From drug-abusing deans to fractured families, a selection of our life and Times in 2017

The secret life of a med school dean

He wasn’t just a renowned eye surgeon and dean of a leading medical school. A Times investigation published in July found that Dr. Carmen Puliafito kept company with a circle of criminals and drug users who said he used meth and other drugs with them during his tenure as dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

The newspaper's investigation triggered a California Medical Board inquiry that resulted in formal allegations that Puliafito, who did not respond to interview requests or written questions, saw patients "within hours" of smoking meth and abused that drug on a near-daily basis at the Keck campus and elsewhere.

Readers also learned that complaints about the surgeon's behavior began to reach USC administrators more than five years ago, but the university did not report him to the medical board during that period and did not suspend Puliafito's medical privileges until after publication of the investigation.


Dream date or living nightmare?

Debra Newell's corn-silk-blond hair fell in waves over her shoulders. She wore high Gucci heels and designer jeans, and carried a Chanel bag--all in preparation for her first date with John Meehan.

The two met on an over-50 dating site. Meehan, who said he was an anesthesiologist, had thick dark hair and a winning smile. Newell, who ran her own interior design business, had four marriages in her past and was beginning to think she was too old to find love again. He told her that she stopped his heart.

But her new suitor worried Newell’s adult children, who sensed he was dangerous. And they were right —Meehan wasn’t just a con artist; he was a drug addict, disgraced nurse anesthetist, prolific grifter and a black-hearted Lothario. The unraveling of the Debra Newell-John Meehan relationship filled Christopher Goffard’s six-part series and his hugely popular podcast.


Mexico’s failed promise of affordable homes

Adela Blanco uses a broom to retrieve a basketball from an open pit of raw sewage near her home in Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz, Mexico.
Adela Blanco uses a broom to retrieve a basketball from an open pit of raw sewage near her home in Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz, Mexico.
Adela Blanco, 47, holds a lime to her nose to mask the odor of raw sewage, which flows through the streets of the Colinas de Santa Fe development in Veracruz, Mexico.
Blanco holds a lime to her nose to mask the odor of raw sewage, which flows through the streets of the Colinas de Santa Fe development. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times
 

Times staff writer Richard Marosi called it “a Levittown moment for Mexico,” a monumental campaign to provide affordable homes for the masses. But $100 billion later, what is there to show for it? Across Mexico, roofs leak, walls crack and appliances blow out as the program has collapsed into a social and financial catastrophe.

To blame: fraud, bad planning, flimsy construction, risky mortgages and neglectful officials. Along the way, The Times investigation found low- and middle-income homeowners who got stuck with complex loans as their dream homes deteriorated into slums.

“It was a world of corruption,” one mayor explained. Meanwhile, sewage spilled onto roads, and parents told of children enduring electrical shocks on flooded streets on their way to school.

Instead of criminal probes, Marosi’s sweeping investigation learned, prosecutors pursued cases against whistleblowers who accused developers of fraud. Putting a human face to the problem were dozens of photos by Brian van der Brug and Don Bartletti.

Read the series online: latimes.com/mexico-housing


The emotional toll of returning to Mexico

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Returning home is not easy for everybody. As the immigrant dream takes some unexpected twists in the 21st century, Times staff writer Kate Linthicum detailed the heartbreaking stories of three families torn between new lives in the U.S. and the tug of their hometowns back in Mexico.

Many of those who want to return, fueled by savings and skill sets earned during their stints in the U.S., are eager to reconnect with families and cultural comfort zones. “You go to work and then you come back here,” one returnee reminded himself. “Our future is here in Mexico.” But often, immigrants return to a land that has changed during their absences. More riveting — and complicated — are the allegiances formed by children often raised amid American indulgences that are still rare in Mexico. To sons and daughters, “home” often means the United States.

As global storylines change, and the wave of migrations shifts back toward Mexico, Linthicum and photographer Katie Falkenberg captured the fractured emotions of families with ties on both sides of the border.

Read the series online: latimes.com/malinalco


‘Our Dishonest President’

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A seven-part series by the paper’s editorial board concluded that President Trump poses a threat to democracy and the country’s institutions. Published 11 weeks into his term, the series denounced what editorial writers saw as his authoritarian temperament, his obsession with conspiracies and his war on a vibrant free press. “He apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality,” the fourth installment said.

The series focused on what the writers saw as three troubling traits: Trump’s lack of respect for the rules and institutions of government; his lack of regard for the truth; and his embrace of alt-right theories.

Of the media, one of the editorials stated: “He has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.”

Later produced as both a print and e-book, “Our Dishonest President” aims to encourage readers to “oppose the brazen act of a man who is patently unfit to preside over the American republic.”

Read the series online: latimes.com/trumpseries


Trial by fire in Southern California

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Edward Aguilar runs through flames from the Thomas fire to save his cats at his mobile home along Highway 33 in Casitas Springs. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
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Residents of La Conchita watch the Thomas fire in the hills above town. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
 

The videos of the cars driving through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway depicted a hellscape near one of L.A.’s most exclusive neighborhoods — a variation on a scene that played out over and over again as fires raged across Southern California in December. The region had escaped major wildfires during the final years of the state's big drought because the Santa Anas didn't blow — but this year was different.

Hundreds of thousands were displaced, hundreds of structures burned and countless acres were charred as the fierce, erratic winds drove major blazes across the region. Columnist Robin Abcarian put it this way: “To a Southern Californian, there are fewer word combinations more frightening than ‘Santa Ana winds’ and ‘high fire risk. This week, we saw why.”

Times reporters and photographers chronicled the chaos and aftermath of the conflagrations that have been indiscriminately cruel, touching mogul, farmer, homeowner and renter, young and old alike.

Read the coverage online: latimes.com/fire-photos

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