Investigation Reports. Police, Pharmacists, Physicians, and Healthcare providers indicate the problem is compounded by a small number of Doctors who write prescriptions for the sole purpose of making money and from unscrupulous Pharmacies willing to provide controlled medications to anyone with the money to purchase them. OxyContin® represents the most commonly abused pharmaceutical.
The operation of a drug trafficking network peddling prescription drugs for profit under the guise of a medical practice not only violates the law, but it also undermines the public confidence in the healthcare profession.
As a pharmacy that fills prescriptions for opioids and other dangerous drugs, they have an obligation to fill only legitimate prescriptions. The defendants failed to comply with that obligation, and thereby failed in their responsibility to prevent the opioids from being diverted into illicit channels. The defendants went from pharmaceutical provider to drug dealer when they knowingly provided controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose. This egregious behavior by a trusted individual and entity not only fuels the fire of the opioid epidemic, but also wreaks havoc on the community they serve.
“From pharmacist to pill pusher, Daniel Russo betrayed his years of medical training to pocket dirty money in return for illegally selling enormous amounts of oxycodone, which was invariably later sold on the streets,” stated United States Attorney Peace.
Russo owned and operated Russo’s Pharmacy in Far Rockaway, Queens. Between March 2011 and June 2014, Russo conspired with others, including medical professionals and employees, to fill fraudulent prescriptions for oxycodone and dispense thousands of oxycodone pills in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Over the course of the conspiracy, Russo’s co-conspirators delivered hundreds of fraudulent oxycodone prescriptions to Russo’s Pharmacy and would then retrieve the filled prescriptions—written out in various patients’ names—so that they could be dispensed elsewhere.
Oxycodone illegally distributed by Russo led to at least one non-fatal overdose. Russo accepted payment mostly in cash for the prescriptions. Russo then hid the proceeds from the scheme and filed false corporate income tax returns for his pharmacy for the years 2013 through 2016, omitting the illegal proceeds. Russo also filed false individual income tax returns for the years 2012 through 2016. In total, Russo failed to report over $1 million in earnings, much of it generated from his oxycodone distribution scheme. As a result, Russo fraudulently underreported his tax obligations on those earnings by over $400,000.
More than a dozen physicians for whom Russo filled prescriptions have since been convicted of crimes related to the distribution of oxycodone.
This case is the latest in a series of federal prosecutions by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York as part of the Prescription Drug Initiative.
DEA Special Agent in Charge Frank Tarentino said “Through today’s sentencing and prior plea, it is apparent that Daniel Russo will spend the next five years contemplating his ill-fated decision to use his business to illegally distribute prescription medication while enabling opioid addiction throughout New York. The investigation and prosecution meticulously brought to justice Russo’s tax fraud and his role in a major drug trafficking conspiracy.
“Russo distributed highly addictive drugs to the community he served, completely disregarding his sworn code of ethics as a pharmacist. And while using his position to commit criminal acts, he then failed to report and pay taxes on the proceeds of his illicit sales. It is with strong law enforcement partnerships that we were able to ensure Russo is now facing justice for his actions,” stated IRS-CI Special Agent-in-Charge Fattorusso.
The Drug Enforcement Agency is committed to keeping our communities safe and healthy and will hold registrants accountable by ensuring they are in compliance with the law.
Nor-Cal Pharmacies Inc., doing business as Lockeford Drug, and pharmacist/owner Lawrence Howen knew or deliberately ignored that they were dispensing controlled substances pursuant to prescriptions that were not for a legitimate medical purpose. Specifically, the injunction states that the defendants dispensed 116,330 pills, including more than 100,000 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, based on invalid prescriptions presented by Joe Anthony Bernal, a defendant charged in the Northern District of California in a separate criminal case. They did so despite circumstances that were highly suggestive that Bernal was not presenting them with legitimate prescriptions. As also stated in the injunction, the defendants took no steps to determine the validity of Bernal’s purported prescriptions and were not concerned if those medications caused patient harm. Bernal is charged with conspiring with several others to illegally acquire and distribute oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Sokari “Momma” Bobmanuel, 63, was sentenced to 14 years in prison following her conviction at trial for conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances. Alantha Stewart, 42, was sentenced to 10 years in prison following her guilty plea to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute and dispense controlled substances.
