Ten years after a grand jury report exposed a notorious Philadelphia abortionist, the lead detective in the case says he was guided by the Holy Spirit — and he’s more committed than ever to protecting the unborn.
“Life is life, and it begins at conception,” said Montgomery County Detective James Wood, who grew up in the former Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Philadelphia, and is currently an active member of another archdiocesan parish.
‘A baby charnel house’ in plain sight
Back in 2010, Wood was part of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s narcotics investigations unit, an assignment that unwittingly brought him face to face with Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose Women’s Medical Center at 3801 Lancaster Avenue served as a “baby charnel house,” according to a January 2011 grand jury report.
The facility (which featured a family practice on the second floor) also doubled as a pill mill, with Gosnell writing hundreds of thousands of fraudulent prescriptions for oxycodone, alprazolam and codeine.
While Wood and his colleagues began closing in on Gosnell’s drug trafficking, other agencies and institutions repeatedly turned a blind eye to the abortionist’s operation, including Pennsylvania’s Department of Health and Department of State, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center and the National Abortion Federation.
Such a “complete regulatory collapse” was labeled by the grand jury – whose members held “a spectrum of personal beliefs” about abortion – as “inexcusable.”
“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion,” the report stated, adding that Gosnell (who stashed hundreds of thousands in cash at his nearby house) “ran a criminal enterprise, motivated by greed.”
For decades, complaints had swirled about the facility’s deplorable conditions and unqualified staff — none of whom, besides Gosnell himself, were licensed or certified. Blood and cat urine stained blankets, furniture and floors in the space, while disposable medical supplies were reused and vital equipment was generally broken. The center’s two flea-ridden felines defecated in rooms and halls, which were too narrow for first responders to access with stretchers.
And throughout the building, stored in cabinets, bags, plastic jugs and cat food containers, were the discarded remains of infants — some in pieces, some intact (including a 19-week-old baby in the freezer), and all piled up for months on end, since Gosnell often failed to pay for authorized disposal.
Despite the filth and stench, a steady stream of low-income, mostly Black and Asian clients from several states sought late-term abortions at the practice, with Gosnell and his staff manipulating ultrasound data to make babies appear they were just past the 24-week statutory cutoff. The grand jury later found most clients’ pregnancies were “considerably more advanced.”
While he relaxed at home, Gosnell had his untrained staff administer inaccurate, dangerous mixtures of powerful drugs to induce labor and prolong sedation. By the evening, when the women were close to delivery, he would arrive at the clinic to complete the abortions – often by severing the babies’ spinal cords with scissors, a practice Gosnell called “snipping” so as to “ensure fetal demise.”
A staff worker testified that Gosnell joked one baby boy was “big enough to … walk (him) to the bus stop.”
‘Killing the baby outside or inside the womb’
As an abortionist, Gosnell didn’t see his approach as unconventional, said Wood, since he was largely incompetent as a physician.
In what became known as the May 1972 “Mother’s Day Massacre,” Gosnell used an unregulated experimental device to end the pregnancies of 15 women bused to his clinic from Chicago. Although they suffered serious complications, Gosnell was not charged, and after moving for a time to the Bahamas and then New York, he resumed his Philadelphia practice, specializing in late-term abortions that left dozens of clients infected and scarred.
In 2002, a 22-year-old woman died of sepsis after Gosnell perforated her uterus; the case was settled without charges or disciplinary action.
“His thought process was, ‘I don’t really know how to do an operation on the inside of the woman, so what’s the difference between killing the baby outside or inside the womb?’” said Wood. “I think he believed that since it was already OK for him to (perform abortions), he wasn’t adding anything different to what was going on (in other abortion clinics) anyway.”
Even when 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar – a Bhutan refugee who spoke no English – died from a fatal overdose of Demerol in November 2009, Gosnell (who delayed calling for medics and falsified reports to authorities) continued to operate his business as usual.
That is, until the Holy Spirit broke the case a few months later, said Wood.
