TRAVERSE CITY — Stanley McAskin died surrounded by 16 empty pill bottles, all bearing his doctor’s name.
Police found the orange prescription containers stashed in McAskin’s kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom. They listed a kaleidoscope of medications — oxycontin, alprazolam, hydrocodone and clonazepam. Some were dangerous when mixed.
James W. Leete had prescribed all of them.
McAskin, 31, overdosed on Nov. 7, 2010, following a years-long addiction to pills which his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, Jamie Dudan, blames “100 percent” on his doctor.
“I realize that Stan had to make the choice he did,” Dudan said. “But a medical professional has a duty to recognize when there is a problem and do not make a problem for somebody."
McAskin is one of three patients who died of overdoses under Leete’s care. Those deaths, coupled with accusations Leete knowingly prescribed opioids to patients with addictions, prompted state officials to suspend Leete’s medical license in 2014.
It once comforted Dudan to think Leete would never practice again.
Then a state board reinstated Leete’s medical license. He has since resumed work as a physician at an occupational medicine clinic in Grand Rapids.
“That can’t happen,” Dudan said through tears. "I will do anything to keep that man from hurting other people.”
An easy touch
Patients used to walk through the door of Leete’s former Eighth Street office for his family practice and drug treatment services.
But Leete's reputation for loose prescriptions also packed them into his waiting room, contended local health professionals and law enforcement officers.
“He was an easy touch for opiates, benzodiazepines and stimulants,” said Lyn Conlon, a board certified addiction treatment specialist and psychiatrist in Traverse City.
Former patients — in anonymous and on-the-record interviews — asserted Leete freely prescribed highly addictive drugs and continually upped patients’ dosages until they came back again and again.
Local police had their eyes on Leete before he abruptly shuttered his office in 2012. His prescribing practices, particularly of “excessive amounts” of opioids and other drugs, drew attention from the DEA, said Joe McCarthy, a former Traverse City police detective who investigated McAskin’s death.
“I was not the first person who believed he was overprescribing medication,” McCarthy said.
But nothing led to a criminal charge.
Still, McCarthy was satisfied knowing his and others’ scrutiny helped regulators start the process to suspend Leete’s medical license in 2012.
The scrutiny moved slowly. Leete continued to prescribe medications while he worked for the federal Indian Health Service until his suspension was made official in 2014.
McCarthy didn’t know Leete’s suspension would only last about a year.
“That’s horrible,” he said.
Pills like candy
Derrek Hale trusted Leete, whom he knew for years as his easy-going family practitioner. He didn’t ask questions the first time the long-practicing doctor wrote him a painkiller prescription to treat a snowboarding injury. Hale dutifully took the pills, and filled the next prescription.
And all the others that followed.
“If I could go back in time and change something about my life, it would be to never fill that first script from Dr. Leete,” Hale said.
Hale, 31, spoke to the Record-Eagle hours before he planned to check himself into detox after his most recent brush with the law. He calls himself an addict who only recently recognized his problem, despite a decade-long struggle with drugs in which he watched friends die of overdoses and left family members in pain with worry.
“Ten years ago they were handing out pills like candy,” Hale said of doctors. “They got pretty much an entire generation hooked, and then they tightened the regulation.”
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid data from 2013 to 2015 — the only years available — showed doctors in Michigan wrote more than 10 million opioid prescriptions for 2 million patients.
Those numbers only account for Medicare Part D patients who are 65 or older or on Social Security disability — about a quarter of all prescriptions nationally. Traverse City ranked 15th among the state’s cities for opioid prescriptions in those numbers.
Changing attitudes and tighter restrictions on opioid prescriptions cinched the supply of legal pills. Heroin and other street drugs became a cheap substitute for Hale and thousands of others nationwide.
Hale acknowledges years of poor decisions on his part, but said Leete shoulders some blame. Leete edged up the potency of Hale's prescriptions until he ended with a script for methadone, a powerful opioid used to treat addiction, Hale said.
Then Leete suddenly closed his office, sending Hale and others who came to depend on their prescriptions scrambling. Hale remembers doctors hanging up on him when he said he was Leete’s patient.
“I can tell you he sent me down a road at a very young age that got his hooks in very deep,” he said.
Love at first sight.
That's how Jamie Dudan describes meeting Stanley McAskin nearly two decades ago, despite all the pain that followed. She keeps photographs from McAskin's childhood. Their son is the spitting image of a young McAskin.