According to court documents, from May 2018 to August 2019, Bobmanuel was the Owner and Pharmacist-in-Charge of Cornerstone Rx Pharmacy, which illegally distributed nearly 160,000 opioid pills, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, often based on prescriptions issued by Jonathan Rosenfield, M.D., and others from Sunnyside Medical, which consisted of two Houston-area pill-mill clinics.
Investigators said through Cornerstone, Bobmanuel distributed controlled substances “outside the scope of professional practice, and without a legitimate medical purpose,” to individuals who brought prescriptions in the names of other people. These people then sold the pills they bought from Cornerstone illegally. Bobmanuel charged exorbitant prices for the pills – often $1,200 for a single oxycodone prescription – generating over $1 million from the scheme, the DOJ stated.
Stewart, who authorities said co-owned and co-operated the Sunnyside Medical pill-mill clinics, doing business as Sunnyside #1 and Sunnyside #2, and her co-conspirators issued prescriptions for opioids, including about 752,000 pills of oxycodone and 419,000 pills of hydrocodone, under co-owner and co-conspirator Rosenfield’s name, outside the usual course of professional practice.
“The prescriptions often were issued to individuals paid by drug dealers to pose as patients, and the pills ultimately were diverted to the illegal market,” a news release from the DOJ said. “From May 2018 to August 2019, the Sunnyside Medical clinics made approximately $5.4 million from the sale of the prescriptions of these drugs.”
Co-defendants Rosenfield and Elmer Taylor pleaded guilty to conspiracy. The DEA Houston Division and FBI Houston Field Office investigated the case.
The Justice Department alleged that, from 2017 onward, Mr. Beckman and his employees ignored red flags and filled prescriptions while knowing they were illegitimate, violating the Controlled Substances Act. The dosages of opioids given out by Beckman’s Pharmacy were far larger than recommended, the government claimed. Patients could pay cash for their medicine even when they had prescription insurance.
Part of these order fills included prescriptions for combinations of drugs that are not medically legitimate and are sought by drug users for recreational purposes.
More than 10 patients died within 10 days of getting their prescriptions filled at Beckman’s Pharmacy, according to the Justice Department.
According to court documents, Kent Lyons, 52, of Houston; Roquel Turner, 47, of Manvel; and Traunce Alfred, 43, of Baytown, are charged with illegally distributing controlled substances, including oxycodone and hydrocodone. From August 2017 until late 2022, Lyons and Turner allegedly operated pill-mill pharmacies as fronts to obtain opioids in their highest-strength and immediate-release pill form. They then allegedly sold the drugs on the black market – without the involvement of patients, prescriptions, or doctors – to drug traffickers like Alfred. Lyons and Turner allegedly concealed the drug proceeds using numerous bank accounts and real estate transactions. Lyons also allegedly used some of the proceeds to purchase luxury items, including a Rolls Royce, a Ford F-250, and a Mercedes Maybach.
According to court documents, starting around December 2020, Dwain Ross, 52, and Delores Mackey-Ross, 43, both of Pearland, along with licensed pharmacist Ann Nguyen, 30, of Stafford, allegedly used pharmacies to illegally distribute and dispense nearly half a million pills of oxycodone and hydrocodone. Dwain Ross and Mackey-Ross, along with David Ross, 53, of Houston; Kevin Peterson, 56, of Pearland; and Eleanor Marsh, 56, of Fulshear, also allegedly illegally ordered the opioid potentiators alprazolam, carisoprodol, promethazine with codeine – which are reported to enhance the high from opioids – from a pharmaceutical wholesaler and a pharmaceutical sales representative then allegedly illegally distributed the opioid potentiators in bulk. Dwain Ross and Mackey-Ross allegedly used numerous bank accounts and real estate transactions to conceal their ill-gotten gains. Dwain Ross also allegedly used some of the drug proceeds to purchase a Lamborghini.
The pharmacies alleged in the indictments to have been controlled by the defendants’ drug trafficking organizations are K Med Pharmacy, Nex Gen Pharmacy, TX United Pharmacy, Power Center Pharmacy #2, DR Pharmacy, and Nu Care Pharmacy. Several other pharmacies, including P&A Pharmacy and Pearland Holistic Pharmacy, voluntarily surrendered their DEA Registration numbers, which a pharmacy needs to legally purchase pharmaceutical opioids and other controlled substances.
