The Deceptive Life and Death of Kevin Lake
The 911 call was dispatched as a home invasion. It went out at 7:13 a.m. on June 22, 2017. Bryce Lake told the operator he’d heard gunshots downstairs in his family’s home. He’d yelled to his dad from upstairs—no answer—so he was hiding in a locked bedroom with a Glock and a serrated kitchen knife.
Donald Bowen, a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy, was the first to arrive at the manicured estate on Schleppi Road in Plain Township. All the doors were locked, but Bowen walked around the house and saw an open window. The screen had been cut and was flapping out, he later told detectives. Bowen climbed in using a patio chair, followed by two officers from Blendon Township.
The cops found Dr. Kevin Lake in the first-floor master bedroom, bleeding from gunshot wounds to his back, neck and head. He was alive, but a gasping, hissing sound came from his back when he breathed. Another deputy grabbed tissues from the nightstand and applied pressure to the holes. Bowen found the doctor’s son upstairs and pointed him toward the front door. The Plain Township medics arrived and rushed Dr. Lake to Grant Medical Center.
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Nineteen-year-old Bryce—who goes by his middle name instead of his first name, Jonah—was getting sick on the driveway when Bowen saw him again. Bryce was in shock. He’d also cut his hand, accidentally grabbing the knife by the blade, he told Bowen. He claimed this was the third time the house had been broken into that week, related to some court case involving his dad. Bryce told police his dad went to the FBI, but no one helped them. It all seemed fantastical.
Unknown to officers on the scene, at about 9 a.m., two representatives from the sheriff’s office were meeting with those FBI agents, who confirmed that Dr. Lake was cooperating with federal authorities against former collaborators in a sophisticated drug operation. The day before the shooting, he and his attorney walked into FBI offices holding a threatening note and a photo of Bryce that they said an intruder left in his house the previous night. The home invasion was starting to look like a hit against a key witness, who was unconscious and clinging to life.
The byzantine saga was put into motion almost two decades earlier, in 1999, when Dr. Lake established the Columbus Southern Medical Center in a drab brick building on the South Side. His wife, Dr. Susan Lake, worked with him before starting her own family practice in Gahanna in 2002 and later working at the VA hospital in Columbus. They both graduated from Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1992, the same year they were married at the age of 26. Bryce, who shares his dad’s middle name, was born six years later.
Columbus Southern was enormously successful, and Dr. Lake amassed millions of dollars. In addition to the 4,200-square-foot home on Schleppi—complete with a large barn and a dog kennel—he owned a lodge-style house on 55 acres in Canal Winchester, a 6,800-square-foot mansion on 73 acres in Leesburg and 391 acres of farmland in Columbus and Pickaway County. In 2010, Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him to the board of trustees at OU.
As his wealth grew, Columbus Southern began drawing scrutiny for the inordinate number of patients arriving each day. Lines often formed outside well before it opened, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m., according to federal court documents. The state medical board and Columbus police each investigated, but their cases stalled, says police detective David Allen. The DEA served an administrative warrant in 2010, but that also hit a wall.
The reason patients flocked eventually became clear: a never-ending supply of opioids. Columbus Southern doctors prescribed very few pain medications in 2003, court documents later revealed, but the next year the number skyrocketed to 800,000 doses. It exceeded 1 million every year after that. In 2004, about 60 percent of the med center’s patients received prescriptions for controlled substances like oxycodone, hydrocodone and Xanax. By 2010, 92 percent did.
Some patients were from the neighborhood, but as pill mills in Southern Ohio closed, people also traveled up state Route 23 from as far away as Scioto County. At its peak, 400 people per day came to pay $100 cash for their painkiller prescriptions. Proving how the secretive operation worked, or even who was running it, would require years of all-consuming investigation.
Detective Bryan Meister got to Plain Township a little after 8:30 in the morning on June 22. He joined detective Jason Evans in his cruiser to interview Bryce, who’d had his hand bandaged by medics. He rambled and struggled to explain why he’d brandished both a knife and a gun, so Meister performed a gunshot residue test. Bryce consented, saying he hadn’t fired one in months. Shortly afterward, detectives talked to Susan, who’d hurried back from the VA hospital. They’d all slept in the master suite the night before, with the door barricaded and the security system alarmed, except for a sock over a motion detector so they could move around. The Lakes, with a home full of guns, were all armed.
