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Last April, a kilo of GBL, an illegal chemical akin to “date rape drug” GHB, made its way from China to the District. And it brought two investigators—one from the Metropolitan Police Department and one from the Department of Homeland Security—to the home of U.S. Senate staffer Fred Pagan.
“We know who you are and who you work for,” Homeland Security special agent Mark Waugh told Pagan, 49. “That’s the reason we didn’t break down your door.”
Later, Pagan’s lawyer would claim Waugh’s remark was a threat to expose Pagan’s hidden life—a volatile mix of hard drugs and gay sex—to his longtime boss and father figure, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS). But for now, Pagan’s job had just saved his front door.
Waugh said he knew who Pagan was. But Pagan’s real identity changed depending on who was describing him. To Cochran, Pagan was a loyal staffer trusted with access to the senator’s bank account and apartment. To the senator’s daughter, he’s nearly a member of the family after he cared for Cochran’s late wife. For his Senate coworkers, he was the self-serious staffer who instructed party-minded interns on how to wear their gas masks.
To some members of the District’s gay community, Pagan was a loyal but increasingly distant friend. To some other men around the D.C. area, Pagan was a sex partner, reliable drug connection, and, for one man, a key player in a cross-country drug trafficking scheme.
As investigators led a drug dog through Pagan’s Sixteenth Street Heights home, they seized possessions that were less Senate staffer and more stash house. Pagan had hundreds of dollars in cash, a scale, and plastic bags sized for individual portions of methamphetamine. In his bedroom, Pagan kept methamphetamine in a safe. Under his mattress, investigators discovered more than 100 grams of pure meth.
Pagan’s position in the Senate might have earned him a discreet search from investigators, but he was arrested anyway.
Now Cochran—and everyone else in his life—would know about the drugs.
Pagan’s arrest, characterized as the result of a sex-for-drugs scheme, earned media coverage from Politico to People magazine. Pagan was suspended from his position as Cochran’s office manager. A statement from Cochran’s staff described the senator as “deeply saddened.”
In August, Pagan pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Now, as he faces years in prison at his sentencing this Friday, investigative and court records show how an intimate to one of Washington’s most powerful senators became a supplier in Washington’s drug-fueled “party and play” sexual lifestyle.
In 1983, a semester-long Senate page internship in Cochran’s Senate office offered the 16-year-old Pagan temporary respite from an abusive upbringing. When his semester ended, Pagan would face a return to closeted life in Biloxi.
Instead of going back to Mississippi, Pagan asked Cochran—then a freshman senator—if he could work in the office for the whole school year. Except for a few years in the 1990s, Pagan would never leave again.
Pagan’s work for Cochran extended off Capitol Hill. Cochran’s daughter, Kate Cochran, recalls Pagan caring for her mother, Rose Cochran, as Rose began a decline that would put her in a nursing home for 13 years. While many of Pagan’s own relatives disowned him for being gay, he was a fixture at Cochran weddings and funerals. One friend remembers Pagan coaxing Rose to smile for a picture, even as she was stricken with dementia.
“One family has always stood by Fred—the Cochrans,” Pagan’s lawyer, Kobie Flowers, wrote in court papers. Flowers declined to comment for this story.
While Pagan’s importance in Cochran’s office increased, so did his interest in drugs. Pagan would later tell police that he used meth in the early 2000s, only to drop it for a decade. By last year, though, Pagan had used his six-figure Senate salary to establish a drug habit so prolific that the investigators on his case suspected he was lying about it.
With the help of his sexual partners, Pagan burned through an ounce of meth and a half-kilo of GBL each month. In an interview with police, Pagan said the drugs were his sexual “currency.” He would smoke some meth with his partners, drink some GBL, then sleep with them.
“I hope people didn’t come over just for that,” Pagan said.
In letter to U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell on Pagan’s behalf, his friends and family speculate that Pagan turned to drugs in an attempt to win acceptance. One of his friends describes his spiral “as something that just happens” to some gay men in the District.
“I would equate [the meth and GBL] more to refreshments, for lack of a better term, at any regular party,” the friend wrote.
In November 2014, Cochran faced his sixth re-election campaign for his Senate seat. That’s also when Pagan started using meth again, according to court records.
Cochran easily beat his Democratic general election opponent. But earlier in the campaign, supporters of Cochran’s Tea Party primary challenger launched a bizarre plot against some of the most important people in Pagan’s life.
Looking to prove that Cochran was cheating on his wife with a staffer—whom he would later marry after his wife’s death in December 2014—conservative activists launched a scheme to photograph Rose Cochran in her nursing home. The scheme resulted in criminal charges and the suicide of one alleged participant.
“I have to think this stress was acute for Fred and contributed to the poor choices that he’s made,” one Cochran staffer wrote in a letter.
Pagan’s mixing of drugs and sex grew even more reckless. In early 2015 on a hook-up site, Pagan met a younger nursing student who dabbled in drug-dealing. Pagan says he started buying cheap eightballs of meth from the student, whom Washington City Paper isn’t naming because he hasn’t been charged in the investigation.
As the student’s drug business expanded, he started flying to California to score meth to distribute in the District. To get the drugs across the country, the student mailed the packages to Pagan.
Pagan had already figured out how to order GBL online from China and Poland. But the student’s arrangement allowed Pagan to order an ounce of meth at a time. In a report made after Pagan’s arrest, a forensic psychiatrist speculates that Pagan took the packages and risked his career because he was in love with the aspiring nurse.
Pagan’s attorney has asked for three years of probation at Friday’s sentencing, where Cochran is expected to speak on his behalf. Prosecutors, who say Pagan misled them about the source of some of his meth, have asked Howell for as much as seven years in prison.
But for the Senate page turned staffer turned drug connect, the harshest punishment may be behind him. In a letter to the judge, Cochran’s new wife, Kay Webber Cochran, writes that Pagan’s “greatest regret” was disappointing his friends—and disappointing Thad Cochran was the worst of all.