The attorney general focused on Walgreens’ distribution of opioids throughout Florida. One of the arguments in court filings highlights how a Walgreens drug distribution center sold 2.2 million tablets to a single Walgreens pharmacy in Hudson, roughly a six-month supply for each of its 12,000 residents.
Another example listed in court filings accused the company of increasing drug orders by as much as 600%, including supplying a town of 3,000 with 285,000 orders of oxycodone in a one-month period.
Jacksonville Pharmacist, Pharmacy Owner Sentenced for Illegally Filling Drug Prescriptions Issued by South Georgia ‘Pill Mill’ Doctor (U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Georgia, July 22, 2022)
BRUNSWICK, GEORGIA: A pharmacist and a pharmacy owner were sentenced for a white-coat operation that illegally distributed more than half a million opioid pills and other drugs.
Gilbert Nelson Weise Jr., 58, of Fleming Island, Florida, was sentenced to 46 months in prison, fined $5,000, and ordered to serve three years of supervised release after completion of his prison term, said David H. Estes, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. Weise previously pled guilty to Conspiracy to Distribute and Dispense Schedule IV Controlled Substances.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood also sentenced Amy G. Taylor, 43, of Green Cove Springs, Florida, to four years of probation and a $5,000 fine after she pled guilty.
“These defendants opened the floodgates to opioid abuse by unlawfully dispensing massive amounts of prescription drugs into an uncontrolled environment,” said U.S. Attorney Estes. “They hid behind their lab coats and professional affiliations to become nothing more than illegal drug dealers.”
Five others were previously sentenced after pleading guilty for their roles in the criminal activity, which spanned from about October 2014 through June 2017, primarily in St. Mary’s, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. David Joseph Muyres, 60, of Fleming Island, Florida; Mark Alan Ciopryna, 53, of Jacksonville, Florida; and Silverly Ann May, 51, of St. Augustine, Florida. Courtney G. Gilley, 42, of Fleming Island, FL., and Rhonda G. Weise, 65, of Fleming Island, FL, served probationary terms after pleading guilty. The eighth defendant, a physician, was charged in the indictment but was determined to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.
“Addressing the diversion and abuse of opioids, as well as other controlled pharmaceuticals, continues to be one of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top priorities,’’ said Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division. “The defendants in this case admitted to running a ‘pill mill’ and dispensing large quantities of controlled substances. This investigation was a success because of the spirited level of law enforcement cooperation.”
As described in court documents and testimony, Gilbert Weise Jr. and others conspired to dispense hydromorphone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, among other drugs, for no legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice, through prescriptions from a nominal pain management clinic known as Coastline Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Inc., in St. Mary’s, Georgia.
Coastline generated significant amounts of cash by illegally dispensing controlled substances to drug-seeking customers who typically paid approximately $300 cash in exchange for prescriptions. When pharmacies began refusing to fill Coastline’s prescriptions because of suspected improper dispensation, Gilbert Weise Jr. was recruited to fill Coastline’s prescriptions at the Weise Prescription Shop in Jacksonville.
Evidence presented in court revealed that Weise unlawfully dispensed more than 500,000 pain pills, sold 100,000 hydromorphone pills to a drug dealer for $100,000, and frequently filled stacks of pain pill prescriptions presented and paid for by multiple drug dealers.
During the conspiracy, Weise Prescription Shop, a small locally owned pharmacy, was the top purchaser of hydrocodone powder in the United States and the eighth largest purchaser of oxycodone powder in the United States. Weise Prescription Shop purchased more than 17 kilograms of opioid powder to meet the high demand for opioids from Coastline.
In 2015, Amy Taylor, along with Gilbert Weise Jr.’s wife, Rhonda Weise, and Rhonda Weise’s daughter, Courtney Gilley, purchased Coastal RX Pharmacy in Jacksonville, Florida. Coastal RX Pharmacy began filling large numbers of Coastline’s illegal prescriptions shortly after its acquisition. Coastal RX was financed in part with a $120,000 loan from Ciopryna. Ciopryna loaned the money with the understanding that it would be repaid in installments of opioid pills that he could then sell on the street for profit. Each of the three co-owners of Coastal RX Pharmacy admitted that they knew of and concealed the unlawful conspiracy.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Savannah Resident Office and Southern District of Georgia U.S. Attorney’s Office.