They were frightened by the threatening note and photo that had been left in the home the previous morning. Dr. Lake found them in an envelope in his closet, according to detectives’ reports. The intruders alluded to something invaluable in his possession, but stated that his legal situation complicated matters. They had wanted to meet to discuss it at a nearby cell tower at 3 a.m. on June 22, four hours before the shooting. The letter ended with an eccentric flourish: We look forward to working with you. Burn this letter and all its contents. Sincerely, A Friend.
The FBI didn’t buy it. Susan and Bryce said to detectives that agents told Dr. Lake to come back the following morning to take a polygraph test, figuring he wrote it himself to avoid testifying in a tax case in the ongoing pill-mill investigation. He was convinced attorneys who had provided counsel for Columbus Southern were the source of the threatening note.
After the interviews, Brad Barbin, one of Dr. Lake’s defense attorneys in the federal case, arrived to take Susan and Bryce to Grant hospital, where Dr. Lake was fighting for his life.
Hours later, once the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation finished processing the crime scene, the sheriff’s detectives were allowed into the house for the first time. The scene didn’t make any sense to Meister. Why would intruders pick an entry point more than 4 feet off the ground that required a chair or a stepladder to climb in? There were bits of blue disposable glove below the window and in the slats of the blinds, which were torn halfway down. Why had they broken in stealthily earlier that week—twice; once to take the picture of Bryce and again to drop off the printed photo and letter—and come in like elephants this time?
Any hope of getting answers from Dr. Lake disappeared a day later, on June 23, when he died at Grant. It had officially become a murder case.
David Allen, a self-described old-time narcotics detective, inherited the pill-mill case when the Columbus police loaned him to a DEA task force in the summer of 2012. He and his team set out to unravel the workings of Columbus Southern, the clinic that had stumped their predecessors. They slowly uncovered an elaborate, efficient criminal operation.
The clinic maximized the amount of medications prescribed using a customized version of a common electronic records software program as if it were a digitized rubber stamp. Visits lasted only a few minutes apiece, and employees were given bonuses for seeing as many patients as possible, with a daily minimum of 40 per doctor or physician assistant (20 would be an average caseload). Court records later revealed that workers were encouraged to “upcode” visits—for example, pretending doctors had provided care when PAs actually had—to claim more money for workers’ compensation cases.
Dr. Lake’s custom software also allowed him to monitor the business from a house across High Street. On his laptop, a series of colored dots appeared over rooms to let him know the status of each patient inside. A green dot meant a patient was waiting for a doctor. He’d call the clinic if there were too many green dots, and employees told Allen the message was “get them in and get them out.”
The remote system was one of many buffers Dr. Lake built between himself and the criminal behavior. Employees were told never to say he was the owner. He mostly stopped treating patients and kept his name off paperwork. He directly or indirectly controlled at least 35 different trusts and corporate entities that created a legal labyrinth of ownership to hide his role. Some entities were in the names of the other doctors, even though Dr. Lake ran them, and he put his mother and uncle in charge of two vital trusts so he could direct them without appearing to be the person in charge.
He and his attorney filed false tax returns for those entities, which inflated the value of equipment purchases—some of which never existed—and overstated deductions as a way to launder the pill-mill money. During a complex “sale” of the clinic, allegedly for the benefit of employees, he inflated the price to $14 million while continuing to direct all the profits to himself. He even paid himself rental fees for the use of his home as the site of corporate retreats that never took place.
In early 2013, IRS special agent Kevin Doyle joined the team to help solve the financial puzzle. He says the true nature of the operation became clear when he saw deposits from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services in Dr. Lake’s bank accounts. That can’t be, he thought, so he made a call. Sure enough, a doctor worth millions was receiving unemployment. It was all a scheme, Doyle realized.
The 2010 DEA warrant had spooked Dr. Lake, according to ensuing testimony, and he thought a raid was imminent. He sought to distance himself further from Columbus Southern, first by filing insurance claims stating he’d been struggling with a disability and had been unable to work full time. The claims were denied, but not before he was paid $18,700. Then he told the person he’d put in charge of a trust to fire him from the clinic so he could collect unemployment, another $20,855. After all, he couldn’t possibly control a business that had terminated him, right? It was deception all the way down.
