48 Hours Mystery: Addicted To Love
This story originally aired Feb. 16, 2008. It was updated Aug. 21, 2010.
When police were called to Lesa Buchanan's apartment in Franklin, Tenn., they were surprised by what they found in her home: a cache of prescription drugs and sex toys.
Detectives videotaped the scene, where lead investigator Eric Anderson says they found "a lot" of syringes.
Lesa and Dr. Christ Koulis had spent most of that final 2005 Fourth of July weekend in her bedroom. "They stayed in that apartment that weekend engaged in this marathon sex session," Anderson says.
The detective says collecting all the evidence was a massive undertaking.
Most crucial, say detectives, was the discovery of used syringes, with traces of oxycodone. Oxycodone is a powerful narcotic used to kill pain; it can be a very addictive and dangerous drug. Abusers like the calming euphoria it creates, the high is immediate and potent.
"It's a controlled substance. It's something you can only get from a prescribing physician, you can't just buy it," Anderson says.
But when Lesa was rushed to the emergency room, the doctors trying to save her life say Dr. Koulis told them nothing about the drugs she had been using. In fact, paramedics say Koulis claimed Lesa collapsed after a trip to the swimming pool.
"Christ was deceptive. He totally misled them," Anderson says. "Christ stood there in that ER room and didn't tell them about the illegal drugs, didn't tell the ER staff what could have been crucial in saving her life."
Tara Bentley believed her younger sister, Lesa, did not see Koulis as she did. "I think that the rest of us just felt that any day now she would realize who he was," she says.
On paper, Koulis looked pretty good. He was a young, handsome, plastic surgeon. A graduate of Vanderbilt University, he had a thriving practice by the time he was 30. Koulis had served his internship at a Chicago hospital and loved working in the emergency room.
It was in Nashville in 2000, that Koulis had a chance meeting with Lesa. He became her boyfriend and her doctor.
Koulis says he performed numerous procedures on Lesa for free. Asked how many, he says, "A re-do breast augmentation, her eyelids, forehead, lip augmentation, liposuction. Full-face laser, Botox, collagen, the list goes on."
Lesa was a struggling to make it as an actress and model. Even at a young age, she had big dreams for herself. She auditioned for soaps and tried out for TV shows. Her most recent pursuit was to develop a children's puppet show.
But things just never clicked for Lesa, professionally or personally.
Before Koulis, Lesa has a string of failed relationships. She married young and divorced. But from that broken marriage came one of the best things in her life: her daughter, Jesse.
Jessie was happy at first when her mother met Koulis. "We just moved into this big house, and that was so cool. I got a huge room and my girlfriends came over and we had a huge, big screen TV on the wall and I thought it was cool," she remembers.
But it wasn't long, says Jesse, before she noticed how controlling the doctor was. "Once I got to know him I really didn't like him. He would always call her every 10 minutes wanting to know where she was. It was stalkerish. He was just so protective in a creepy kind of way," she says.
Lesa and Koulis were on again, off again for five-and-a-half years, and according to her sister Tara, Lesa was just about to break things off again that final weekend.
Tara had wondered if Lesa could ever break away. Lesa appeared locked in Koulis' grip even though the couple spent much of the relationship apart. He lived and practiced in other cities, and frequently called Lesa, accusing her of seeing other men.
And there was something else that concerned Lesa's family: her mother, Peggy, says Lesa was becoming ill more frequently. In fact, her family believes that Koulis would convince Lesa she was sick, and that he alone could fix her.
Asked if she ever saw Koulis give her mother drugs, Jesse says, "Yes."
She says she has a vivid childhood memory of seeing Koulis inject her mother with an unknown drug. "She fainted and I started screaming 'Mommy' and he shut the door, the bathroom door. I started banging on the door and he wouldn't let me see her," Jesse says.
Investigators now believe it was Koulis who introduced Lesa to the idea of using drugs to enhance their sexual encounters.
