle, who also is head of the Helen
Ellis Memorial Hospital's anesthesiology department. Sponaugle is one
of about a dozen doctors nationwide who say they cleanse the body of
drugs under general anesthesia in the span of a few hours.

Last spring, Bloodsworth, at the urging of Lochridge and Recchi, asked
Sponaugle whether he had a patient who would allow her and a
photographer to chronicle the treatment process.

Bloodsworth was given the name of Rokisky, who was living near
Clearwater and had sought treatment for OxyContin addiction after
being prescribed the drug for back problems.

Sponaugle said earlier this month that he was unaware of Rokisky's
background. He said he tested Rokisky before the detoxification and
found his urine contained only opiates, which was consistent with
taking OxyContin.

To encourage Rokisky to cooperate with the Sentinel, Sponaugle later
said he waived the almost $10,000 detox fee. It is his practice, he
said, to offer free treatment to people in exchange for them
discussing their experiences with the media. But the doctor did not
disclose the deal to Bloodsworth, who learned the day Rokisky was
detoxified that he was being treated for free. She said she did not
tell her editors about the arrangement because she knew Sponaugle
often didn't charge patients.

After Rokisky agreed to talk with the Sentinel, Bloodsworth asked the
newspaper's research department to run a series of online background
checks. The reporter also searched a number of Web sites, made
inquiries to the military and Rokisky's previous employers, including
the Albuquerque Police Department, where he had worked from 1989 to
1997 and, among other jobs, once taught anti-drug classes to
middle-school students. Bloodsworth also checked property records in
Pinellas County where Rokisky was living.

She said the checks verified much of what Rokisky had told her and
turned up very little that pointed to a checkered history, other than
a dismissed domestic dispute, a divorce, a federal bankruptcy and a
vacated small-claims debt in New Mexico.

Lochridge and Recchi said they had no reason to doubt the extent of
Bloodsworth's inquiries.

Bloodsworth had two lengthy interviews with Rokisky, watched him
undergo much of the detoxification procedure and had several telephone
conversations with him after the treatment. But Bloodsworth never
asked him whether he had been convicted of a crime.

After Rokisky underwent detoxification, Sponaugle hired him. The final
Sentinel article about Rokisky implied he was helping Sponaugle
"spread the word about rapid detox" but failed to state he was a
full-time employee of the center.


Bloodsworth said the first clue she had that Rokisky was not what he
seemed came on Oct. 21, the third day of the series.

That's when Rokisky's mother-in-law, Vivian Satz, telephoned the
Sentinel. She spoke to Lochridge and Bloodsworth, telling them Rokisky
was not the model citizen portrayed in the articles.

Satz made more allegations in later phone calls, e-mails and Sentinel
online chat-room postings, including one stating Rokisky had been put
on probation for a federal drug conviction. On Oct. 24, the day after
the series concluded, an ex-girlfriend and mother of Rokisky's young
son spoke with Lochridge by phone and made similar

Bloodsworth met with her editors Nov. 5 to discuss developments. All
three were concerned that the newspaper was being caught up in
Rokisky's domestic disputes and decided there was no concrete evidence
to warrant another story at that time.

Bloodsworth began running more computer checks and learned one of the
background searches before publication had not included New Mexico
federal courts, as she had previously thought.

On Nov. 7, federal-court officials faxed the Sentinel partial records
of an indictment that showed Rokisky had pleaded guilty to one count
of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. In addition to probation and
house arrest, Rokisky also was ordered in April 2000 to undergo drug
and mental-health counseling.

Bloodsworth said she immediately showed the fax to Lochridge and
Recchi, who recalled seeing some of the pages but not enough to
explain fully the case against Rokisky.

It was decided to order the full records of the case, which New Mexico
court officials said were in storage and would take time to retrieve.

No one informed Managing Editor Kramer of the developments. That
omission caused her to misspeak more than two months later during an
interview with the Albuquerque Journal, which broke the story about
Rokisky's brushes with the law. Kramer was quoted as saying the first
time the Sentinel had learned about Rokisky's problems was when the
newspaper received a letter from Purdue Pharma on Dec. 15.

In that letter, Purdue Pharma said a search of a nationwide newspaper
database had uncovered coverage of Rokisky's conviction in the
Journal. They asked the Sentinel to fully report his background.