In the weeks following the killing, Franklin County detectives, led by Meister and Sgt. Bill Duffer, still didn’t have a murder weapon or a witness. But the BCI crew that processed the crime scene turned up plenty of evidence, including a bullet casing from under the bed in the master suite, pieces of blue glove, multiple computers and an array of guns.
Investigators say that Barbin, the late doctor’s defense attorney, reiterated what Susan and Bryce told them on the scene: Look into the lawyers who conspired in the pill-mill case and didn’t want Dr. Lake to testify against them. The detectives discovered that the doctor had swapped phones with the family’s groundskeeper and housekeeper the day before the killing, leading them to conclude that he thought his phone was tapped after finding the threatening note. The FBI might not have believed its validity, but he clearly had.
The case turned on June 28, 2017, when detectives searched the area surrounding the Lakes’ property. Meister noticed trash waiting for pickup, which he found odd given the circumstances. They took it back to the sheriff’s office, where a detective found a sheet of paper with something cut from the center. The hole seemed to be about the size of the photo of Bryce, bordered by ink that looked like it matched. There was no reason it would be in the trash unless someone in the home printed the photo and note.
Meister had been suspicious of Bryce from the outset, and the evidence against him began piling up. The window screen had been cut from the inside, using a sawing motion, consistent with a serrated knife. On July 7, detectives obtained video of Susan arriving at work before the murder, ruling her out as the shooter. Bryce’s gunshot residue test came back positive on July 17. DNA results from the glove pieces were a match for him, too.
Lab techs found a computer document that listed 10 guns under the heading “JBL,” which they surmised stood for Jonah Bryce Lake. Nine had been pulled from the home. The only one missing was a Hi-Point 9 mm handgun, which the lab determined was the likely murder weapon. They analyzed the internet search histories of the family’s computers, yielding these results from one: latex gloves, what decibel level will wake someone up, firearms decibel chart. The computer also had a familiar image of Bryce lying in bed.
Bryce, a New Albany High School grad and student at Capital University at the time, seemed like a fairly average college kid. (He declined an interview request through his attorney, Terry Sherman.) He played video games with friends and hunted with his dad. His friends’ families generally described him to detectives as quiet or nice. But they also said he was very secretive and prone to outlandish stories; he told one girl that he was working as an international bodyguard. Two of his friends said Bryce and Dr. Lake didn’t have a good relationship, with one stating that Bryce had flat-out told him he didn’t care for his dad.
The family was strained by his mom and dad’s relationship. (Susan also declined an interview request.) A former housekeeper told detectives the first time she’d cleaned for them, Dr. Lake told her he’d cheated on Susan and was in a loveless marriage. At the crime scene, Bryce said his parents had separated over his dad’s affair years earlier. But they’d gotten back together for him despite their troubles—his dad did everything for him, Bryce said. According to investigative notes, Dr. Lake had also named him as the sole beneficiary of the family trust and his multimillion-dollar life insurance policies.
The long-anticipated DEA and IRS raid on Columbus Southern came on May 21, 2013. From the beginning, the DEA task force had gone after the clinic the way they would a traditional drug ring, attempting to pick off people on lower levels and using them to build the case. That morning, detective Allen and agent Doyle spent several hours interviewing the office manager, a point person at the pill mill who served as Dr. Lake’s proxy, directing the clinic on his behalf. They laid out the drug case implicating her, and she agreed to cooperate against Dr. Lake.
A few days after they served the warrant, effectively closing the clinic, she delivered an invaluable gift: a 100-pound computer server that detailed every pill ever prescribed at Columbus Southern. “It was just an incredible, damning piece of evidence,” Allen says. “You couldn’t get past the numbers, and the witnesses backed it up.”
The DEA interviewed anyone and everyone associated with the clinic, and all of them pointed to Dr. Lake as the man behind the curtain. Doctors and other employees went along with his scheme because the money was good, Allen says, and because he tended to hire people who were young and naïve or damaged goods. Several doctors at Columbus Southern had prior legal trouble and struggled with addictions of their own.
