One afternoon in March of 2016, Devon Khan, a reservations supervisor at Pasadena’s Hotel Constance, placed a 911 call. In one of the hotel’s guest rooms, staff had found an unconscious young woman, clothed only in underwear and a robe. With her was a much older man, who seemed disheveled and strung out. He called the woman his “girlfriend” but was oddly unconcerned about her condition—his primary interest was in extending their stay in the hotel. Paramedics arrived and rushed the woman, who had clearly overdosed, to a hospital. Police inspected the ample evidence of drug use in the room. Khan assumed the creepy older man was in for a world of legal pain.
But a few days later, Khan was surprised to learn that no legal action had followed the incident. This, he suspected, had something to do with the identity of the strange male guest, who was, it turned out, not your average junkie or john. He was, in fact, Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the celebrated dean of the U.S.C. medical school, owner of a $5 million Tudor-revival mansion, and a mainstay of the Los Angeles establishment. The sort of man with the connections to make unpleasant incidents disappear.
But Kahn couldn’t get that poor young girl at the Constance out of his head, so he shared her story with Paul Pringle, an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Reporting out the story in the months that followed, Pringle would discover that the woman’s name was Sarah Warren, an addict and sometime sex worker, who had a long, unhappy history with Puliafito. The doctor, Pringle discovered, had developed an extensive secret life preying on Warren and other young and vulnerable addicts. Seeking a high and sexual pleasure—both direct and voyeuristic—he would make himself indispensable to his victims by plying them with drugs, sometimes prescribed from his own pen.
Chasing the macabre story, Pringle encountered sustained and sophisticated opposition from U.S.C. administrators, who, thanks to their institution’s reputation and elite-alumni network, had an in with seemingly every major power center in Los Angeles. Even the top editors at Pringle’s own paper tried to suppress his reporting, lest it cast aspersions on the mighty U.S.C.
This tale of flagrant menace and endemic corruption is the subject of Pringle’s dazzling, irresistible new book, Bad City. In it, he has produced that rare and treasured gift for the nonfiction reader: a penetrating investigation that is also a genuine page-turner.
The book’s subtitle—Peril and Power in the City of Angels—appropriately evokes Raymond Chandler or Chinatown. Pringle’s Los Angeles is a “city where people didn’t look too hard at things—if they looked at all.” It has all the elements of classic noir: corrupt institutions, sad and complicated backstories, a grizzled investigator navigating the expansive intersection between high society and the underworld.
And, like the best noir stories, at its heart Bad City is a story of opposing obsessions. Puliafito—an accomplished eye surgeon turned celeb-friendly med-school dean—is consumed by infatuation with Warren. His totalizing need to control her leads him to “deliver drugs to her, even as she was in rehab,” Pringle writes. “He picked up the tab for the disease and the cure.”
But it’s also about Pringle’s obsession: bringing Puliafito’s perfidy to light. His chief adversaries in this effort are at his own paper. By the time Pringle starts poking around about the U.S.C. dean, the LA Times is a shadow of its former self, bled dry and mismanaged by its corporate overlords at the Tribune Company, soon to be unfortunately re-christened as “Tronc.” The paper’s top editors—who seem to have an improper back channel to the U.S.C. leadership—find obscure reasons to delay or spike Pringle’s stories. In time, Pringle and other reporters on the U.S.C. beat grow so mistrustful of their bosses they use personal e-mails to communicate about Puliafito and avoid congregating in the Times office.
Pringle persists through their opposition, and his narrative swells toward triumph. Puliafito is exposed when the story at last finds its way into print. The obstructive editors are forced out, and, in time, a benevolent billionaire owner takes control of the LA Times. Pringle and his colleagues go on to reveal more misdeeds at U.S.C. and ultimately win a Pulitzer Prize. Sarah Warren survives her overdose and eventually gets clean and gets out of L.A.
Still, on finishing Bad City, I couldn’t shake a slight but perceptible dread, the same feeling I get from the final moments of a good film noir film when the camera pans back from the doomed and sordid characters to reveal them as mere specks in a sprawling metropolis, one that contains countless other tales of rotten institutions and desperate souls. In Pringle’s book, justice prevails, and lives are saved. But what about all the other women like Sarah? What other lives have slipped through the cracks?
Jonathan Darman is the author of the forthcoming Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President, to be published in September