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After a baby suddenly dies, a 911 call from USC's former medical school dean sparks detectives' interest

A newborn baby's death in Altadena last year sparked an investigation by L.A. County sheriff's investigators.

The man who called for an ambulance at an Altadena apartment last fall had the calm and direct manner of one familiar with healthcare emergencies.

"Baby not breathing," Dr. Carmen Puliafito, former dean of USC's medical school, told a 911 dispatcher shortly after sunrise Oct. 5.

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"Are you there at the location right now?" the dispatcher asked.

"No," the doctor replied. "My girlfriend's there."

The ambulance arrived within four minutes, but the 3-week-old boy was so far beyond saving that paramedics did not take him to the hospital or even attempt CPR.

The death of the infant, Boaz Franko, is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Detectives are working to determine whether he died from natural causes, an accident or as the result of a crime. Investigators have interviewed the child's parents, an accused drug dealer and a nude model who both struggled with addiction and whose troubled lives became entangled with Puliafito's in recent years.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Steven D. Katz said the investigators do not consider Puliafito a suspect, but a possible "witness or an informant." They have attempted to interview him about the child's death, and he has refused through a lawyer, Katz said.

"He's someone who has the potential to provide some information about the parties involved in this investigation," Katz said.

Carmen Puliafito, pictured in 2016, was once the dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine.
Carmen Puliafito, pictured in 2016, was once the dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine. (Los Angeles Times)
Security hold, toxicology tests

He said investigators have received the results of toxicology tests, but declined to disclose them. Investigators recently imposed a so-called "security hold" on the case at the L.A. County coroner's office, blocking the disclosure of the autopsy findings or other information.

Whatever the outcome of their investigation, the death shows how Puliafito continued to have close contact with young addicts beyond the collapse of his once illustrious career.

The former dean was paying rent and other expenses at the apartment where the infant died and was a frequent visitor there, according to the landlord and others who went to the property. Puliafito is not the child's father, authorities said, but he and the baby's mother, Dora Yoder, 27, have been in a relationship for years. The relationship concerned her family so much that her parents went to the Sheriff's Department in 2016 to express alarm about Puliafito's influence on her.

Puliafito declined to comment. In a letter, his attorney, Timothy D. Reuben, accused The Times of sensationalizing the boy's death, writing, "your unfounded effort to somehow connect Dr. Puliafito to this tragedy just because the LA Times has attacked him in the past is utterly without basis and frankly disgusting."

A 67-year-old with two Harvard degrees and an international reputation in ophthalmology, Puliafito started using methamphetamine with a circle of prostitutes and criminals while dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine, The Times revealed last summer. His partying continued even after a 21-year-old woman overdosed in his presence in a hotel room and he was forced from his dean's post.

His young associates told The Times, and later state investigators, that Puliafito provided drugs to poor, young addicts in the group, including a teenager, and that he repeatedly smuggled drugs to friends in rehab.

Ariel Franko, the infant's father, in a July 30 booking photo.
Ariel Franko, the infant's father, in a July 30 booking photo. (Handout / San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department)

The Medical Board of California outlined allegations that he had furnished drugs to three people in an October filing seeking the revocation or suspension of his medical license. He has voluntarily surrendered that license.

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Yoder and the baby's father, Ariel Franko, 27, were not among those referenced in the medical board's filing, but they were part of Puliafito's party clique, according to interviews, photos and videos of the group.

A young mother

Raised in the Amish religion in Pennsylvania, Yoder moved to Los Angeles at 17, according to relatives. She dabbled in hairdressing and modeling, and started a website offering arty prints of her in various states of undress. Her sister Miriam Jones lived with her when she moved to L.A. and said Yoder was introduced to drugs through the Hollywood club scene.

Yoder did not respond to messages seeking comment. A dozen people familiar with her relationship with Puliafito spoke to The Times; most requested anonymity.

Dora Yoder, now 27, in an undated photo. Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives are conducting an ongoing investigation into how her baby died in October.
Dora Yoder, now 27, in an undated photo. Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives are conducting an ongoing investigation into how her baby died in October. (Jeremy Goldberg)

She began dating Franko, who grew up in Sherman Oaks, several years ago, friends and relatives said. His criminal record includes a conviction for accessory to burglary and two pending cases for possession of narcotics for sale. He has been to rehab at least twice for heroin addiction, according to court records. Police in Sherman Oaks arrested him last year in a car with heroin and other drugs, a scale and plastic baggies.

Franko is in the L.A. County Jail awaiting trial. He did not respond to a letter seeking an interview.

Yoder and Franko crossed paths in recent years with Puliafito. Soon they were partying with him and other members of his circle. Photos taken by the group during a 2015 trip to Las Vegas show Yoder and Franko raising glasses with the physician in a hotel room. A pipe, butane lighter and a bottle of whipped cream are lined up on a coffee table.

Yoder joined then-dean Puliafito that year at USC's medical school Christmas party, which he hosted at a downtown event space. Yoder and Puliafito posed with their arms around each other in photos reviewed by The Times.

Sarah Warren, the young woman who overdosed last year in a room Puliafito had rented, is in photos with Franko, Yoder and the former dean. She said she used drugs with all three for more than a year in 2015 and 2016, and witnessed Puliafito furnishing heroin to Yoder on numerous occasions.

"She needed the heroin, and Carmen paid the bill for everything," said Warren, who later got sober in a residential drug treatment program. "He was her drug provider."