HOUSTON, TEXAS. Those charged include medical providers, clinic owners and managers, pharmacists, pharmacy owners and managers as well as drug dealers and traffickers. Their actions allegedly resulted in the diversion of approximately 23 million oxycodone, hydrocodone and carisoprodol pills.
The owner and pharmacist in charge at one pill mill pharmacy allegedly dispensed the second highest amount of oxycodone 30mg pills of all pharmacies in the entire State of Texas in 2019, and the 9th highest amount in the nation. 100% of the oxycodone dispensed by this pharmacy – every single oxycodone pill that left the premises – was in the highest available dosage strength of that drug.
To maintain the appearance of legitimacy, HEALTHFIT, Pharmacists and their HEALTHFIT co-conspirators would sell pharmaceutical drugs with high street value to individuals posing as patients. These individuals came to HEALTHFIT from crew leaders—co-conspirators whose role was finding the patients, obtaining their prescriptions by whatever means necessary, and paying HEALTHFIT hundreds of dollars in cash for the drugs, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, alprazolam, carisoprodol, and promethazine with codeine syrup (or for combinations thereof), to sell on the black market for profit.
Pharmacists and their HEALTHFIT co-conspirators used their statuses as a licensed pharmacies, pharmacists, and technicians, and, where applicable, their DEA Registration Numbers, to dispense the controlled substances named. In return, they were rewarded with cash for the drugs in amounts well over the market value of legitimate prescriptions for the drugs.
Pharmacist-In-Charge JEREMY BRANCH, licensed by the Texas State Board of Pharmacy at HEALTHFIT from February 2017 to around September 2017.
Pharmacist ARTHUR NATHANIEL BILLINGS owned and operated HEALTHFIT.
FRANK COOPER was a Relief Pharmacist at HEALTHFIT.
DEANNA MICHELLE WINFIELD-GATES was a Relief Pharmacist at HEALTHFIT.
DONNA ELAINE HOOPER was a Pharmacy Technician at HEALTHFIT.
“This type of criminal activity is, in part, what is fueling the 68,500 overdose deaths per year across the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Houston Division. “The DEA and our numerous law enforcement partners will not sit silently while drug dealers wearing lab coats conspire with street dealers to flood our communities with over 23 million dangerous and highly addictive pills.”
“The doctors, nurses and pharmacists in this case allegedly misused their positions, violating the trust of the public they took an oath to serve. Together with their co-conspirators, these medical professionals released millions of highly addictive drugs onto the streets of our community. FBI Houston remains committed to working alongside our federal, state, and local partners to combat this epidemic and protect our neighborhoods.”
A pharmacist’s professional responsibility includes looking for certain patterns (i.e., “red flags”) that are relevant to preventing the non-therapeutic dispensing of controlled substances. If a pharmacist suspects that a patient is attempting to obtain controlled substances for non-therapeutic purposes (i.e., the pharmacist cannot resolve the “red flags” presented), the pharmacist must access Texas Prescription Monitoring Program for information on the patient.
Three Houston-area pharmacists, a doctor, and a pharmacy technician have been arrested for allegedly running three pharmacies and two clinics as “pill mills;” distributing hydrocodone, oxycodone, and other controlled drugs without a legitimate medical purpose.
According to court documents, since January 2018, Chrisco Pharmacy (Chrisco), Keystone Pharmacy (Keystone), and Peoples Pharmacy (Peoples) illegally dispensed nearly four million pills of the Schedule II opioids hydrocodone and oxycodone. Keystone owner and pharmacist-in-charge Anthony Obute, 46, of Houston, was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas for illegally distributing and dispensing hydrocodone and the Schedule IV muscle relaxer carisoprodol.
According to the filed criminal complaint leading to Obute’s arrest on Dec. 2, Obute operated Keystone as a pill mill, illegally distributing hydrocodone and oxycodone. The complaint further alleges that from about September 2018 to about September 2020, Obute directed Keystone to purchase around 1.1 million of the highest-strength, short-acting hydrocodone and oxycodone pills commercially available, which he then sold to so-called “crew leaders,” or drug traffickers who pay individuals to pose as patients in order to obtain pills to sell onto the black market.
