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Probe sought in King/Drew security lapses

By Charles Ornstein, Richard Marosi, and Tracy Weber, Times staff writers

May 14, 2004

Two Los Angeles County supervisors demanded an investigation Thursday into recent security breaches at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center by a former doctor trainee now suspected of killing a patient he met at the county hospital.

The doctor, Warren Claudius Lemons, was arrested last month on suspicion of killing MacArthur Townsend, 22, by overmedicating the deaf-mute man with powerful sedatives during a sexual encounter at a Calexico hotel.

In a search of Lemons’ room and car, police found 140 videotapes, at least some showing nude young men in medical examination rooms posing at Lemons’ direction. They also found Townsend’s King/Drew medical records.

On Thursday, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said she was disturbed that King/Drew employees gave Lemons the original medical file when he visited the hospital in January. That was more than two years after Lemons had been fired from King/Drew’s family medicine training program.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he was troubled that hospital staff and county police appeared to have done little to follow up on an incident in February in which Lemons, 39, was found at King/Drew in an unused patient room with video equipment and an unidentified man.

Lemons was escorted off the property by county police, but not arrested, and police did not file an incident report.

Antonovich called the lack of immediate response to the security breach “another example of the mismanagement at Martin Luther King hospital,” which has been beset in recent months by numerous scandals and sanctions.

He said he had ordered health department officials to investigate.

“Had proper police protocol been followed, perhaps Dr. Lemons would have been exposed before this latest crime,” Antonovich said.

Fred Leaf, chief operating officer of the county Department of Health Services, said he had assigned a team of six employees to look into the two incidents involving Lemons at the hospital, which is in Willowbrook, just south of Watts. He expects to receive a report and recommendations for changes today.

Leaf also said his agency would send a team to Calexico next week to view the videotapes to see whether they were shot at King/Drew.

“It’s truly a terrible situation,” Leaf said.

Leaf has been overseeing a crisis management team at King/Drew since December. In a memo to supervisors Wednesday, Leaf said he had learned of Lemons’ arrest from a Times reporter.

On Thursday, the health department posted pictures of Lemons at King/Drew, particularly at entrances and in patient wards, to help staff recognize him if he comes to the campus again, Leaf said.

Lemons was arrested April 15 on suspicion of murder but has not been charged, and is not in police custody.

John Wallace, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County health department, has said that Lemons was able to obtain Townsend’s medical records because he had an employee badge and because he was a “familiar face.”

He likewise flashed the badge when he was approached at the hospital in February.

The health department told county supervisors in Wednesday’s memorandum that officers confiscated Lemons’ employee badge when he was found in the vacant room in February. But police found a King/Drew badge in Lemons’ possession after Townsend’s death.

Burke said Thursday that she wanted the health department to investigate the discrepancy.

“The fact that someone is a familiar face is not enough reason to let them walk around the hospital,” Burke said, adding that the hospital might have breached federal patient privacy rules.

Calls to the county’s three other supervisors were not returned Thursday.

Lemons summoned paramedics to his Calexico hotel room April 14 to report a man in respiratory distress. Investigators said he told them that he had probably given Townsend too much medicine while practicing medical procedures on him. Townsend died a short time later.

On Thursday, the state attorney general’s office released legal documents filed last week in which it called Lemons an “unquestionably dangerous sexual predator.” The documents said that the videotapes were not of medical examinations, but of nude young men posing at Lemons’ direction, including one in which he touches one man’s genitalia.

Lemons “used his medical license to exploit numerous unidentified male patients by making video recordings of them while they were nude, apparently for his own sexual gratification,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Thomas Lazar as part of a May 7 petition urging the immediate suspension of Lemons’ medical license. An administrative law judge granted the request the same day.

Lazar also said that there was evidence that Lemons was having sexual relations with Townsend. In a videotape recorded at some earlier time, Townsend appeared to be unconscious and strapped to a board with a partial hood on, the petition stated.

Lemons also wrote prescriptions for Townsend for a host of strictly controlled painkillers and sedatives, according to records in support of the petition.

Lemons met Townsend while he was a family medicine trainee at King/Drew from 1999 to 2001.

Lemons was discharged from the program because he did not obtain a medical license within 24 months as required by the California Medical Board. He later obtained his license, but did not return to work.

Lemons’ lawyer, Robert A. Jones of Houston, said his client would be exonerated.

He described a tape sent to him by California regulators as “consensual recording of people’s anatomy.”

“After a while, it got to be extremely boring,” he said. “There was nothing other than a visual of a nude male being talked to in a casual fashion and turning and doing what he was asked to do. No touching, no nothing.”

He said he didn’t want to speculate on his client’s motives for making the tapes.

“We live in a somewhat hedonistic society where people have different ways of expressing themselves sexually and I’d hate to even start to figure out what those things are,” Jones said.

Jones said the young men in the video were muscular, without “an inch of fat,” and were of similar ages — what he estimated as late 20s or early 30s.

Jones described his client as “one of the most docile, soft-spoken people that you could imagine.” He also said he doubted the videotapes would be admissible at a criminal trial.

“You take away all the videos and the question is do you have an accident or do you have something that amounts to gross negligence?”

Townsend, “Mack” to his friends, lived with his sister and her three children in a small, stucco house near Lynwood High School. He was tall and muscular and sported a flowery tattoo dedicated to his deceased mother on his upper arm.

Townsend didn’t let his disability pose an obstacle, said neighbors. He had many friends and always engaged people, they said. If sign language didn’t work, he would take out a pen and pad, they said. Sometimes his sign-fluent friends would translate.

“He was able to overcome his handicaps,” according to Meddy Fattohi, who said Townsend sometimes passed by her house on his scooter.

Lemons was a frequent visitor at Townsend’s house, said neighbor Amalia Magallanes.

She said Lemons and Townsend would leave together in Lemons’ car. Townsend enjoyed his company, she said, and their long trips, to Arizona and San Francisco. Townsend considered Lemons his godfather, she said; Lemons said Townsend was his godson.

“They were always together, everywhere,” said Magallanes. Townsend “was happy that he got to drive [Lemons’] car and was seeing new places.”

Probe Sought In King Drew Lapses

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