Illustration by Sean McCabe
Sandy Folaron fumbles through a box of her dead son’s possessions with a mix of affection and dread.
“Here’s a cookbook JR wrote for his service project as an Eagle Scout,” she says, holding up the cleverly titled Fry Like an Eagle. “That was my boy.”
But inside the cardboard box is evidence of -another side of her boy, a troubled 24-year-old who took his life in June 2004. The box’s contents, released to Folaron by Milwaukee police a year after his death, include syringes, empty plastic pill bottles and receipts for hundreds of prescription drugs – from OxyContin to Percocet to Valium. In the bottom of the box, sealed in plastic, are scribbled suicide notes found scattered throughout his apartment.
Folaron drops the box carelessly to the floor.
“I look at JR’s picture and I see a fabulous, smart, witty young man,” she says. “And to look at that box.… I don’t know who that is. What happened to my boy?”
For Folaron, a businesswoman and community activist whose beaming face graced the side of a county bus during her 2004 run for Milwaukee mayor, the question has become an obsession leading her and her husband, John, to the police department, district attorney, U.S. attorney, state attorney general and Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing.
Their quest has immersed them in the complex world of prescription pain medications – and pointed straight to their son’s former doctor, Richard I.H. Wang.
Police and federal law enforcement personnel have investigated Wang for overcharging insurance com-panies and prescribing dangerous levels of such potentially addictive drugs as OxyContin, -Valium and Percocet. The investigation made headlines in April 2004, linking Wang to 11 overdose deaths in the metro area, which has seen a jump in the number of drug–related deaths in recent years.
In response to the investigation, the state Medical Examining Board voted to discipline Wang, ruling that he could no longer prescribe, dispense, supply or obtain controlled substances. The doctor was out of the pain business.
The board, though, had done nothing in response to a similar complaint against Wang in 2001 and had taken no action against him on nine other complaints dating back to 1993. The Wang case exemplifies Wisconsin’s dismal record of disciplining errant doctors, ranking 49th out of 50 states, according to the consumer group Public Citizen.
When the board finally did act, it was too late for JR Folaron. By then, he was using large quantities of drugs prescribed by Wang, dosages that had increased month by month over two years.
But the criminal investigation against Wang has stalled, perhaps permanently. Prosecutors will not discuss the case.
So, in Sandy Folaron’s search for answers, she has added more questions: Did Dr. Richard Wang get off easy? Was he responsible for her son’s death? Is the state’s lax enforcement system causing mortal damage, allowing addictions and drug-related deaths?
Sandy and John Folaron met in Milwaukee and married young. After John joined the Army in 1971, the couple moved to West Germany, where their first child, Terisa, was born. Six years later, after returning to the United States, John Robert Folaron – JR – was born on Long Island, New York.
The Folarons moved back to Wisconsin soon after and put down roots on Milwaukee’s West Side. With money they had earned – John as an engineer and inventor, Sandy as the owner of a cleaning service – they began buying commercial property on Vliet Street, including buildings that house the Times Cinema and the former Milwaukee Coffee Co. (currently vacant). With financial success, they bought a three-story brick home in Washington Heights, once owned by motorcycle pioneer Arthur Davidson, and raised their young family.
In the eyes of his mother, JR was “the good seed”: a bright, ambitious kid who dressed in a white shirt and tie and carried a briefcase to St. Sebastian’s grade school. In sixth grade, he started a lawn mowing business in his neighborhood and saved enough money to buy a riding mower. With his father volunteering as a troop leader, he took up scouting, advancing from Cub Scout to Boy Scout to Eagle Scout.
Yet family life was hardly conventional, says JR’s sister. While their father, an “introverted genius,” puttered with his inventions – laser machines, fog machines, a robot that could walk the dog – their mother pitched in at a women’s shelter and formed a group to preserve old homes.
From early on, the siblings vied for their busy parents’ attention. But along the way, says Terisa, they learned two vital lessons. First: It didn’t matter what they did in life as long as they were productive and happy. And second: Nothing is impossible.