Ophelia Emeakoroha, 50, of Pearland, was arrested on Dec. 2 on a criminal complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that Emeakoroha, the pharmacist-in-charge at Peoples, illegally distributed and dispensed hydrocodone and oxycodone. According to court documents, from about Jan. 1, 2019, to about Dec. 31, 2019, Emeakoroha caused Peoples to purchase around 250,000 of the highest-strength, short-acting hydrocodone and oxycodone pills commercially available, which she then sold to crew leaders in a scheme similar to Keystone’s.
Shivarajpur Ravi, M.D., 65, of Houston, was arrested on Dec. 2 on a criminal complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that he operated two pill-mill clinics in the Houston area, which he used to illegally distribute and dispense hydrocodone and carisoprodol. According to court documents, undercover officers obtained illegitimate prescriptions from Ravi, once in 2020 at his clinic operating out of 12555 Ste. B Gulf Freeway in Houston, and again at a new clinic located at 3333 Bayshore Dr., Ste. 250, Pasadena, which he opened in 2021. The papers detail how crew leaders were observed paying for groups of patients, filling out their paperwork, and coaching them on what to say to the doctor as they waited to be seen. The 2020 purported consult with Ravi is alleged to have lasted less than two minutes, after which officers had the prescription filled at Keystone. In both cases, the visit ended with Ravi prescribing large quantities of hydrocodone and carisoprodol.
A few weeks prior to the arrests of Obute, Emeakoroha, and Ravi, Christopher Obaze, 61, of Richmond, and Eric Tubbe, 36, of Rosenberg, were arrested on charges brought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas related to their alleged illicit operation of Chrisco as a pill mill. The eight-count indictment alleged that in doing so, Obaze and Tubbe conspired to illegally distribute and dispense hydrocodone and oxycodone, maintained Chrisco as a drug-involved premises in proximity to a facility for children, and laundered their ill-gotten gains, using the proceeds to promote the enterprise, depositing cash in amounts below $10,000 to avoid bank reporting requirements, and transferring the proceeds through numerous accounts to obscure the funds’ origins. Obaze was also charged with tax crimes. According to court documents, from around January 2018, to around October 2021, Obaze was the pharmacist-in-charge and Tubbe was a pharmacy technician at Chrisco, which the two men used as a front to purchase and then illegally sell around 2.25 million of the highest-strength short-acting hydrocodone and oxycodone pills commercially available. The indictment alleges that Obaze and Tubbe sold the pills, in bulk, directly to drug traffickers, without the involvement of doctors, prescriptions, or patients. Federal charges related to the illegal distribution of Schedule II opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, which all of the indicted defendants face, carry statutory maximums of 20 years in prison. Obaze and Tubbe are both charged with money laundering crimes that carry statutory maximums of 10 and 20 years in prison, while Obaze’s tax charges carry a statutory maximum of three years. Houston Police Department.
When Ashwani Sheoran showed up for early morning shifts at pharmacies in rural Michigan wearing his white Walmart smock, he often found customers waiting, desperate for bottles of pain pills.
“I see my patients, 15 to 20, already lined up to get prescriptions filled for morphine sulfate, oxycodone and other straight narcotics,” he said.
Sheoran told NPR he kept seeing what the Drug Enforcement Administration considers “red flags.” Patients were driving long distances to buy their pills from Walmart. They couldn’t explain why they needed such powerful opioid doses.
He started raising alarms, sending emails to his bosses in Michigan and to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas. He warned that their pharmacies were feeding a black market for opioids like Oxycontin.
What happened next made him angry. “They start putting more pressure on me to just be quiet and not to say anything more,” Sheoran said.
But Sheoran wasn’t alone in raising concerns. An NPR investigation, based on interviews and government court filings, found that Walmart pharmacists warned for years about opioid sales that appeared dangerous or illegal.
He said red flags kept popping up. Prescriptions weren’t filled out properly, and physician signatures sometimes appeared to be printed by a computer. When he tried to reach doctors to find out what was happening, he often couldn’t get them on the phone.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, doctors write prescriptions for their patients, but pharmacists are required to serve as a kind of second gatekeeper. It’s their job to make sure that powerful, highly addictive drugs like opioids are dispensed and sold only for legitimate medical purposes.
Sheoran said he often rejected suspicious prescriptions. Police records and emails reviewed by NPR show he also notified local police and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was later suspended and then fired by Walmart.