Yoder made an attempt to get clean in 2015, but left rehab before completing the program, according to Jones, Warren and others who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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The following year, Yoder confided in a teenage niece that she was again using heroin. Dezaree Jones, then 17, said that during the March 2016 conversation in the driveway outside her apartment, Yoder said Puliafito was the source of the heroin.

"She said she never paid for her drugs and that he would supply them," Jones recalled.

Three other people who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity said Puliafito provided Yoder with drugs or money to buy drugs. In a letter to The Times this week, Puliafito's lawyer did not specifically address allegations the physician provided drugs to Yoder, but wrote that many of the newspaper's "claims" were "provably false."

An infant died at an Altadena duplex on Oct. 5.
An infant died at an Altadena duplex on Oct. 5. (Mel Melcon)
Father’s alarm over relationship

The relationship worried Yoder's family. Her father called the sheriff's station in Altadena from his Missouri home in August 2016 to report her missing and relay suspicions about Puliafito's influence.

"My daughter's been known to do drugs, and she's involved with a doctor that's also been known to do drugs," Menno Yoder told a deputy, according to a recording of the phone call obtained via public records request.

Puliafito is not mentioned by name in the redacted recording, but a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed he was the "eye doctor" referenced in the call.

"He gives my daughter money and he pays for her rent and he pays for all that stuff," he added.

Dora Yoder was eventually found at the Westin Hotel in Pasadena. Deputies did not pursue the matter.

The following day, Yoder was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting. A police officer noted that she had visible track marks and was carrying an illegal stash of Suboxone, a heroin-substitution drug prescribed to addicts. After Yoder didn't show up for her court date, a judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest. It remains open.

Yoder learned she was pregnant early last year and was surprised, Jones said. She went to a detox program to get off heroin and then spent several weeks resting at her parents' Missouri home, according to numerous relatives.

During that period, Puliafito answered a Craigslist ad for a two-bedroom apartment off Lake Avenue in Altadena. It was a short drive from his eight-bedroom Pasadena mansion. The owner of the property, Angel Rizo, said Puliafito was open about needing a place immediately for his "mistress."

"He explained the situation," Rizo said.

Puliafito agreed to pay $2,000 a month and signed a yearlong lease, according to a copy reviewed by The Times. After Yoder moved in, Puliafito had "a very expensive alarm system" with security cameras installed, Rizo said.

Franko and other young people were often in the home with Yoder and Puliafito, according to the landlord and others who observed the property.

Friends said Yoder was excited about having the baby, which she delivered full-term on Sept. 10 at Good Samaritan Hospital. She chose a Biblical name, Boaz, which means "strength is within him" in Hebrew.

Five hours after the birth, sheriff's deputies found the newborn's father passed out in the driver's seat of an SUV parked in front of the Altadena apartment. Deputies patting Franko down discovered methamphetamine and black-tar heroin, and he admitted to using both drugs on a daily basis, according to the arrest report.

Three weeks later, sheriff's deputies were back at the apartment.

911 call
‘She called me crying’

Puliafito phoned for an ambulance about 7:35 a.m. In a redacted recording of the 911 call obtained by The Times in response to a public records request, Puliafito did not provide his name. Katz, the sheriff's official, confirmed Puliafito made the phone call.

The 911 dispatcher noted that Puliafito was phoning from Pasadena and asked if the baby "was just found like this by his parents." Puliafito replied: "I don't know. She called me crying."

Yoder was alone in the home and distraught when the ambulance arrived. The coroner's investigator noted that the baby appeared healthy and had no obvious injuries. The investigator and homicide detectives interviewed Yoder at the scene.

Yoder told a coroner's investigator that the heater wasn't working the night before so she had placed the 25-day-old baby in his crib, covered with a blanket.

She told the investigator that hours later, "she woke up and found him unresponsive," said Ed Winter, coroner's assistant chief of operations. "She first called the infant's father and asked him what to do because she didn't know CPR and thought there was something she could do to revive him."

Yoder waited two weeks to inform her family of Boaz's death and told them he died of sudden infant death syndrome, according to text messages reviewed by The Times.

Relatives phoned the sheriff's station in Altadena to express concern about the baby's death and worries that Puliafito was furnishing drugs to Yoder, sister Miriam Jones said. Jones later met with homicide detectives.

In an email to Puliafito written two weeks after the boy's death and reviewed by The Times, Yoder listed bills she wanted him to cover, including "baby book(s) of Boaz", "mani/pedi" and collection agency debt. "I accept cash, any kind of check, bank wire, google wallet, and more ;)," she wrote, concluding, "thank you for loving me."

Puliafito e-mailed back that they should meet to discuss the amount of money she needed and added that they were "at a crossroads seriously."

"From day one I said that Boaz was a gift from God," he wrote in the Oct. 22 message. "I really felt he was my son. You knew that. He still is a gift that will shine brightly in my heart."

Boaz is buried under a magnolia tree in Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Culver City in a section of the cemetery reserved for children.

Correction

February 12, 2018, 10:25 AM

Child's death: In the Jan. 28 California section, an article about the death of an infant in Altadena identified the child's mother, Dora Yoder, as having a pending bench warrant for her arrest. The warrant had been dismissed and Yoder pleaded no contest Dec. 29 to petty theft, according to the Los Angeles city attorney's office. If Yoder completes the terms of a diversion program, including narcotics anonymous meetings and community labor, the case could be dismissed in December 2018.

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