From his father, JR learned how to fix things. He solved problems logically, repairing a TV or CD player by tearing it apart and putting it back together. When Sandy started Milwaukee Coffee, JR helped install a giant fiber-glass coffee cup on the roof.
“Those were his talents,” says Sandy.
School, though, was not. When his parents enrolled him in Marquette University High School, JR rebelled. “I hate that school,” he’d tell his parents. “And we’d say, ‘Well, sorry. We’re paying $3,000 and you will learn to love it,’_” Sandy recalls.
His parents were sure JR would go on to college. But Sandy now admits that Marquette was a bad fit for him. “Dumb, dumb, dumb!” she says of the decision. The button-down fraternity culture of the all-boys school went against his self-taught, exploratory tendencies.
JR’s rebellion deepened. His parents pulled him out of Marquette after his junior year and enrolled him in Thomas More High School, his father’s alma mater. But JR skipped class and spent less time at home and more time with a girlfriend in Hales Corners, a young woman who -never met the approval of his family.
“That’s when I thought something else was going on with our golden boy,” says Sandy.
On JR’s 18th birthday, Sandy went to Thomas More to meet with her son and the vice principal. The goal was to iron out a plan for him to graduate. JR didn’t show up. When she returned home, Sandy found his bedroom empty – clothes, furniture, rugs, books, tools gone. JR had rented a U-Haul and, with the help of his girlfriend’s parents, moved into their Hales Corners home.
Over the next year, JR had no contact with his family. “And he never went back to high school,” Sandy laments.
JR eventually broke up with his girlfriend and moved into a Riverwest high-rise alone. In fits and starts, he tried to reconcile with his parents, going home for dinner, promising to get his GED (he never completed it). But he struggled to make it on his own, working as a maintenance superintendent at his apartment building in exchange for free rent. A series of freak accidents battered his young body, a run of bad luck that introduced him to painkillers and to Dr. Wang.
In one accident, JR suffered severe cuts and bruises at his high-rise when he plunged two stories down an elevator shaft after the elevator malfunctioned. At a Summerfest concert, his teeth were pushed into his gums when he was knocked into a metal bleacher by spectators. At a construction site, he tore a ligament in his left knee while lifting chunks of concrete.
“You’ve already got the body of an 80-year-old man,” his mother would tell him.
JR had surgery on his knee. Months later (no one knows who made the referral), he started seeing Dr. Wang, who ran a pain clinic at 4608 W. Burleigh St. In his late 70s at the time, Wang had been on the staff of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee for 28 years and had taught at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He retired from the VA hospital, where he was chief of clinical pharmacology, in 1992, and from the Medical College in 1996. Wang, who lives in Elm Grove and owns several apartment buildings in Milwaukee, worked for years at then Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital before opening his pain clinic.
According to patient notes made by Wang – and filed with the Department of Regulation and Licensing – JR first visited Wang’s clinic on February 7, 2002. After examining JR, Wang prescribed a variety of painkillers, with particular emphasis on oxycodone, the active ingredient in brand names like OxyContin and Percodan. JR’s prescription was for 126 tablets of Percodan (each tablet combines 5 milligrams of oxycodone and 325 milligrams of aspirin), 42 tablets of oxyco-done (five milligrams each) and 21 tablets of Diazepam (10 milligrams each), also known as Valium.
It was the beginning of a pattern. Two and a half weeks later, while on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, JR called Wang’s office, asking for a refill of Valium. The doctor approved a prescription by telephone for 21 more pills.
When he returned for his next monthly visit, JR told Wang he needed to stay medicated in order to work, according to patient notes. Three weeks later, Wang upped the dosage of Percodan from six to seven per day and increased the oxycodone from 42 tablets to 70.
In the past decade, prescription pain medication has become the drug of choice for abusers. Medications such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin – known as opioids or narcotic analgesics – are abundant. Between 1992 and 2003, there was a 94 percent increase in the number of people that admitted abusing prescription drugs, according to a controversial report released in July by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. That jump was five times the increase in the number of people abusing cocaine and 60 times the number abusing heroin.