Internal company documents made public as part of a Justice Department lawsuit against Walmart show pharmacists all over the country warned Walmart executives about opioid sales that appeared unsafe.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – Rosemary Ofume and Donatus Iriele, the husband and wife owners of Medicine Center Pharmacy, were convicted after a three-week jury trial on federal drug and money laundering charges for illegally dispensing controlled narcotics to customers of the “pill mill” pain clinic across the street. They were convicted of a drug trafficking conspiracy, three counts of illegally dispensing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice, and a money laundering conspiracy, in connection with their operation of Medicine Center Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, Iriele was convicted individually of five counts of concealment of money laundering and laundering more than $10,000 of criminally derived property.
“Like the rest of the country, the state of Georgia continues to experience the devastating impact of the opiate epidemic,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn. “These defendants used their pharmacy to supply pills to patients of a known “pill mill.” Physicians, pharmacists, and other medical professionals that prey on drug addicts and feed their addictions in order to make a profit are simply drug dealers in white coats.”
Daniel R. Salter, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, said, “It is a sad commentary when trusted individuals in the medical community hide behind the veil of legitimacy to commit criminal acts. These pharmacists can no longer fill the opiate cravings of pill-seeking addicts with impunity. Owners and operators of pill mills spin a broad web of deception, reeling in casts of thousands who are addicted to pharmaceutical drugs. This investigation was a success because of the spirited level of law enforcement cooperation.”
“The reckless, illegal dispensing of controlled substances results in addiction and death,” said James E. Dorsey, Acting Special Agent in Charge, IRS Criminal Investigation. “The abuse of Oxycodone and other controlled substances has become an epidemic which is destroying lives and communities throughout the country. Rosemary Ofume, Donatus Iriele, and others who operate pill mills in the Northern District of Georgia can expect to be investigated, prosecuted, and sent to prison in the same way as other drug traffickers who push poison in our communities.”
“These convictions have removed a huge tumor from the cancer that illicit drug distribution has become during our lifetime. The hard work invested in this case by all parties, from the U.S. Attorney’s office to the boots on the ground front-line drug agents and everyone in between, proves what dedication, persistence, and cooperation can accomplish. It’s proof positive that just because you have a license to practice pharmacy, you aren’t entitled to put illicitly prescribed drugs on the street and contribute to the skyrocketing opioid addiction and overdose death rates. All healthcare professionals are on notice to remember: you are to do no harm. And if you intentionally ignore this charge, you are going to be treated the same as a street-corner drug dealer in this war on opioid abuse,” said Rick Allen, Director, Georgia Drugs & Narcotics Agency.
According to U.S. Attorney Horn, the charges and other information presented in court: In May 2009, agents of the DEA, working with agents for the IRS, began investigating the AMARC pain clinic, located in Atlanta, Georgia, and nearby Medicine Center Pharmacy, after receiving information that the clinic and pharmacy were illegitimately prescribing and dispensing pain pills to drug addicts and drug dealers.
The investigation revealed that Godfrey Ilonzo financed and operated at least eight clinics in the metro Atlanta area under the “AMARC” name, including the Lakewood pain clinic and one in Tyrone, Georgia. Bona Ilonzo (Godfrey Ilonzo’s wife) served as the office manager at the Lakewood AMARC pain clinic. At various times, Dr. Nevorn Askari and Dr. William Richardson served as the primary doctors for the AMARC pain clinics. Rosemary Ofume and Donatus Iriele operated the Medicine Center Pharmacy across the street from one of the pain clinics. Godfrey and Bona Ilonzo, as well as Drs. Askari and Richardson pleaded guilty to charges related to their conduct at the clinic.
Ofume and Iriele worked together with the Ilonzos and Drs. Askari and Richardson to facilitate the dispensing of Oxycodone pills and other opiates to addicts and distributors. After customers received prescriptions from Askari and Richardson for medically inappropriate and potentially lethal combinations of opiates and other controlled substances, clinic staff told customers to fill their prescriptions across the street at “Rosemary’s Pharmacy” (Medicine Center Pharmacy operated by Ofume and Iriele). Many of those customers traveled to the AMARC clinics and Ofume/Iriele’s pharmacy from counties throughout Georgia and from other states (including Alabama and Ohio).