"I don't think there's a shred of evidence that she was a drug addict," Anderson says. The detective, like Lesa's family, believes Lesa only used drugs when Koulis gave them to her.
But Koulis claims he knew Lesa better than anyone, and like it or not, he says she was a drug addict. "She had certain demons, just like we all do. And one of them was drug abuse," he claims.
Koulis says Lesa hid her IV drug use by injecting herself in concealed areas of her body, like her groin.
But detectives aren't buying it. And after a five-month long investigation, Dr. Christ Koulis is arrested and charged with murder. They say he supplied the drugs, injected her, and that he is responsible for Lesa's death.
Charged with killing his girlfriend Lesa Buchanan, Dr. Christ Koulis faces the possibility of spending the next 25 years in prison. But he says he's innocent.
The autopsy concluded that Lesa died of an overdose of oxycodone. During the search of her apartment, detectives found only one mostly intact oxycodone pill, but the used syringes contained crushed pills and liquid mixed into a slush.
Prosecutors say Lesa was injected with that slush at least three times that weekend. And in Koulis' travel bag, detectives found an unopened 18-gauge needle, the same kind that had been used.
Koulis is not only accused of injecting Lesa with the drugs, but of supplying them as well. Despite his denials, he is about to be put on trial facing four charges, ranging from simple assault to second-degree murder.
"The evidence supports the fact that it was this defendant who was injecting Lesa Buchanan with that oxycodone mixture," argues Kim Helper, who is prosecuting Koulis.
"So what does the evidence show? It shows he didn't do it," says defense attorney Lee Ofman. "From the facts I could not see how he could be convicted of anything."
But prosecutors are convinced they have a strong circumstantial case, thanks in part to a small video cassette detectives found in Lesa's apartment. "They had videotaped these sex acts all weekend long," Anderson says.
The tape documents the final hours of Lesa's life and provides clues to her death. It is disturbingly graphic, and in some scenes Lesa seems barely conscious. So the jurors from this fairly religious and conservative southern city must sit through a screening of the entire two hours of the sex tape in open court.
"That video clearly showed she enjoyed what she was doing. She participated willingly," says Ofman.
Koulis' attorneys believe the tape is more damaging to Lesa than to their client. "I think the prosecution made a mistake in trying to portray her as just a victim with no fault. Because clearly she was not," says Ofman.
But prosecutors are convinced Koulis injected Lesa with drugs to control and dominate her.
The tape does not show who gave Lesa the injections. On the tape, Lesa is seen holding gauze against her groin, covering fresh injection marks. It's incriminating evidence, prosecutors say, against Koulis.
"The evidence on the video clearly shows Christ Koulis clearly being aware of those pads and the presence of syringes," prosecutor Kim Helper says.
On the tape, Koulis can be heard telling Lesa to apply pressure to the area to stop some bleeding. But he maintains Lesa injected herself in the groin that weekend, and that it's quite easy to do.
Not so, according to Tennessee's chief state medical examiner, Dr. Bruce Levy. "When you see a series of injections in a nice straight line like that, you know it had to have been done to her," he says.
Dr. Levy feels quite strongly that the injections in Lesa's groin were made by an expert, like a doctor. "If you're off by as much as half an inch, it could be deadly," he explains.
And making it even more difficult for Lesa to inject herself, says Levy, is the fact that she was impaired by drugs at the time. "I think it was very clear evidence that Dr. Koulis was responsible for the injection. There's just no other alternative that makes sense," he says.
To bolster that claim, Lesa's family points to a picture they say was taken just days before her death. "There was not a mark on her body. She was perfectly healthy. And there was not a sign of drug use in her behavior, her attitude one week long," Tara says.
Koulis and his attorneys believe he has no choice but to take the stand to defend himself. He tells the jury that he tried repeatedly to get Lesa to stop abusing drugs. "Lesa promised she'd stop. She'd go up and down. She'd stop and start. She'd stop and start," he claims in court.