Not surprisingly, abuse by teens was the most rampant, jumping 212 percent over that 11-year period. The problem spans socio-economic class. A 2004 student survey by the Mequon-Thiensville School District, for instance, found that 18 percent of high school juniors and seniors admitted using illicit drugs other than marijuana at least once a week.
OxyContin is particularly popular, partly due to aggressive marketing by its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, which once touted the drug as having a lower abuse potential than other pain relievers. The company changed its ads after being criticized by federal officials, but sales for OxyContin were more than $1 billion in 2000.
Known as “oxy,” “OC” or “hillbilly heroin,” OxyContin is essentially a brand-name, high-dosage version of the generic oxyco-done, with a time-release property that particularly appeals to abusers. They grind the pill and ingest or inject it for a quick, powerful high. A single 40-milligram tablet of OxyContin, which sells for less than $5 from a pharmacy, can sell for $40 on the street, a hefty profit for traffickers.
With a rise in abuse has come a rise in mortality. Prescription opioids were involved in up to 19 percent of all drug-related deaths nationally, says the CASA report. But the problem may be worse in Milwaukee County: Last year, 68 of 177 drug-related deaths involved opioids, according to the medical examiner’s office.
While there is no maximum dosage for oxycodone, there are guidelines. According to a handbook used by medical examiners, Disposition of _Toxic Drugs and Chemicals in Man, “Patients with moderate to severe pain may take 10-30 milligrams every four hours; prolonged-release tablets containing 10-80 milligrams are to be taken every 12 hours.”
Approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration and controlled by the Drug Enforcement Ad-ministration, painkillers like Percodan and OxyContin are narcotics that can be addictive, much like morphine. Doctors must determine how much a patient can take without growing drug-dependent based on age, weight and medical conditions.
Hundreds of doctors nationwide have found themselves in the cross-hairs of criminal investigations for “diverting” pain pills – that is, overprescribing so that prescription drugs may be abused or sold to others. Doctors may be deceived or succumb to patient pressure. Or they may be careless or simply dishonest.
Diversion is a contentious issue. Some healthcare experts argue that aggressive criminal prosecution can hamper legitimate pain management, causing doctors to shy away from prescribing highly effective drugs that happen to be popular on the street.
Month by month, JR would come up with reason after reason for staying on the medications, and Wang would refill the prescriptions.
In June 2002, JR complained to Wang of migraine headaches. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he called Wang to say he was in a car accident and hurt his back. By fall, JR was up to eight tablets of Percocet (10 milligrams each of oxycodone), three 20-milligram tablets of oxycodone and two Valiums each day, in the high range for patients with moderate to severe pain.
Meanwhile, JR’s father had gotten him a job as a welder at his company, Electronic Cable Specialists in Franklin. JR was top-notch, doing things no other welder could do. Yet the strain between him and his parents lingered.
“JR felt he was not part of the family,” says his former girlfriend, Stephanie Skiles, who moved into a South Side apartment with him in the summer of 2002 after they had dated for a year. She recalls one Thanksgiving: JR went to her parents’ home and then to his own parents’ home for dinner, she says. But an hour later, he was back with Skiles’ family.
Skiles says JR’s estrangement from his family contributed to his drug addiction, an addiction he tried to hide. “Every time he would go to the doctor, he would come back with OxyContin, Percocets and Valium,” she says. “I’m not an idiot. I knew something was up.”
The quantities grew ever larger. And eventually, says Skiles, JR started selling drugs to his friends.
On his visits to Wang, JR told story after story to get drugs, according to patient notes. His meds were ruined by a basement flood. His meds were stolen. His landlord threw them away by mistake. He needed back surgery. His grandfather died.
But friends and family say there was no basement flood, no back surgery, no grandfather who died.
One fabrication by JR was particularly disturbing to his friends. “He told me he was taking all these drugs because he had lung cancer,” says Tom Bailey, a best friend since high school.