It took years, but one by one the dominoes began to fall. In late 2014, Dr. Terry Dragash, who’d worked at Columbus Southern for a decade, was sentenced to one year in prison for conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. The following December, Dr. David Rath and Karen Climer, the office manager, pleaded guilty to the same charge. Rath died of natural causes before he could be sentenced, and Climer eventually got six months.
By 2017, Dr. Lake’s time had come. On Jan. 30, he was arraigned in federal district court for maintaining a drug premises, tax evasion, theft and several types of fraud. As assistant U.S. attorneys Kenneth Affeldt and Richard Rolwing explained in court, Dr. Lake had laundered more than $20 million through his various schemes, and the IRS calculated that he owed $9.5 million in taxes, penalties and interest. (Marc Dunn, Dr. Lake’s tax attorney, pleaded guilty to obstructing the IRS in 2018.) Columbus Southern had taken in more than $50 million between 2004 and 2013.
As part of his deal with federal authorities, the doctor pleaded guilty to five charges that carried a sentence of five years in prison and three years of supervised release. He agreed to forfeit more than $29 million as well as his properties in Canal Winchester and Leesburg, plus the land in Columbus and Pickaway County. The goal of the deal, Rolwing told the court, was for Dr. Lake to make restitution and leave prison with a clean slate. That never came to pass.
At some point, having heard nothing from the cops in months, Bryce may have believed he was in the clear. Detectives say the case dragged on in part because there was concern from the feds. They wanted to determine definitively that it wasn’t a hit against a key witness. In November 2017, Meister got word from the lab that the paper remnants from the trash pull forensically matched the note and the photo. He and Duffer went to Capital to talk to Bryce, who instead referred them to Sherman, his attorney. The Lakes didn’t consent to any more police interviews, and Meister says they never reached out for updates on the case.
One of the pill-mill attorneys came in for an interview in early 2018 and provided an alibi for the shooting. Still, the investigation continued. The abiding question for assistant county prosecutor James Lowe was whether a jury would convict Bryce with no witnesses or murder weapon. The case was entirely circumstantial, but Lowe says, “I’ve never had so much circumstantial evidence that all pointed to the same thing.”
On Nov. 7, 2018, nearly a year and a half after the murder, Meister, Duffer and their boss, Maj. Steven Tucker, went back to Capital and arrested Bryce as he returned from class. He entered a plea of not guilty, and Sherman again put forward the notion that Dr. Lake had been killed by powerful people. That theory never made sense to authorities. A hitman would have been unlikely to leave Dr. Lake alive at the scene, and no one was able to explain how an intruder avoided tripping the alarm system.
Lowe presented the prosecution’s trove of evidence to Sherman, and in May 2019, Bryce agreed to plead guilty. As part of the deal, he told prosecutors the location of the murder weapon, the missing Hi-Point, which he’d thrown into a pond on the property in Canal Winchester. On May 22, Bryce entered his plea and received life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years. He’s now at the Correctional Reception Center in Orient.
There are things authorities still don’t know for sure. They once suspected Bryce’s motive was the insurance policies—worth more than $10 million, according to the prosecutor’s office—and the family trust. He’s never publicly stated his reason, but detectives now believe it was rooted in resentment for his dad and the way he treated his mom. Though they can’t rule out money as a factor, investigators say Dr. Lake flaunted his affairs for years. Several sources describe him as manipulative, overbearing and, above all else, controlling.
Whatever his motive, authorities believe Bryce had planned to kill his dad at the cell tower, the meeting point from the ominous letter. When Dr. Lake took the note to the FBI instead, they suspect his son felt he had to act quickly. That theory highlights the note’s paradox: It was both fake and genuine. It purported to be something it wasn’t—a threat from an intruder—but the danger it alluded to was very real. If you attempt to tell anyone else of this letter or its contents, there will be action, Bryce had written. And in fact, the intended target wound up dead.
The note was where the crimes of the Lakes collided, where the doctor’s transgressions—exposed after so long—were used as pretext for the son’s ploy. In the cop car, the day of the shooting, Bryce told detectives he didn’t have much in common with his dad. He was probably right, but they did share certain things: a family history, a middle name, an interest in guns. They both attempted to cover their crimes with elaborate fictions, one built upon the other. Agent Doyle from the IRS had realized the underlying truth six years earlier. It was all a scheme—every single thing.
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