When asked by his attorney why he didn't just leave Lesa, Koulis says, "Aside from the fact that I'm an idiot? Because I loved her and I wanted to be with her."
"And so to make her happy you looked the other way?" Troy Roberts asks.
"I was unable to stop her one way or the other. She wanted to get high and she was going to get high. What precisely was I supposed to do? Tackle her?" Koulis replies.
Not buying his defense, the prosecutor confronts Koulis about his callous behavior that weekend. He acknowledges during cross examination that though Lesa was high and wasn't walking around or alert, he still had sex with her.
In fact, the doctor repeatedly had sex with Lesa even though she had complained of shoulder and chest pain that weekend - symptoms that Koulis concedes could have signaled a heart attack.
"Lesa had a very bad headache. She was complaining of shoulder pain and left arm pain. And she was having palpitations. Her heart was beating rapidly," Koulis says.
Koulis says he continued to have sex with her because, "She said everything went away. She felt fine."
In court, Koulis admits that he was primarily thinking of himself during that weekend.
And that may have not been the only time Koulis was just thinking about himself: prosecutors are about to introduce details of a previous incident, one in which Koulis has freely admitted injecting Lesa with addictive drugs.
Prosecutors firmly believe Dr. Christ Koulis killed Lesa Buchanan that lost weekend and they say it isn't the first time he put her life in danger.
"I think it is extremely relevant and important for a jury to understand that in the past, it had been his habit to inject her with drugs," says Prosectutor Kim Helper.
Helper points to an incident in 2002 that was eerily similar. At the time, Lesa and Koulis were briefly living together in Kentucky.
"I was going through a very difficult time financially. Things were falling apart. And one day there was Demerol that was left over, and I had the really bad idea to try it. And I did. And I probably was instantly addicted to it," Koulis admits.
Koulis says he was shooting up frequently, and that he got the drug from his office.
In the midst of his own downward spiral, Koulis admits he got Lisa addicted, too. "When she asked me for it, I gave it to her. I was impaired at the time," he says. "I realized, as did certain friends of mine, that this couldn't continue. That I was not myself. That I was not productive. And I realized that I needed help."
Things got so bad that Koulis' parents intervened and came to take him to rehab. Lesa stayed behind.
Lesa's mother, Peggy, says she will never forget the condition in which she found her daughter. "It was the most horrific sight I'd ever seen in my life," Peggy says. "Bottles, syringes, blood on the floor. They had her on a mattress on the floor of the basement. She was completely incoherent."
Peggy says she and a friend quickly scooped up some of the drugs, and rushed Lesa to the hospital.
Bobby Pate of the Boone County Sheriff's Office was assigned to investigate. "She was injected in both hands, in the arms, the groin area and in the feet. They were infected, and her hands and feet were probably about twice the size as normal," Pate says.
Pate met with Lesa at the hospital and says she accused Koulis of injecting her against her will. "There were times where he chased her around the room to get her a shot when she didn't want one," Pate says. "And that he called her a hypochondriac cause she was complaining about the infections and sores and stuff and he shot her up some more."
At Koulis' trial, Helper confronts the doctor about the earlier Kentucky incident.
"She was in pretty bad shape when you left, is that true?" Helper asks.
"No ma'am. She was walking, talking, lucid," Koulis replies. "We had breakfast. She said goodbye to me at the door. I didn't just leave her in the basement and leave. That's a mischaracterization."
Maybe so, but Kentucky authorities arrested him anyway on several serious charges, including drug trafficking.
Lesa gave authorities a handwritten letter she'd received from Koulis after he entered rehab. In it, he takes the full blame for getting her hooked on pain killers: supplying them, injecting her and admitting she had no prior history of drug abuse before they met. But it wasn't enough to convict him.
Lesa's family believes he scared her out of testifying against him. They said he convinced her she was also in trouble and could lose custody of her daughter.