Customers waited for hours at the Lakewood AMARC pain clinic and paid cash to receive prescriptions for Oxycodone or Hydrocodone, Xanax, and Soma (the “holy trinity” for resale on the street) before purchasing the pills at high prices from Ofume and Iriele’s pharmacy. Employees at the AMARC clinics and Ofume and Iriele’s pharmacy received discounts and special treatment, including free office visits and reduced prices for pills dispensed at the pharmacy. Ofume lied to pharmaceutical distributors to procure astronomical quantities of Oxycodone and other prescription pain pills that were then dispensed to customers having obvious signs of addiction or drug diversion. Significantly, in 2009, Medicine Center Pharmacy purchased eleven times more Oxycodone than the average pharmacy in Georgia.
During the conspiracy, Ofume and Iriele generated more than $5.1 million from unlawful prescriptions issued by doctors affiliated with the AMARC clinics (constituting more than 90% of the pharmacy’s revenue). Iriele used pharmacy proceeds to purchase three luxury vehicles for his and Ofume’s personal use. Iriele and Ofume also laundered pharmacy proceeds by purchasing vehicles in the United States for individuals in Nigeria while concealing that those customers then deposited local Nigerian currency into Iriele’s Nigerian bank account.
Previously, in 2007, the Georgia Board of Pharmacy revoked Iriele’s pharmacy license (and temporarily suspended Ofume’s pharmacy license) after finding that Ofume and Iriele had failed to account for more than 600,000 controlled substances pills at their pharmacies and had dispensed controlled substances pursuant to more than 1,400 forged prescriptions.
Previously, Godfrey Ilonzo, 66, of Alpharetta, Georgia, and Bona Ilonzo, 54, of Alpharetta, Georgia, the husband-wife owners of the illegal pain clinic, and two doctors who worked at the clinic pleaded guilty to federal drug and money laundering charges in connection with the drug trafficking conspiracy.
Godfrey Ilonzo pleaded guilty to drug trafficking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
Bona Ilonzo pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking conspiracy;
Dr. Nevorn Askari, 61, of Monroe, Georgia, pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking conspiracy;
Dr. William Richardson, 63, of Atlanta, Georgia, pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Based on the convictions, Ofume and Iriele were ordered to forfeit to the United States $16,767 in cash seized from the pharmacy, $133,892.74 in funds seized from the pharmacy’s bank account, a 2009 BMW X5, a 2008 Mercedes Benz ML550, a 2007 BMW X5, and Rosemary Ofume’s Georgia Pharmacist license. In addition, the government sought money judgments equal to the amount of proceeds defendants obtained from their illegal drug trafficking and the amount of money laundered.
ST. BERNARD PARISH, LOUISIANA. Pharmacist Dan Schneider noticed a high number of people coming into his pharmacy to fill prescriptions for OxyContin. At first, he would simply try to warn patients of the addiction potential for the drug. But eventually, he could no longer ignore the problem. He looked over the pharmacy’s paperwork and made a startling discovery.
“90% of our prescriptions were for OxyContin, and 99% of those were Jacqueline Cleggett,” Schneider said.
Typically, a doctor would prescribe a patient a lower dose of a painkiller, and increase the dosage as needed. Dr. Cleggett would start patients on a high dosage, typically 40 milligrams of OxyContin. She also prescribed Soma, a narcotic muscle relaxer, and Xanax, an anxiety drug which is often abused. The three medications are known as “The Holy Trinity.”
Patients paid $250 to be seen by Cleggett and could pay an extra $150 to be seen quickly. One patient said he waited for 12 hours to be seen. One of his friends, another patient at the clinic, once waited two days in the office to be seen. It was common for patients to resell their prescriptions to those who were waiting. Pills would go for $30 to $80.
The Pharmacist is a Netflix documentary that showcases Pharmacist Daniel Schneider’s crusade against OxyContin® abuse. It highlights his discovery of a corrupt doctor who exploited her medical license and destroyed communities in Louisiana. It also illustrates his fight to expose Purdue Pharma of falsely reporting the addictive properties of OxyContin® and marketing it under false pretenses.
In 2001, Dr. Daniel Schneider began noticing that his pharmacy was receiving a suspicious number of OxyContin® prescriptions for young adults, thus, he speculated opioid abuse. He started questioning patients why they were started on high doses of OxyContin®, about their doctor, what pain they were feeling etc. To his surprise, many patients admitted that they had no pain, no recent surgeries, or accidents. He began counseling his patients in hopes of dissuading them from using OxyContin® with alternative suggestions of Tylenol® or Motrin®. He saw that he was often unsuccessful, and patients were still demanding their prescriptions be filled.