The cancer claim also showed up in Wang’s notes: “Operated at St. Luke’s Hospital for lobectomy of right lung last week.” But nothing in Wang’s notes shows that he contacted other physicians to verify JR’s medical condition. The prescriptions from Wang kept coming.
Yet according to an autopsy report by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner, there was no sign of physical damage to either of JR’s lungs.
“I found out he was lying,” Skiles says. “He even told me who his doctor was at the hospital. But it didn’t check out. It was some doctor that had nothing to do with cancer.”
On New Year’s Day 2003, Skiles and Bailey intervened, confronting JR, then dumping all of his drugs down the toilet.
“It didn’t work,” says Skiles. “Nothing seemed to. I remember him flushing things down the toilet before and saying he wouldn’t do it again. It just had ahold of him.”
In February, she moved out of the apartment. She’d had enough.
During the time JR was being treated by Wang, two of Wang’s former patients called Milwaukee police independently and accused the doctor of improperly prescribing narcotics. A few months later, a drug dealer arrested by police told them he had faked back pain to get pills from Wang. The doctor had prescribed Percocet, OxyContin and Valium, a supply of drugs that the informant then sold for “at least $600 a month,” according to an application for a search warrant filed with the U.S. District Court.
An investigation was launched. Using the informant’s name as a reference, an undercover detective made an appointment with Wang for April 9, 2003. Wearing a recording device, the detective posed as a patient with lower back pain and -occasional neck pain.
Wang did not order any x-rays or medical tests or ask for medical records to verify the detective’s claim of pain. His physical exam was “cursory,” lacking “sufficient detail to justify issuing a prescription for controlled substances,” according to Dr. L. Douglas Kennedy, a national expert hired by police to review transcripts of the tape-recorded visits. Nevertheless, Wang prescribed a daily dosage of six tablets of Percocet (oxycodone and acetominophen) and one tablet of OxyContin. For the 32-minute visit, Wang charged Blue Cross $250 for a 60-minute consultation, according to court records.
The detective returned to Wang’s office two weeks later. He was out of medicine, he told the doctor, and had bought pills from another Wang patient (the police informant) – a clear indicator of abuse. Wang increased the prescription from six to eight pills of oxycodone a day, plus one tablet of OxyContin, while ignoring the detective’s statement that he was self-medicating by buying additional drugs. “Nor did Dr. Wang make any follow-up requests for medical records or medical referrals,” according to police documents. For the five-minute visit, Wang was paid $120 by the insurance company for 40 minutes of face-to-face patient care.
A month later, Wang upped the OxyContin from one to two per day and added one tablet per day of Valium, used to treat muscle spasms or anxiety. “A review of the transcript shows that [the detective] made no complaints of muscle spasms or anxiety,” says a court document. During the visit, Wang “asked no questions… pertaining to the type, severity or location of [the detective’s] pain.” For nine minutes, another $120.
The investigation continued for several months. In August 2003, the detective’s informant was sent to see Wang in his guise as a patient and wired with a recording device. After only a brief discussion, Wang prescribed 336 tablets of Percocet, 84 oxycodone and 112 Valium, never asking him about supplying drugs to the undercover detective.
The detective returned for two final visits in March 2004, three months before JR’s death. He downplayed his symptoms, say court documents, describing his problem simply as “tightness in the lower back” and “soreness” and “stiffness” – complaints that many people might make. It had now been eight months since the man’s last visit, yet Wang wrote a 14-day script for a daily dosage of six Percocet, three OxyContin and three Valium.
Meanwhile, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services examined Wang’s billing practices for overbilling. They found that Wang frequently charged Medicare and Medicaid for com-prehensive 40-minute patient exams, including six different days where he billed for such visits with at least 18 -patients. Investigators calculated that Wang would have had to work for more than 12 hours each day. From June 1999 to January 2004, Wang received Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements of $422,103.
In the course of the probe, detectives also staked out Wang’s medical clinic. They identified one admitted drug dealer and several suspected dealers as Wang patients. One patient filled 40 separate prescriptions in six months. Another had criminal convictions for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and a prior arrest for illegal possession of prescription narcotics, according to the investigation.