"Christ just absolutely convinced her she could lose Jesse and that the police were lying to her and the D.A. was lying to her and no matter what she believed him. I think the fear was so real," Lesa's sister, Tara Bentley says.
Koulis denies he made any threats, but Lesa stopped cooperating. The case against him collapsed. Koulis ended up pleading guilty to just one of the 20 drug charges and was given probation; no prison time. And within a short time he was back to practicing medicine again.
"What happened in 2002, that was horrific. We went to hell and back. She did and I did," he says.
But despite that hell, Lesa could not let go of Koulis. For her family, it was difficult to accept. "You just don't understand why, why she was listening to him," Tara says.
With jurors listening intently, Koulis accepts blame for introducing Lesa to illegal drug use. "I don't know what I was thinking. That was wrong. I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have done it to me, and I certainly sure as hell not have done it to her," he says in court. "I was responsible. I felt responsible."
If he appeared contrite when speaking to the jurors, it was a different Christ Koulis who spoke to "48 Hours" later, blaming Lesa Buchanan for her own drug problems.
Asked if he got her addicted to drugs, Koulis says, "I think the choice of addiction is her own."
"When I recognized that I was addicted I got help. I got her help. From that point on, all bets are off," he says.
Koulis says while he was "wrong" in providing the drug and syringes, it was her responsibility to "stay clean."
"I don't think I bear responsibility for her death," he says.
Guilty or not, Koulis' lawyers are hoping to throw a huge wrench into the case with experts who will testify that it was not a drug overdose that killed Lesa Buchanan after all.
Christ Koulis' defense lawyers are highly critical of what they consider sloppy police work, even suggesting that detectives failed to properly isolate Lesa Buchanan's apartment - the crime scene.
Investigator Eric Anderson says the apartment was secured almost immediately.
But mistakes were made, like losing evidence: medicine bottles from Lesa's apartment that the detectives forgot to take from the hospital the day she died.
An even bigger problem for prosecutors is a defense challenge to the very heart of this case: what killed Lesa Buchanan?
Dr. Michael Graham, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner, testifies for the defense that the drug did not kill her, but that the filler did. The filler is the powdery material used to give shape and form to the pills when they're made.
Drug abusers crush pills, mix them with liquid, and inject them into their veins for a quicker high. But Graham explains that over time, tiny particles of crushed filler can build up and clog blood vessels in the lungs. And that, he says, is exactly what happened to Lesa.
"Injecting crushed pills over a long period of time caused her death suddenly," Dr. Graham testifies.
"It took months to years to form those things. It came from Lesa injecting herself when he wasn't around," defense attorney Lee Ofman says.
But prosecutors argue that the defense theory of what killed Lesa is only partially true; that in fact it was both the filler and the narcotic working together that caused her death.
"The filler was impacting the lungs," prosecutor Kim Helper says. "The oxycodone was suppressing her breathing mechanism."
"And I would suggest to you that the evidence fully supports the state's assertion that Lesa Buchanan died at the hands of this defendant," Helper says during closing arguments.
But Ofman says there's no proof Koulis did it. "And because of that you've got to find him not guilty!"
As the case goes to the jury, Lesa's family is concerned over what the verdict may be. "We hope he is convicted. There's nothing he can say to me, there's nothing he can say to that court, there's nothing he can say to my family to change what's happened," Tara says.
So Koulis is left to wait, facing the possibility of spending his next 25 years in prison. Left unanswered is the question of how an ambitious young doctor, a plastic surgeon, ended up here.
"Dr. Koulis is an extremely intelligent person. He went into medical school at age 19, if that tells you something," Ofman says. "All he did was work, work, work. So Dr. Koulis never had the time to enjoy his youth. His immaturity caught up with him."
Standing trial for murdering his girlfriend though may be very sobering. And Lesa's family hopes the jury holds Koulis responsible for her death.