Bloodsworth accelerated her research efforts and spoke to Rokisky, who
denied selling or abusing drugs. He said the conviction stemmed from a
sting operation that involved him referring an undercover officer to
an associate, who sold police a small amount of cocaine.

On Dec. 30 the records ordered from New Mexico, which actually were
stored in Denver, arrived at the Sentinel.

On Feb. 1 the Sentinel published a story detailing some of Rokisky's
troubles with the law.

Sean Holton, the Sentinel's associate managing editor for Metro news,
said that the newspaper repeatedly did not respond quickly enough or
with suitable urgency.

"There are a million explanations for what happened," Holton said,
"but there is no good answer."

Dan Tracy can be reached at 407-420-5444 or  Leusner can be reached at 407-420-5411 or Visit,1,4991170.story
Steps we'll take to make sure it doesn't happen again
- --------------------

Manning Pynn

February 22, 2004

The painkiller OxyContin has caused little but pain in the Orlando
Sentinel newsroom in recent weeks.

Since finally coming to the realization, and acknowledging to readers
Feb. 1, that its series of articles about the drug last October was
flawed, the newspaper has conducted a rigorous examination to plug the
gaps in that months-long investigative project.

The result appears on the front of this section. It reveals not only
far more relevant details about some of the individuals portrayed but
also significant systemic problems at the Sentinel.

For this process to have lasting benefit, though, the newspaper must
address and correct those problems. Recognizing that need, Managing
Editor Elaine Kramer, working with some key editors, developed a
multipoint plan of action that will require:

More emphasis on background checks.

Doris Bloodsworth, who reported the OxyContin series, said she
examined, or asked Sentinel researchers to examine, nearly a dozen
databases for information about her subject David Rokisky, in addition
to conducting numerous interviews. Still, because she performed one
key search improperly and no one noticed that another search didn't
include federal courts in New Mexico, where Rokisky used to live, his
guilty plea to conspiring to distribute cocaine didn't surface.
Neither did other less-than-flattering aspects of his background. That
resulted in an incomplete picture of a man the Sentinel portrayed as a
sympathetic figure. Now the newspaper will initiate renewed training
in performing background checks.

Better tracking of research.

Because newsroom requests for help with research historically have
been made in conversations or by electronic mail, which eventually is
purged from the Sentinel's computer system, determining who asked for
what -- and what was searched -- can be difficult, if not impossible,
months later. Now reporters and editors requesting research will fill
out a form designed to prompt discussions and provide a permanent record.

Greater focus and resources for projects.

Despite concerns that complex problems often require more than one
reporter, editors burdened with other news -- such as the in-flight
disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia and the United States'
invasion of Iraq -- were unable to provide that additional help.
Similarly, despite the project's complexity, an editor who also
oversaw several other reporters covering unrelated subjects took
charge of the investigation. Now senior editors will weigh more
carefully the resources needed for such projects.

Handling projects separately.

Ideally such investigations receive special handling by the Sentinel's
projects division, a small group of experienced reporters answering to
a senior editor. That formula can be replicated in another part of the
newsroom -- but only if both the reporter and editor involved can work
without having to attend to daily breaking news or other

Thorough communication.

Next to incomplete research, the OxyContin investigative team suffered
most from extremely poor communication within the Sentinel newsroom.
People who attended the same meetings or took part in the same
discussions left with different impressions of what they had heard.
Several times key information bypassed senior editors. At one point,
Kramer misspoke in an interview with another newspaper about what the
Sentinel had known and when, because she had not been kept in the
loop. Now the primary editor on any project will have responsibility
for keeping key senior editors fully informed about significant details.

Fast action on feedback.

Purdue Pharma, OxyContin's manufacturer, complained about elements of
the five-day series while it was running, in October, but the Sentinel
took more than three months to acknowledge those problems in print.
That's far too long. Now such feedback must go not only to the
reporter and editor involved but also to me -- and we all will be on
the clock to solve whatever problems may exist as quickly as possible.

The review of both the OxyContin series and the Sentinel's procedures
for handling large investigative projects will continue. That may lead
to additional corrective measures.

In the end, OxyContin may prove to have some therapeutic value to the
Sentinel, after all.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin