Cardiologist’s link hurting energy drink

The more John Thomas talked about his friend, Dr. Conrad Murray, the sadder he became.

Just three days before reports flashed around the world that the 56-year-old Las Vegas cardiologist’s CPR attempts were unsuccessful in keeping Michael Jackson alive, Thomas had phoned Murray to invite him to the opening of the International MMA Fight Club gym in Las Vegas.

"He couldn’t have been happier then," said Thomas, staring at the floor Wednesday in the gym on Spring Mountain Road that also serves as the Southern Nevada office of Pit Bull energy products.

"He was apologetic about not being able to come to the opening, but he said he was busy with Michael."

The Pit Bull business is what binds the two men together.

Thomas, 51, is the regional sales director for the energy drink. Murray invested with a distributorship that brought the drink to his native country of Trinidad.

Thomas said the two met about five years ago through a mutual friend, financier Fabian Vincent, during filming of a Pit Bull commercial.

In his last phone call with Murray, Thomas said last week, it was evident how much Murray "liked being in the limelight, meeting all the celebrities."

And it was clear to Thomas that the $150,000 a month Murray said he was getting from Jackson was helping him through "some of the financial troubles he talked about."

"He sounded great, really upbeat," Thomas said.

Since they last spoke, Murray has become a central figure in a police investigation into the entertainer’s death. That has resulted in a media portrait of the cardiologist that Thomas doesn’t recognize.

Attempts to get Murray’s comments were unsuccessful.

Under the headline, "DOC LIKES TO PARTY," The Sun, a British tabloid, described Murray as a hard-drinking party animal who, when he isn’t promoting Pit Bull, chases younger women.

One woman identified as a "promotions girl" said he enjoyed the models he took with him to the Caribbean: "He had a ball with them. He was up into the early hours drinking and having fun and took a particular shine to one … at least 20 years younger than him."

"He enjoyed posing bare chested with the girls," she was quoted as saying.

On FOX News, Geraldo Rivera described Murray as cavorting with Las Vegas models he flew to Trinidad to help him promote "a very unhealthy" energy drink.

As the investigation into Jackson’s death unfolds in the public eye, and Murray is more frequently mentioned in tabloids and on celebrity gossip Web sites, other people associated with him in Las Vegas are trying to square the man they knew with the profile emerging in the media.

Karen Chacon, one of the models Murray helped select for the Pit Bull promotion in Trinidad in 2005, said Murray was "very respectful of the models."

"If he had a relationship with anyone, that was up to him and the model," she said.

Chacon said while Murray drank alcohol, she never saw him get drunk.

"He knew when to stop. He was very professional."

Dr. Lydia O’Connor-Sanders, a Las Vegas family practitioner and longtime Michael Jackson fan, said her own experiences with Murray make her eager to read everything about him.

At first, she said, Murray was nice "to someone just starting out," allowing her in 2004 to set up an office in the practice he shared with another doctor on East Flamingo Road. She paid a third of the rent. Repeatedly, she said, Murray tried to get her and her daughter to buy Pit Bull.

"In a nice way," she said.

"I referred patients to him for tests. I found him very pleasant and professional."

But less than a year later, she said, Murray and his colleague gave her two weeks notice that they were moving out.

"I was left holding the bag on that space," O’Connor-Sanders said. "I had to do some begging and quick talking to the leasing manager."

It was that kind of behavior, she said, that made her think that he was capable of running away from debts.

Murray has left a trail of legal and financial troubles during his 10 years in Las Vegas.

Judgments or liens totaling about $450,000 were rendered against Murray from finance and leasing firms and for failure to pay child support and student loans.

Two pending lawsuits against him, brought by Digirad Imaging Solutions and Siemens Financial Services, are seeking judgments totalling more than $366,000.

If Murray was troubled by his legal and financial troubles, O’Connor-Sanders said she didn’t see it in 2004.