Wang had ignored accepted medical practice, said pain specialist Kennedy, by failing to determine whether his patients had a history of drug arrests or convictions or were exhibiting signs that they were diverting drugs.
But most alarming was the discovery of overdose deaths linked to Wang. After reviewing medical records in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, police and federal agents identified 11 people – either patients of Wang’s or persons connected to a patient – who had died with prescription drugs in their system. Among those the authorities cited:
• A relative of two of Wang’s patients, who overdosed on OxyContin in July 2001.
• A 50-year-old Milwaukee man who overdosed in July 2002 from a mix of oxycodone, cocaine and hy-drocodone, an active ingredient in Vicodin. The man was described in a medical examiner’s report as a “frequent flyer” who made regular trips to the doctor for sprains and pain.
• A 43-year-old patient of Wang’s from Muskego, who overdosed in March 2004 on Percocet, OxyContin and cocaine. The man had survived an overdose of OxyContin one month earlier.
By April 2004, investigators believed they had probable cause to charge Wang with several felonies, including fraud and reckless endangerment of safety, according to someone close to the probe. In an agreement between Milwaukee and Waukesha police, the Milwaukee County DA’s office, the FBI and the DEA, the case was turned over to U.S. Attorney Steven Bis-kupic for criminal and civil prosecution. A search warrant was issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Callahan, and records were seized from Wang’s office.
Since then, the criminal case has stalled, but a civil case is still being pursued.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Jacobs would not say whether the criminal case was ongoing. He con-ceded that Wang’s age (now 81) and the board decision barring him from writing prescriptions would be relevant considerations if charges were dropped. “It’s something we would consider – what’s he doing now?” says Jacobs.
According to Sandy Folaron, a disappointed Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Steven Licata told her in a phone conversation in late July that the U.S. attorney had dropped the criminal case. “We walked away thinking, we’re so close,” Folaron says he told her.
Licata and Folaron aren’t the only ones frustrated. “I was very aggravated by the way it died a miserable death,” says an investigator on the case. “We went out of our way to make sure his actions fit the criminal guidelines for prescribing without authorization – essentially, dealing drugs.”
The Wang case could have served as a strong deterrent to negligent doctors, the investigator added. “He’s not the only doctor in Milwaukee doing this. If he did it, he should be prosecuted for it.”
The State Medical Examining Board action against Wang came as the criminal investigation heated up. The board, however, had been warned about Wang years earlier.
A complaint filed March 22, 2001 included a memorandum written by Arthur Thexton, a prosecutor with the Department of Regulation and Licensing: “A respected physician called me… and reported that he recently saw three patients… who reported that a Dr. R. Wang on Burleigh in Milwaukee had prescribed substantial quantities of oxycodone and hydrocodone for them without justification and with only the most cursory exams.… These three patients are now being treated for dependence, and my informant felt strongly that Dr. Wang was little better than a drug dealer, if the patients’ statements are true. He [the physician] believes them to be telling the truth.”
Wang had been the subject of at least nine other complaints. Two filed in 2003 remain “open and unresolved,” according to the Department of Regulation and Licensing, which refused to release details. Nor did the department provide details on complaints filed in 1993 and 1994, saying the files had been destroyed. Two of the other five complaints involved overprescribing drugs.
Dr. Bhupinder Saini, vice chairman of the examining board, was listed as the board adviser on at least three complaints, including the 2001 complaint and the Folaron case. Saini is an owner of Advanced Pain Management, which operates three clinics in Milwaukee. He didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview but last April told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the criminal investigation of Wang “makes physicians nervous, and they are reluctant to prescribe drugs for patients who need them.”
On April 21, 2004, not long after criminal investigators filed for a warrant to search Wang’s office, the examining board met with Wang’s attorney. The doctor was asked to surrender his DEA registration, prohibiting him from writing any prescriptions. His license to practice medicine and surgery was limited but not revoked.
In hindsight, Wang’s prescriptive practices are suspicious, acknowledges a department official, who asked to remain anonymous because he isn’t allowed to talk to the press. “What is now obviously a pattern didn’t look like a pattern back then,” he says. “You have a guy who clearly had fallen down on the job. There was enough to revoke his license, but he had a long and spotless record. I just didn’t see it as necessary.”
Revoking a doctor’s medical license is “a last resort,” says the official. The Medical Examining Board is “expressly forbidden” by Wisconsin law from “punishing” doctors. That responsibility lies with the criminal justice system.
The Medical Examining Board receives some 500 to 600 complaints a year. With seven prosecutors in the Department of Regulation and Licensing, the board, on average, disciplines about five doctors in a month.
“Stuff comes in that the board can’t do much about,” criticisms of doctors who make rude comments or similar “nuisance complaints,” says the official. “People have unrealistic expectations.”
But Wisconsin ranks at the bottom in its discipline of bad doctors. According to a study by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Wisconsin’s Medical Examining Board in 2004 took only 33 “serious disciplinary actions” – license revocations, surrenders, suspensions and restrictions – placing 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Wisconsin has been in the bottom 10 states since 1995.
In its recommendations, Public Citizen says medical examining boards would do a better job if they were more adequately funded and staffed and pursued “proactive investigations rather than only following complaints.”
JR Folaron met Andy Harmeyer and Joel Prufinski on the East Side about four years ago. All three had the same taste in music. All three liked to party.
Wherever the trio went, there always seemed to be prescription pain pills, says Prufinski. “Four or five years ago, they were giving them out like candy,” he says.
What started as recreation soon turned into a serious dependency for the three friends, and they had no trouble finding a supplier. “You start hearing things about different doctors,” says Prufinski. “The name Wang got spread around. He was the guy to go to.”
Prufinski remembers driving JR to appointments with Wang. “JR would put on his knee brace,” he says, “and I would sit there in the waiting room.”
As JR had done with all of his friends, he told Prufinski and Harmeyer that he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. “After that, he would get an arsenal of painkillers… oxy, Percocet,” says Prufinski. “He did more and more.”
Months later, JR announced to friends that his cancer was in remission. Prufinski knew it wasn’t true. “He was just lying to cover his other lies,” he says. “That’s just about the time when I went right and he went left.”
Prufinski was ready to get clean, ready to admit that he needed help. He was up to three 160-milligram tablets of OxyContin – “big blue pills” – spending $200 to $400 a day on his addiction. He talked to his parents and met with his family doctor, who recommended a five-day detox program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital followed by outpatient care. During treatment, Dr. Wang’s name surfaced again, says Prufinski. “There were people in there who were getting their drugs from him. And when his license was cut off, those people ended up in rehab.”
Prufinski avoided his old friends and their habits. Yet he worried about JR. “Finally, one day I said, ‘The hell with it, I’m just gonna go over there.’” It was early June 2004, the Monday before JR died. “His apartment was trashed. He looked like hell.”
They talked for an hour, says Prufinski. “He broke down. He said he was addicted to heroin, shooting up, and he was lonely.” Things were spinning out of control. His landlord had served him with an eviction notice. He had lost his girlfriend, his driver’s license, his job. And although Prufinski didn’t know it at the time, JR had also lost his pain pill supplier; a month earlier, Dr. Wang had been restricted from prescribing drugs.
Wang had sent a form letter to JR, dated April 23, 2004, with a less-than-forthright explanation of his license restriction: “Due to a recent investigation arising out of a few of my patients’ misuse of prescription pain medications, on the advice of my attorneys, I am no longer prescribing pain medications.” Wang gave three re-ferrals: “1. Primary care physician. 2. Prior pain clinics. 3. Blue section of your Yellow Pages close to your location.”
JR saw two pain doctors in May, but each prescribed only minimal dosages of oxycodone and Valium, one tablet per day, an abrupt cutback from Wang’s last prescription of 84 tablets of OxyContin, 170 tablets of oxycodone, 112 tablets of Valium and 14 Actiq lozenges, a pain medication for cancer patients.
“When Wang got cut off, JR got cut off,” says Prufinski. “That’s when he started doing heroin. In JR’s case, and in a lot of people’s cases, they start doing heroin because it’s cheaper. But you need more and more.… Your tolerance keeps growing and growing on heroin.”
Prufinski told JR he could help him through withdrawal. He invited him to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting scheduled for that night, and JR agreed to give it a try. But later in the afternoon, he called Prufinski and backed out.
The next day, Prufinski went back to JR’s apartment. He wouldn’t answer the door. He came back the next day, and again, JR wouldn’t let him in. So he left literature about a rehab program on JR’s car.
On that Thursday, Prufinski went to JR’s place once again. This time, JR let him in. The two talked at length about drug addiction. “He seemed like he wanted out,” says Prufinski.
Prufinski couldn’t reach his friend the next day, but late on Saturday, he got a text message on his cell phone from JR, who said he was sitting around his apartment watching TV. Again, Prufinski urged him to come to an NA meeting with him. “I was basically on his ass to get him going.”
On Monday, Prufinski ran into a mutual friend who said detectives had been at his house asking about tools stolen from JR’s landlord. Prufinski headed to JR’s apartment. Parked outside were two squad cars and a hearse.
JR’S landlord summoned police at about 2 p.m. on Monday, June 7, 2004. The doors to JR’s upstairs apartment were barricaded from the inside. When the officers finally entered, they found the relics of an addict’s self-destruction. Broken syringes pierced the carpet and cushions of the couch. Orange pill bottles littered the floor. A pharmaceutical pill dispenser sat on a table.
Face down on the floor lay JR’s body. And in the living room was a plastic container of anti-freeze and a small drinking glass, with residue of the yellow-green liquid inside.
As sort of a written penance for his wayward deeds, JR had left handwritten notes scattered about: a list of names and amounts of money he apparently owed, a list of friends who were to receive his possessions after he’d gone, a list of phone numbers – Dr. Wang’s at the very top. He left apologies to his landlord for stealing his toolbox, apologies to his friends for spreading lies, apologies to his parents and sister for letting them down.
Recorded on a microcassette found by his father under a carpet were JR’s last words: “I’m sorry, but I can’t run anymore. I can’t run from this dark side of me. I can’t cope with this addiction anymore.… I lied to my parents. I hurt them so bad.… And I lied to everyone else about them.… I’ve done so much damage. I can’t fix it. I wish there was a way to make sure that no one in the world ever got into drugs.… That’s what’s killed me. That’s what killed the kid inside of me.”
Joel Prufinski has two regrets. “I regret not just taking him away, just throwing him in the car and taking him to rehab,” he says. “And I should have called his parents and let them know he was shooting heroin.” But he didn’t know how they would react, he says. He didn’t want to make matters worse.
“JR was really a smart guy,” says Prufinski. “But he had what I called poor rich kid’s syndrome. His parents had expectations for him that were too high, and he had expectations of himself that were too low.”
The damage didn’t end with JR. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the other member of his partying trio, Andy Harmeyer, died in a fiery car crash when he ran a stop sign and struck another car in rural Racine County, killing three other people. According to a toxicology report, Harmeyer’s blood-alcohol level was 0.167, more than twice the legal limit. Also in his blood was a high level of oxycodone, according to the state laboratory report.
A police officer delivered the news about JR to Sandy Folaron as she was getting ready for a friend’s funeral. Her son, “the good seed,” the Eagle Scout, had taken his own life.
While Sandy hadn’t spoken to JR much as she campaigned for mayor, his father had been in touch fre-quently. “I’d hear from him once a week,” says John.
Both parents say they were alarmed by JR’s sudden change in behavior and appearance. “JR, I’m looking at you and I’m not seeing the JR I knew two years ago,” Sandy said the last time she saw him. He had lost weight and looked exhausted, she says.
