Thursday, June 9, 2016
They were, according to the government, partners in crime, co-conspirators in a pill mill operation that generated millions of dollars in illegal drug sales.
But today they found themselves on opposite sides of a high stakes legal battle. Michael "Tomato Pie" Thompson was on the witness stand in U.S. District Court and Dr. William O'Brien, acting as his own attorney, was firing questions in a cross-examination that touched on strippers, Pagans, murder, kidnapping and the Dr. Seuss' children's classic "The Cat in the Hat."
Thompson, 50, a South Philadelphia tow truck operator, has been outed during the trial as a police informant who was feeding information to authorities about the Pagans, the outlaw motorcycle gang that made millions from the pill mill operation.
"You want to hang the Pagans but you don't want them to know it's you," O'Brien asked while questioning Thompson about a lengthy interview he gave to authorities shortly after his arrest in the pill mill case.
Thompson acknowledged that the bikers had at one time put a $5,000 contract out on him and that part of the plot was a plan to kidnap his daughter.
"They wanted to kill me and to get to me they were going to use my daughter," Thompson said.
He has portrayed himself as a major cog in the pill mill scam, sending patients to O'Brien, paying for their visits and then in turning paying them for the prescriptions O'Brien wrote for oxycodone, methadone, Percocet and Xanax. The drugs were then sold on the streets.
Thompson is one of 10 defendants to plead guilty in the case. Only O'Brien has gone to trial. The government alleges the doctor pocketed $1.8 million knowingly writing prescriptions for drugs that would be sold on the street. Authorities allege that the Pagans and their associates, like Thompson, generated millions more from those street sales.
O'Brien and Thompson clashed repeatedly over how much the doctor knew. Throughout the now three-week old trial, O'Brien has argued that he had no way of knowing that prescriptions he was writing for pain management were not going to be taken by his patients.
Thompson has just rolled his eyes at that explanation.
"Ninety percent of the patients were fake," he said today. "You know it and I know it."
What wasn't fake was the amount of cash generated in the scheme. Thompson's take at one point was about $50,000-a-month, he said.
Asked what he had done with his money -- estimated to be about $500,000 in total -- Thompson said he spent it. His purchases, he said, included about 400 pairs of Michael Jordan designer sneakers. He also said he was regular at the roulette tables of local casinos.
"I was spending like a crazy person," he said.
Others, including Sam Nocille, a leader of the Pagans who has been identified as the individual who set the pill mill in operation, were making even more, he claimed. Nocille, who died in prison in 2014, was receiving kickbacks from most of the players in the scheme.
One of those players, Peter Marrandino, took the witness stand briefly at the end of today's court session and is expected back when the trial resumes tomorrow morning. Like Thompson, Marrandino has pleaded guilty and is cooperating.
And like Thompson, according to court records and testimony, Marrandino was once targeted by the Pagans. He fled to Florida after being threatened by Nocille who claimed Marrandino had stopped kicking up about $2,500-a-week from the illegal drug sales.
Marrandino will likely be on the stand for most of tomorrow's court session.
But today it was Thompson who sat center stage, offering the jury an inside look not only at the pill mill operation, but also the treachery, deceit and violence that are part of the biker underworld.
Problems developed, he said, because people got "greedy." In his interview with authorities, cited several times by O'Brien during his cross-examination, Thompson badmouthed several members of the biker gang and said, "I wouldn't be a Pagan if you paid me."
On the street, however, he was associating with Pagans regularly and coordinating the pill mill operation for Nocille who had been jailed in 2013.
After Nocille died, Thompson said, it was hard "to keep the peace" because of the greed and treachery of those involved. Thompson said he and the others made serious money, but that there was constant bickering over who was entitled to what.
Thompson testified that another defendant in the case, Pagans associate Joseph Mehl, was also part of the scam. He said Mehl brought strippers from the Oasis Gentleman's Club to O'Brien as "patients" and that O'Brien sometimes exchanged scripts for sex.
"The doctor liked strippers," he said.
Several dancers are expected to testify later in the trial.
The jury also heard a tape in which O'Brien threatened another "patient," Anthony Rongione, over an $11,000 debt. On the tape O'Brien tells Rongione if he doesn't come up with the money, "I'll hunt you down like a dog and hurt you."
Rongione, according to earlier testimony, was threatened by two Pagans allegedly sent by O'Brien. Rongione and another man were later found shot to death. No one has been charged in that case.
But O'Brien, through his cross-examination, was able to indicate that he was ready to settle the Rongione debt for just $2,000.
"No one's going to get killed over $2,000," a source close to the doctor said during a break in today's court session.
During his direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Beth Leahy, Thompson claimed that O'Brien once asked him if he could arrange to have O'Brien's first ex-wife "beaten or killed."
Thompson said he declined to get involved.
"I told him he was crazy," Thompson said.
He also said that O'Brien had sex in the bathroom of his office with strippers who were referred to him by the Pagans and that one of the dances would show up at the office apparently high on heroin.
She would sit in the office nodding "and drooling all over herself," Thompson said.
One of the stranger moments in today's -- or perhaps any -- court session came when O'Brien was questioning Thompson about his plea agreement with the government.
"Have you read it?" O'Brien asked.
When Thompson said he had, O'Brien introduced a copy of "The Cat in the Hat" as evidence and asked Thompson to read page 27. It was unclear what point O'Brien was trying to make. Some in the prosecution camp believe O'Brien mistakenly thought Thompson couldn't read and was trying to embarrass him.. But a member of the defense camp said there would be a clearer understanding of the passage later.
For what it's worth, Thompson, in his thick South Philadelphia accent, had no trouble with the Dr. Seuss narrative, reading for the jury:
"But I like to be here
Oh I like it a lot"
Said the Cat in the Hat
To the fish in the pot.
"I will NOT go away.
I do NOT wish to go!
And so," said the Cat in the Hat.
I will show you another good game that I know!"
Maybe the significance of that verse will become clearer at the trial goes on. For now, those close to O'Brien are calling it "The Cat in the Hat read by a Rat."
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.