"I remember how happy he was when he got a new Mercedes convertible and he drove it to the office and showed it to everyone. He got a new white lab coat from his office with his name on it so he could drive around town and show everybody that he was a doctor who made it."

When O’Connor-Sanders went to Los Angeles for a week to mourn Jackson’s death, she was interviewed by a TV reporter. She wondered why the man she knew as a competent cardiologist only performed manual CPR, as has been reported in the media.

"You would have thought he would have had much more on hand for an emergency," O’Connor-Sanders said. "There are so many questions that need answering."

Val Dorsey, who runs Val’s Cafe near Murray’s Global Cardiovascular Associates office on East Flamingo Road near Eastern Avenue, doesn’t believe the media portrayal of the physician who often stopped by her eatery.

"He’s the nicest man you’ll ever want to meet," she said. "He’s very polite and friendly."

Vincent, a Bank of George vice president who said he’s a longtime friend of Murray, finds it "terribly sad" what Murray is going through.

Vincent said he was part owner of a distribution company that was set up to bring Pit Bull to Trinidad. Murray invested heavily in the company which he said went out of business in 2007, Vincent said.

"Dr. Murray is an outstanding individual," Vincent said. "He’s a reputable physician in Las Vegas."

Still, Vincent said he didn’t want to talk at length about his relationship with his friend.

Thomas, however, doesn’t want to stop talking about Murray, particularly his relationship with Pit Bull.

As he sat with two cans of the energy drink on his knee, he worried that Pit Bull sales worldwide could be crippled by an unfair association with Murray.

"I’ve already lost two distributors," Thomas said. "And I think the main reason why is because The Sun and Geraldo said Dr. Murray was a big investor or promoter of Pit Bull. It’s all over the Internet."

Thomas said Jackson fans don’t want to drink something they think is owned by someone who was so close to Jackson when he died.

But Murray didn’t invest directly in Pit Bull, Thomas said. "He invested in a distribution company that would bring Pit Bull, bottled water and candies to Trinidad. There’s a big difference."

J.D. Michaux, a spokeswoman at Pit Bull’s corporate offices in Los Angeles, said the owner of the company is "highly upset" that his drink "is being tied" to Murray.

"It’s definitely hurting sales among Michael Jackson fans." She said the company wants "everybody to know" the distinction between investing in the drink itself and the distribution company.

Thomas said Murray’s interest in Pit Bull grew after they met during the filming of a commercial for the drink in Las Vegas.

"He particularly liked that our sugar free drink can be used by diabetics," Thomas said. "Being a doctor, he would never promote anything unhealthy."

Often, Thomas said, he would be with Murray when the doctor took the Pit Bull energy drink to other doctors for a taste test.

"And when his son was on a sports team, he took it there, too."

Frequently, Thomas said, he and Murray ate at local restaurants, including the steak house at the Palms and the El Patron on Flamingo Road. He only met Murray’s wife once and described her as a "housewife" who took care of the couple’s young boy and girl.

"He really liked to eat out more than anything," he said. "Most of the time it seemed he was a workaholic either here or at his Houston office."

Thomas said Murray has a big heart.

"I have high blood pressure, and every time I came by his office he had his staff check it at no cost. And one time, when he learned that the sponsor of the girl who won Miss USA International dropped his financial support for a trip to the Dominican Republic, he gave her $4,000 for the trip and hotel and to cover her gowns and outfits."

Thomas said he wasn’t surprised when he found Murray became Jackson’s personal physician.

"One time when Michael was in town, Dr. Murray said he helped his (Jackson’s) daughter," he said. Thomas said Murray did not detail the nature of this help.

Thomas said he doesn’t know what kind of money problems Murray had, only that he mentioned them.

Stories about Jackson having several doctors, as well as a prescription drug habit, worries Thomas.

"It’s hard to say ‘no’ when the man who is doing the asking is also paying you," he said of the relationship between Murray and Jackson. "I don’t know too many people who can say ‘no’ to $150,000 a month."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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