The Johns Hopkins Death Squad

While filming a documentary for PBS at Johns Hopkins, I stumbled across the story of a covert team of doctors harvesting organs from assassinated gang members…

If you happen to be in a city gang and one of your friends goes missing, I may know where to look…

Back in 2009 I was working for a video production company outside of DC called SRP. We were a small outfit but did a surprising amount of corporate work in the region, from producing goofy town hall films for Georgetown Hospital to classified government projects at Raytheon to non-profit spots with John Elway to cheesy women’s workout DVDs. When they brought me on I had already been working with HBO and MTV on a few pilots and was looking for a place to set up a permanent spot of business.

After a few months in the editing bay and filming one of those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” Life Alert commercials, I was ready to do something bigger. A few months later I was fortunate to set up a documentary with WETA/PBS about the legal ramifications of nationwide kidney swaps that Johns Hopkins was pioneering through the world of medicine. Through several meetings touting our qualifications, our small team of three convinced the media department at Johns Hopkins that we were ready for the challenge, ready to bring ourselves up to par with other big production houses in the region such as Discovery. To seal the deal, we also offered them editorial rights before sending a final film to PBS for consideration. They were convinced we would do justice to their notorious establishment and gave us carte blanche to roam the halls with film equipment for the better part of the following 4 months, conducting interviews with renowned doctors, sitting in on actual surgeries, anything we wanted.

It was at the end of those initial round of meetings that the head of Johns Hopkins PR at the time, Gary Stephenson, mentioned something so bizarre that it made everyone in the room laugh it off, except me. After telling us about a few bodies called “floaters” that had washed ashore near his office in previous months, he divulged that Johns Hopkins had a secretive unit that called themselves the “Death Squad” that would go out anytime there was a gang execution in Baltimore and collect the unclaimed bodies to harvest organs in order to conduct emergency transplant surgeries.

I hoped he was getting comfortable after meeting us so many times that he had just let some giant secret slip out. This sounded like the best movie premise ever to me so I followed up with Gary’s assistant Stephanie a few days later on the idea of doing a piece on the death squad as a side story. She quickly shot the idea down, obviously knowing it would be a PR nightmare, and said very firmly that Gary was a jokster.

I don’t know why, but the idea of a death squad didn’t seem too implausible. Perhaps HBO’s “The Wire” was to blame, leading me to believe that every vacant housing unit in Baltimore was home to multiple dead gang members. If Georgetown’s hospital could have robots taking elevator rides, changing linens, and bringing food to people, which they do, who was I to think a death squad couldn’t exist.

For the time being that was the end of the death squad discussion, but roaming the halls at all hours of the day I was sure to keep my eye out for any sign of evidence to the contrary, hoping to catch of glimpse of this fabled squad. I even downloaded one of those police scanner apps on my phone in attempt to monitor gang shootings and time them with any mysterious hospital arrivals. Nothing panned out, either they were the best covert hospital unit ever, or they didn’t exist to begin with.

For the next three months, I went about filming as scheduled; surgeries, interviews with doctors, following around kidney transplant donors and recipients, securing rights to 3D medical animation renderings, getting a soundtrack on schedule, cutting a trailer, etc. So much time had gone by that I’d all but forgotten about my obsession with the death squad.

It wasn’t until one of the last evenings of filming that I saw an ambulance crew hop in a blacked out unmarked box van from one of the secure hospital loading bays and take off down the city streets that my interest was rekindled. I alerted my colleague, to which we both nodded in agreement. I had finally caught a glimpse of the “Death Squad”.

I know this all sounds like something out of the Twilight Zone. Could there really be some underground super-team of organ snatching madmen roaming our city streets at night for good? We may never know for sure, as Johns Hopkins is sure to deny any inquisition into the matter, but next time you or someone you know gets an organ transplant, just make sure you check twice who your donor is, especially if you live in a city where the murder rate is above 7 percent…

The Johns Hopkins Death Squad

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