By Marc Freeman
When testimony in the murder trial of Gerald Klein started Monday, jurors heard contrasting portrayals of the former doctor-turned-defendant and the patient he’s accused of killing during pain treatments in early 2009.
But the jurors never heard the actual words at the heart of the prosecution: “pill mill.” That term, with all of its negative connotations, is off-limits for the expected two-week trial by order of Circuit Judge Karen Miller.
So prosecutors instead described Klein, 81, as a money-hungry practitioner who responded to a Craigslist ad and partnered with crooks in a mostly cash-based “cookie-cutter” clinic operation, making him responsible for the death of a 24-year-old customer with a “pill problem” from West Palm Beach.
“Unfortunately this business model killed Joey Bartolucci,” Assistant State Attorney Michael Rachel told the jury during his opening statement, during which he also promised testimony from other patients given loads of pills by Klein.
Klein — teaming with convicted ex-clinic owner Jeffrey George, of Wellington, and business manager Theodore Obermeyer — prescribed a massive amount of hydromorphone pills to Bartolucci. The amount was comparable to the treatment of an “end of life cancer,” the prosecutor said.
Those pills, along with a prescription for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, was a “dangerous combination” that can “cause death to practically anyone,” said Rachel, previewing expert medical testimony to come later in the state’s case.
Defense attorney Sam Rabin then struck back, placing the blame squarely on Bartolucci and his addiction, suggesting he intentionally overdosed and did not follow Klein’s instructions for the pills. Even the county autopsy report called it an overdose, not a homicide, Rabin said.
The defense described Klein as a caring doctor who began his career treating wounded Vietnam War veterans and later performed for decades as a skilled pediatric surgeon in New Jersey.
Klein’s long experience with “pain management” also has taken personal turns, such as when he administered pills to his wife of nearly 50 years during her cancer treatments and his grown son, who suffered serious, painful burns in a car crash, Rabin said.
Living in Palm Beach Gardens and looking for some part-time work to keep him busy in his late 70s, Klein used the services of a headhunting firm that connected him in 2008 with George and soon to open East Coast Pain Clinic, his attorney explained. He disputed the account of Klein hooking up with George online through Craigslist.
“Dr. Klein was not some bumpkin off the street,” Rabin said.
The defense urged the jury to consider that George and Obermeyer got favorable deals from the prosecutors in return for testifying against Klein. Instead of facing possible life sentences, George and Obermeyer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Bartolucci’s death and will have their prison sentences capped at no more than 20 years.
Rachel, along with prosecutor Barbara Burns, said it’s true the major witnesses in the trial are not upstanding citizens.
“You’re going to hear from Jeff George — he’s a criminal,” Rachel said of the man who paid Klein $4,300 to work three days a week.
Authorities have said George, along with his twin brother, Christopher George, built a $40 million pain pill enterprise with locations throughout Palm Beach and Broward counties. But after supplying more than 20 million oxycodone pills, the empire came crashing down in March 2010, with 13 doctors and 19 others charged with a range of federal offenses, including racketeering and money laundering.
Florida lawmakers continued the crack down on pain clinics in the state with greater enforcement and a drug-monitoring database.
While there’s no dispute Klein worked for George, the former doctor nonetheless has a documented history of trying to wean patients off pain pills, Rabin said. Klein recommended an alternative epidural treatment for Bartolucci’s complaints of extreme back pain, which Bartolucci rejected, Rabin told the jury.
“It’s a tragedy that he died,” said Rabin, joined by attorney Michael Band. “But he died as a result of his own self-inflicted overdose. Not as a result of Dr. Klein pushing pills down his throat.”
Bartolucci “sought out the medication from Dr. Klein as well as other doctors. He told Dr. Klein he was in great pain and needed the medication,” the attorney said, adding that Bartolucci “hid from even his friends that he was an addict.”
A best friend, Kenny Lewis, was the first witness to testify for the prosecution. He said he became pals with Bartolucci when they were freshmen at Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach, and later remained close when they went off to different colleges.
They were roommates for a while after Bartolucci returned to West Palm after leaving the University of Florida a few credits shy of a diploma, a fact he said Bartolucci kept from his family.
Lewis said he never saw his friend take pain pills, but knew he had an addiction and was seeking help for it. He recalled a time when he saw Bartolucci shaking and sweating on their couch. He was taking a drug to help alleviate his dependency on pain medication so he could eventually pursue a career as a paramedic.
Lewis also told the jury how in January 2009 he regrettably had to fire his friend, who was working for Lewis’ dad’s construction business, because Bartolucci never was able to complete a full week of work. This caused a riff in their friendship, and he testified he never saw Bartolucci again until he responded to Bartolucci’s apartment after getting an urgent text from Bartolucci’s girlfriend.
It was Lewis who found Bartolucci, not breathing and laying in his bed, tucked under blankets neatly raised to his chin, on Feb. 28, 2009. While Lewis was on their stand, jurors viewed photos of the bedroom, two pill bottles, and Bartolucci, deceased.
“He was always on top of the world,” Lewis said of his friend’s attitude despite his struggles. “He always looked for the silver lining.”
On cross-examination, Lewis disputed a defense claim that he told a 911 operator Bartolucci had intentionally overdosed.
Another childhood friend of Bartolucci also testified Monday, along with emergency personnel.
Along with the charge of premeditated murder, Klein was slapped with 12 drug counts involving pills supplied to Bartolucci and three other patients, all of whom are listed as prosecution witnesses for the trial. Klein posted $360,000 bail after his 2011 arrest, and has been mostly confined to his home.