She also keeps stacks of papers detailing McAskin’s doctor-patient relationship with Leete. Many come from when she cleared out McAskin’s home after he died in 2010.
Prescription receipts, which all name Leete as McAskin’s doctor, list medication warnings Dudan highlighted in yellow as she grieved.
“Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects,” one states.
There’s one document Dudan hadn't seen until recently — a 2014 complaint to a state medical licensing board against Leete. It lists three patients, “S.M.," "D.W." and "C.I.,” who died from drug overdoses under Leete’s care.
All three medical histories outline similar stories, laid out in the dry language of an administrative complaint.
“(Leete) repeatedly prescribed dangerous combinations of narcotics to patients, and repeatedly continued prescribing narcotics to patients even after noting in the patient’s chart that the patient was a drug abuser, was obtaining narcotics prescriptions from multiple treaters, or had been admitted to the hospital due to a drug overdose,” the complaint states.
“S.M.” is Stanley McAskin.
Dudan thumbed through the complaint at a Lake Leelanau coffee shop, aghast at a point in which Leete seemed to acknowledge McAskin’s consumption of prescription drugs had spiraled out of control.
That was years after McAskin, a talented glass blower, first went into Leete’s office in 2006 complaining of stiff neck related to his occupation. Leete prescribed him tramadol, a highly addictive painkiller, then later added Vicodin and Xanax to the mix. McAskin developed seizures — a problem Dudan blames on Leete’s care — and received a prescription for phenobarbital.
By the time Leete prescribed McAskin oxycodone, the doctor noted substance abuse, addiction and risk of overdose at various points in McAskin’s chart, the complaint states. He withdrew as McAskin’s doctor and recommended counseling in 2009.
“But yet, you know, it still went on for a whole other year after that,” Dudan said, summarizing the medical history she knew all too well.
Dudan said McAskin never had to buy pills off the street. Leete was all he needed, she said.
Signs of decline
Leete shuttered his Traverse City medical practice in 2012, but he didn’t clean his office out. A police officer who investigated a subsequent break-in at the 1139 E. Eighth St. building noted dirty needles, surgical instruments in dirty water and glass bottles strewn across tables.
There was no inventory of supplies, making it difficult to tell what was missing, the August 2012 report states.
A state investigator later concluded Leete left controlled substances unsecured in the building after he closed his office. He also left 34 prescription pads behind.
Leete didn’t talk to police because, as his now ex-wife told the officer, he was “very ill” at the time. The investigation fizzled a year later, with no conclusive evidence any prescription pads were stolen or used. A detective noted he spoke with an FBI agent and a Traverse Narcotics Team detective about Leete.
“It is believed by all parties that Leete no longer lives in the Traverse City area,” the report states, noting he likely went to Grand Rapids.
Leete then worked as a contract physician in Maine, where he wrote 89 opioid prescriptions or refills for 36 patients during a five-month span in 2013, Medicare and Indian Health Service records show.
He then took another contract job for the IHS on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. His employment ended in June 2014, just shy of two months before his medical license was suspended.
State officials built their case against Leete during his tribal health care service. A final complaint signed by a Michigan assistant attorney general in April 2014 details disciplinary charges of negligence, incompetence and lack of good moral character, in addition to bad prescribing practices.
It also sheds light on Leete’s own struggles with substance abuse.
Leete told an investigator he drank one to two pints of vodka per day during work hours and returned to treat his patients while drunk. Sometimes his hands shook so badly he delegated medical procedures to unlicensed office staff, the complaint states.
Other documents hint at Leete’s alcohol problem. His name appears in six mostly alcohol-related local police reports, including drunken driving and assault.
The licensing board inquiry concluded July 14, 2014, when Leete pleaded no contest to the disciplinary charges. Board members suspended his license for six months and one day and required he enter a state sobriety program for physicians, in which he remains.
Leete is now a self-identified “sober dude” who’s distanced himself from his vodka-soaked Traverse City days. He petitioned for his reinstatement as a physician when his suspension ended.
“It’s been a long, long process,” he said. “I’m totally sober now, totally drug-free.”
Sobriety and rigorous testing were stipulations handed to Leete when state board of medicine members reinstated his license on Jan. 20, 2016. He’s also restricted from prescribing drugs under terms of his limited license.
Only one member of 16 on the board voted against Leete’s reinstatement.
Leete disputed claims made in the state complaint against him, calling them “crazy things” that made him look like a “losing asshole.” He would have disputed them in a courtroom, if not for the legal cost, he said. He dismissed the accusations on the grounds that he was alcoholic and patients could “bend” him.