“I was watching him wasting away,” says Sandy. “That should have sent up a warning to his doctor.”
Both parents asked JR point-blank if he was using drugs and offered to pay for treatment. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, it’s just these painkillers,’” John says.
But John saw the signs of trouble. JR was arrested for vandalizing a pay phone and stealing the coins. His car was impounded after he failed to pay 30 parking tickets. When he started showing up late and missing work, the company had no choice but to let him go, says John.
The last time John saw JR was the Friday before he killed himself. JR called and said he had some things to sell at a Washington Heights block sale that weekend. John drove to JR’s apartment and met him outside on the sidewalk.
“He was dressed up in a black Italian suit,” says John. “He looked great.” JR said he had bought the suit for an upcoming job interview. He handed his father a backpack filled with his stuff – photos, a few old watches his father had given him, a harmonica. “Take it,” JR said, “or sell it at the rummage sale.”
John took the bag. “Love ya, ’bye,” he told JR. “Maybe we’ll see you this weekend.”
In the aftermath, JR’s parents blame his friends for not alerting them, and his friends blame his parents for not caring enough. But all agree JR could never ask for help.
“I never imagined that his life had been taken over by an addiction,” says his sister. “There was never a call for help, never a reaching out. He kept all that closeted.”
Terisa says she and JR were brought up thinking they could solve any problem they faced, no matter how tough. “My brother could fix anything. There was nothing he couldn’t fix,” she says. “Except his own addiction.”
After JR’s body was found, Sandy and John asked the Milwaukee County medical examiner to hold off listing suicide as the cause of death. Three weeks after her son died, Sandy filed a complaint with the state Department of Regulation and Licensing, claiming that Dr. Wang had overprescribed pain medications. “We consider our son his 12th victim,” she wrote in the complaint.
But seven months later, the Medical Examining Board closed the case after deciding there was “insufficient evidence” to show that Wang had violated a Wisconsin statute or rule.
“I have been unable to establish a direct link between Dr. Wang and the death of John Jr. [sic],” wrote an investigator for the board. “Dr. Wang was no longer the patient’s physician at the time of the death, the deceased did not die from drug use or overuse (at least not directly), and there appears to be no other evidence that ties Dr. Wang to the deceased at the time of his death.”
Dr. Wang still practices medicine at his Burleigh Street office. “But we don’t see pain patients,” he said in an interview. His medical license is due for renewal on October 31, but Wang wouldn’t say if he intended to apply.
Wang claims that he has been unfairly blamed for what befell some of his patients. “I have a tremendous reputation in town,” he says. “I tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.… I don’t take advantage of anybody. If anything, other people take advantage of me. We physicians are not detectives, we are not police. We expect the patients to tell the truth. We cannot deal with liars.”
JR had 41 appointments with Dr. Wang over 26 months. On the morning JR was found dead, two calls were placed to his phone from Wang’s office, according to a caller ID box found in JR’s apartment. Yet when asked whether he remembered JR Folaron, Wang called out to his office manager: “Who was JR? Folaron, who’s Folaron?”
The manager could not help. “I may have to review files,” he said finally, “because it’s a year and a half. I’ll get back to you.”
A short obituary for JR ran in the newspaper following his death. No wake or funeral was held. Instead, his body was cremated and, at his request, some of his ashes were scattered in the ocean waves at Myrtle Beach. The rest remain in an urn at his parents’ home.
“He’s with us now,” says his mother.
Sandy Folaron never heard of Dr. Richard Wang before her son’s death. JR would mention going to a “pain management center,” which had a ring of accountability. The discovery of the empty pill bottles bearing Wang’s name was her introduction to the pain doctor.
Nor has she ever spoken to Wang. But she imagines what might be said: “You go through several conversations: the anger, the hatred,” she says. “His conversation might be, ‘You’re just his mother. You don’t understand pain. I’m the doctor.…’
“But he must’ve had some idea that JR was in trouble. If I could look at my son and see that something was wrong, why couldn’t he?”
Kurt Chandler is a Milwaukee Magazine senior editor.