God on the beat
Narcotics agents are “always trying to get to the head of the snake,” said the lifelong law enforcement officer, who began his career as a “summer cop” in Ocean City, New Jersey and entered the Philadelphia Police Department at age 22.
But with Gosnell, the investigation was hampered by the lack of a solid informant who could provide crucially needed details surveillance alone couldn’t yield.
Finally, “we grabbed this kid in Fishtown who was an opioid addict and a dealer,” said Wood.
Rather than arrange an undercover purchase, however, Wood was inspired to simply confront the youth directly about his supplier. After pulling him over for running a red light, Wood acted on his “spur of the moment” strategy.
“I said, ‘Listen, we know that you sell, and we know who you’re getting it from,’” he said. “And I told him, ‘You’ve got two choices: you can go to jail, or you can cooperate.’ And he cooperated.”
That informant led Wood and his colleagues to Latosha Lewis, an employee at the Women’s Medical Center who processed the fake prescription orders.
“By the time we grabbed Latosha, she admitted responsibility, and she knew what was going on there was wrong,” said Wood. “Then she went further and told us about Karnamaya Mongar, who had died.”
Unable to find the expected police report on the death, Wood went to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office. Mongar’s toxicology report showed high levels of the Demerol used at the Women’s Medical Center for anesthesia.
In response, Wood’s fellow investigator, DEA Agent Stephen Dougherty, invited the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Department of State to accompany officers on a Feb. 18, 2010 raid at the clinic – the first time in more than 15 years anyone from either agency had visited the site.
Wood, Dougherty, FBI Agent Jason Huff and their fellow officers were aghast at what they found, especially since the three lead agents (all Catholic) were “against abortions,” said Wood.
After the raid, authorities moved swiftly to shut down the clinic and suspend Gosnell’s medical license. A grand jury was convened; Gosnell, his wife Pearl (who also worked at the clinic) and his staff faced a host of charges relating to both the abortion and drug dealing operations.
In May 2013, Gosnell was found guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies, involuntary manslaughter in Mongar’s death, and 229 violations of Pennsylvania abortion regulations. Less than two months later, he was convicted on the drug charges, which added 30 years to the three life sentences he received in the abortion case.
Wood said he is still amazed by that initial impulse to give the Fishtown drug dealer an ultimatum, and by “how quickly (the case) evolved” once the narcotics investigation revealed Gosnell’s abortion operation.
“It was the Holy Spirit that guided me,” he said. “That’s what is really mysterious to me – Gosnell was on the radar for years for prescribing OxyContin, but we didn’t have the right informant.”
Mysterious ways, not secrets
Wood, who retired from the Philadelphia force in 2011, said he continues to feel that same spiritual support in his work for Montgomery County.
“I really do feel I have the Holy Spirit and St. Michael (the Archangel) guarding me,” he said. “And that understanding of the Holy Spirit … just builds as you get older.”
In particular, the rosary has become central to his prayer life – thanks to another timely tip from heaven.
With the Gosnell case gaining national attention through media and a 2018 feature film, Wood was invited to speak at a Catholic school in New York State named after St. Louis de Montfort. To prepare, Wood researched the saint and ended up buying copies of Montfort’s “Secret of the Rosary” for himself and the students.
“You’re guided to different places,” he said. “I would never have been that interested in the rosary if I didn’t look into Montfort.”
The rosary’s “simple prayers … sum everything up about Jesus dying for our sins and about his mother,” said Wood. “As soon as you understand how much Mary goes to God for us and how she’s intervened for our sake, you realize the rosary shouldn’t be a secret, but should be exposed – like abortion.”
Wood added he can’t fathom “how you could ever say you’re Catholic and agree with abortion.”
Yet he remains both hopeful and prayerful despite newly inaugurated President Joe Biden’s embrace of that very stance, underscored by promises to support a federal statute legalizing abortion if the Roe v. Wade decision is overturned.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Wood.
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