Nearly two weeks after the trial began, the jury begins deliberating in the Lesa Buchanan murder case. It's been a challenge for prosecutors, who've had only circumstantial evidence to rely on.
Jurors have four charges to consider, ranging from simple assault to second-degree murder.
The wild card is there's no telling how jurors will react to the sex video. But prosecutor Kim Helper felt she had no choice. "The evidence on the tape, from the state's perspective, was too important to not show it," she says.
In fact, just one hour into the deliberations, the jurors request to see the video again.
The jurors take less than a day to reach a verdict. Koulis is found not guilty on charges of second-degree murder and reckless homicide, but is found guilty of criminally negligent homicide.
Lesa's family members are devastated. For them, Koulis is getting away with murder. He now faces just months in prison, instead of years.
"I was really upset, almost more upset than the night when I found out, like, she passed away," says Lesa's daughter, Jessie, who ran from the courtroom in tears.
For Koulis and his attorneys, the verdict is welcome news, even with the felony conviction. "I am relieved it is over. I accept the verdict of the jury. It's a tragedy Lesa died. Should never have happened," Koulis says after the verdict.
Asked if jurors concluded that Koulis bears some responsibility for Lesa's death, Lee Ofman says, "With the finding of criminally negligent homicide, they are saying that as a doctor, he should have done more to prevent her from killing herself."
Not according to the jurors "48 Hours" spoke with. They said they didn't buy the doctor's testimony or his innocence, but felt there just wasn't any hard evidence to convict him of murder.
"A good majority of us thought that he probably did the injection. But there's no way to know for sure," one juror explains.
"They couldn't prove that he directly acted to kill her," another says.
But prosecutor Kim Helper still maintains that Koulis killed Lesa. "And quite frankly, we just didn't have a photo of Christ Koulis with a needle in his hand, injecting Lesa Buchanan," she says.
At sentencing, Judge Jeff Bivens shows little sympathy to Koulis. "While the court is mindful of the fact that the victim, Miss Buchanan, was in many ways a knowing and willing participant in the activities of that tragic weekend, that does not diminish the defendant's criminal conduct and culpability," the judge says.
He sentences Koulis to two years in prison; the maximum sentence allowed. But Koulis is expected to serve less than half of that.
After he's sentenced, it is unclear just when the doctor will be imprisoned. He leaves the courtroom not in handcuffs but on a $500,000 bond paid by his parents to keep him free while his attorneys appeal the conviction.
Koulis' limited sentence and the fact that he's free pending appeal is hard for daughter Jesse to accept.
"I get mad. I have to tell myself that I've forgiven him because in a sense we were close and I lived with him and I've lived with him for so long, too. But when the really hard days come, it's hard to forgive him," she says.
She even reached out, writing a very personal letter to Koulis.
"Chris, I have been thinking about this letter for months. It's consumed me. What do I say to the man who took my mom away? It's been a long two years and I still tell myself she's coming back… You know you're responsible for her death. And you think of me and my family and try to imagine what we have been through and how much we miss her…"
"In the end this too shall pass," Lesa's sister, Tara Bentley, says. "And some day he will stand before God."
No one could have predicted the next bizarre twist in this story. Five years after Lesa died and with his appeal still pending, Koulis was found dead at a friends apartment.
Toxicology reports just released list the cause of death as bronchial pneumonia due to opiate intoxication; a drug overdose.
Because Koulis' case was in appeal, his attorney, David Raybin was able to get his 2007 conviction dropped by the state's Court of Criminal Appeals; however, the attorney general's office is fighting to have that conviction reinstated.
Dr. Christ Koulis never served one day of his sentence in jail.
"There's no satisfaction. There's no real peace. There's no vengeance, there's no anger...there's no hate - just - you're dealt a certain set of cards," Tara says. "And you just have to do what you can with them."
The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to rule on Koulis' conviction in the next few months.
Produced By Ira Sutow and Taigi Smith
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