“I’ve never escalated drugs without a patient doing something mighty dramatic, (like) acting like other options were not working,” he said.
Leete acknowledged drug-addicted patients sought out his practice but claimed it was because he had a license to prescribe Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction. He complains no one talks about the patients he helped.
But Lyn Conlon, who remembered Leete’s “easy touch,” said it’s doctors like him who make her job mostly about cleaning up messes. She said buprenorphine, the main component in Suboxone, does wonders in addiction treatment, but it alone is insufficient.
“It’s a process and it takes years to accomplish,” she said.
Counseling, addiction programs and a galaxy of other steps must be offered in addition to medication, Conlon said. Her four-person office can realistically handle about 50 such patients at a time, while records indicate Leete had as many as 70.
Leete denied he was a “loose and liberal” prescriber but acknowledged many doctors — himself included — were worried about getting “dinged” for being insensitive to patients’ pain. He said there are things he did in the past he wouldn’t do now, and he could soon get that chance.
He’s working to ask the medical board to restore his full license, with its ability to prescribe drugs.
“I probably will have (it) in a year or two, or somewhere here. Maybe next fall,” he said. “I mean, there’s no reason I shouldn’t.”
‘Nothing better than a drug dealer’
Brenda Strait can think of a reason to bar Leete from ever wielding prescription power again:
“He killed my son.”
Strait remembers reluctantly going to Leete’s office with her son, Danny Whitney, 21, who said Leete would help break his addiction to drugs, if only she would pay for it. It was tough love, she thought, and Leete was a doctor after all.
But Strait said the scene inside the waiting room wasn't reassuring. One patient slumped in her chair, almost to the floor, obviously strung out. Leete didn’t leave a good impression either.
“This is not a doctor, who is this person?” Strait recalls thinking of Leete.
Whitney went behind a closed door with Leete, who never treated him before, and emerged with a prescription.
Strait doesn’t know if that’s the prescription that killed her son.
The 2014 licensing board complaint against Leete identifies Whitney as "D.W." It details how Whitney filled prescription after prescription of dangerous combinations of drugs penned by Leete, including two 120-pill methadone scripts before he died in Grand Traverse County’s jail on March 2, 2012.
Coroners labeled Whitney's cause of death "acute methadone toxicity."
Strait sued Grand Traverse County over accusations corrections officers and medical staff missed signs Whitney could overdose. Leete bears responsibility as well, she said.
“What he did was criminal,” she said. “What he did, like I said, was nothing better than a drug dealer.”
Leete repeatedly took issue with any assertion his practice led to deaths. None of his patients would have died if they took the pills as he prescribed, he said.
“You show me one script I ever wrote that in and of itself, without mixing and messing around and partying … There’s got to be a little responsibility spread around a little bit, you know,” he said.
He then acknowledged the prescriptions of methadone and Xanax he prescribed Whitney within one day of each other was “not good.”
“Today, I would never do that,” he said.
Blame the doc
Conlon said doctors failed to be more stringent with prescribing practices in the past 25 years.
“I believe that the prescribing practices of physicians such as Dr. Leete likely led to the difficulties we found ourselves in,” she said. “There’s now a knee-jerk response … and we have to wait ‘til the pendulum swings back the other way.”
Experts like Conlon worry physicians’ fears of added scrutiny and new legal restrictions threaten to trigger side effects for addiction treatment and legitimate pain management options.
The opioid crisis also drew more police attention to drug dealers.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney, who was elected in November 2012, recently levied cases against suspected drug dealers on accusations they sold the narcotics that caused fatal overdoses. He doesn’t remember any cases his office brought against doctors over prescriptions.
“I think it’s a difficult case to make out because we assume doctors are treating and helping patients,” he said.
Leete called it “a cheap shot to blame the doc” for addictions and deaths.
“First of all, what I think you have is a psychiatric issue with some families,” he said. “Personal s--- here. They’re projecting crap on me and scapegoating me, you know. I don’t take the blame for killing guys with drugs.”
Strait bristled at Leete's response. She said it's obvious he shows no remorse.
"Shame on him," she repeated.
Dudan would like to see law enforcement pursue a case against Leete. She marveled that McAskin is the third death listed in the licensing complaint Leete faced.
“Why did it have to take that?” she said. “Three people and years, and still what happened? He got six months. It makes you want to throw up. I want to be physically ill because he’s not the only one doing this, I’m sure. And if he’s done it in this many states, how many other people are there? How many do we not know about?”