He Avenged His Son’s Murder—And Exposed the Opioid Crisis in America
The new Netflix docuseries “The Pharmacist” tells the story of Dan Schneider who embarked on a crusade to catch his son’s killer—and shady opioid dealers.
Grief can paralyze, cripple and even destroy those caught in its terrible grip. Yet sometimes, it can also inspire people, even to the point of obsession. Dan Schneider fell into the latter category, and through his crazy crusading work, he not only achieved justice for his loved ones but also gave meaning to the loss that decimated his life—by saving others in desperate need.
Schneider isn’t a household name, but Netflix’s new four-part docuseries The Pharmacist (premiering Feb. 5) should go some way toward elevating his national profile. A resident of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, Schneider began working as a pharmacist at local Bradley’s Pharmacy in 1975. Over the next couple of decades, he solidified his position as a trusted medicine man while marrying his high school sweetheart Annie and having two kids, son Danny Jr. and daughter Kristi. Theirs was a typically happy middle-class existence, full of cross-country road trips and giant Christmas trees that helped earn them comparisons to National Lampoon’s Vacation’s Griswold clan. In just about every important respect, they had it made.
That all changed on the evening of April 3, 1999, when Danny Jr. went out under false pretenses to buy crack in the neighboring Lower Ninth Ward, and was shot dead in his pickup truck during a deal gone awry. The horrific crime rocked the Schneiders, whose misery was then compounded by the fact that the notoriously corrupt New Orleans Police Department—operating in what was then the murder capital of the country—had no leads on a culprit, thanks in part to a crack-besieged Lower Ninth Ward community that prized silence, especially when it came to the cops.
Dan Schneider, however, refused to let his son’s murder go unsolved. In the face of an untrustworthy law-enforcement system, he initiated his own investigation, which included going door-to-door in areas where people—some of them violent drug dealers—didn’t take kindly to being randomly confronted by an angry and distraught middle-aged white man. Undeterred by the danger he was placing himself in (he didn’t even carry a gun), Schneider persisted. Five weeks later, police said they had an eyewitness, Jeffery Hall. Alas, his unreliability proved too great to overcome, further propelling Schneider on his quest. After phoning literally everyone who lived in the vicinity of Danny’s demise, he struck gold with Shane Redding, a wife and mother who had seen the crime take place, and could ID the perpetrator: Jeffery Hall.
Guided by countless video and audio recordings that Schneider made during this period—capturing conversations he had on the phone, and in person, with just about everyone in his orbit—The Pharmacist details the man’s mission with amazing immediacy. And if his story ended with the arrest and conviction of Hall, thanks in part to Redding’s courageous decision to take the stand, directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst’s series would be a stirring portrait of one man’s refusal to accept tragedy, and of the value of demanding justice in the face of overwhelming odds, institutional indifference, and threats to one’s well-being.
Instead, however, Schneider’s pursuit of his son’s killer is merely the beginning of what turns out to be a rousing tale about transforming anguish into activism. Even after Hall went to prison, Schneider’s sorrow continued unabated. Worse, by 2001, he began seeing scores of young adults (aged 18 to 25) coming to his place of work each day with prescriptions for OxyContin, which was then the hottest pain-medication drug on the market, courtesy of Purdue Pharma. Viewing these individuals as kindred spirits to his son, he began looking into the phenomenon. What he uncovered was the beginning of the nation’s opioid epidemic, and it all led to a single person in neighboring New Orleans East: Dr. Jacqueline Cleggett.
As The Pharmacist explicates via familiar non-fiction elements—elevated by both Schneider’s recordings and his alternately impassioned and teary interview commentary—Cleggett was a pioneer in the “pill mill” business, in which shady doctors opened clinics from which they sold prescriptions (for Oxy, Soma, and Xanax, aka “The Holy Trinity”) for cash. It was a legal drug-dealing operation, and the scores of men and women flocking to her establishment—often camping out for days, and paying $100 fees to be seen ahead of others—revealed that she was anything but a moral physician interested in her patients’ welfare. Schneider turned to the DEA, and when he learned that they were on to Cleggett but in no apparent rush to do anything about her, he took matters into his own hands, teaming with the State Board of Medical Examiners to get her license suspended.
Schneider’s fight against Cleggett (who appears on-camera to defend herself in the series’ final installment) is as brave as it is momentous. With St. Bernard Parish recognized as one of America’s most opioid-ravaged regions, the pharmacist’s campaign functioned as a catalyst for other states to go after Purdue Pharma, thereby bringing to light the prescription scourge plaguing the country. Bolstered by input from a former Purdue sales rep, who explains the profit motive that drove him and his employer, what emerges is a scathing indictment of a corporate pharmaceutical industry that willfully deceived the public in order to boost its bottom line, and, when confronted by its villainy, continued to lie about its culpability for the calamity it created.
Through it all, Schneider comes across as a man possessed, almost to an unhealthy degree; audio snippets of quarrels with his wife and daughter, both of whom want to be allowed to grieve rather than continue waging an endless personal war on drugs, illustrate that his convictions sometimes led to behavior that was, as one DEA agent puts it, “crazy and out of control.” Yet that passion also made him a force to be reckoned with, and his ability to channel his suffering in positive, proactive ways unquestionably made a dent on the blight ruining his neighborhood, and countless others like it. He may not be the flashiest subject ever highlighted by a Netflix series, but that doesn’t make him any less of a bona fide hero.