Schneider informed the Pharmacy’s Owner of the influx of OxyContin® users in their community and his suspicions of doctors who were abusing their medical license to write scripts for patients who were clearly misdiagnosed or selling the pills for profit. He was told to stop harassing the patients as all the prescriptions were legal and the questioning would hurt business. Dr. Schneider kept these instructions in mind, but knew he had to take action.
Schneider began collecting evidence by secretly recording conversations and maintaining copies of the written prescriptions. The pharmacy kept a “dead list”, this tracked patients that were suspected to die soon due to the progression of their illness. Dr. Schneider compared this list to those he had suspected of abusing OxyContin® and local obituaries and found they often overlapped.
Schneider noticed that most of the prescriptions were coming from the same physician, Dr. Jacqueline Cleggett, who was a pediatrician, but had opened a pain management clinic. When questioning mutual patients, one said, Dr. Cleggett, “once tried to pay [me] for [printer repair] services in prescriptions. The bill came to about $300 or $400, and Cleggett handed [me] prescriptions. When [I] said [I] needed cash to bring back to [my] employer, a police officer returned carrying the prescriptions…the officer told [me] it was in [my] best interest to leave with the prescriptions”.
This patient and Schneider began collecting information which they presented to the FBI and DEA. These agencies had known about Dr. Cleggett’s corrupt business and had an ongoing investigation, but they could not disclose information to Dr. Schneider.
A DEA agent stated that Clegget had written 182,723 prescriptions distributed among 10 pharmacies over the course of one year. They discovered that Dr. Cleggett did not examine her patients before prescribing them painkillers, and treated as many as 76 patients per day, predominantly during evening hours.
The DEA had sent undercover agents as patients to confirm the legitimacy of the clinic and they observed that the parking lot of her practice was always crowded especially overnight. Investigators reported seeing license plates from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. There were patients who often waited days for an appointment, some even camped out in their cars.
Most of the patients received identical prescriptions and paid in cash. Cleggett deposited her profits of $2 million in one year. It was evident that Cleggett was not practicing medicine; she was running a pill mill.
During this time, when receiving complaints about the number of Oxycontin® related overdoses, deaths, and addiction, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin®, were calling the problem “pseudo addiction”. Alan Spanos, MD., MA., the Purdue spokesperson reported, “when a patient is looking like a drug addict it is because they were pursuing pain relief”, which Purdue claimed was different from an addiction, “because there was no physical addiction”.
Schneider was told that he needed to present solid evidence to the Medical Board to catch Dr. Cleggett. Schneider got the smoking gun he needed when a teenage girl was prescribed Soma®, Valium®, Roxycodone®, and high dosages of OxyContin®. The combination which was commonly known as the “holy trinity”, was a definite overdose for her weight of 100 lbs. To catch Dr. Cleggett in the act, Schneider called her to confirm that she had prescribed the combination, to which she admitted.
Schneider talked to the doctor who had discharged the patient from the hospital and discovered that the patient was discharged on Tylenol® and that Dr. Cleggett prescribed medication inappropriately.
When presented with the case, the Medical Board took action, which prompted the DEA to take action. Many boxes of prescriptions that were already signed and awaiting to be dated were found in her clinic and taken as evidence against her malpractice.
Although Cleggett denied her charges, she was convicted under a theory of “willful blindness”. This means that, “the mental state of the offender is equated to “knowing” because the physician intentionally buried her head in the sand to avoid knowing (it is also known as the “ostrich instruction”) …in other words, it took a knowing act to avoid learning that a prescription would be improper, and that knowing act substitutes for actual knowledge of the criminal endeavor”.
St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Dr. Jacqueline Cleggett-Lucas pled guilty to conspiracy to dispense and distribute controlled substances, including oxycodone.
Authorities said that from 1999 until early 2002, Cleggett, who was a doctor, ran a pain management clinic on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans. Her medical license was later revoked. The clinic operated at unusual hours, from the late afternoon until 2 a.m. or later, authorities said, adding that there was always a large number of patients at her office regardless of the time of day, according to the press release.
In addition, a large number of the cars had Mississippi or Florida license plates, and all payments for visits were on a “cash only” basis, the press release said.
In addition, authorities learned through a joint investigation conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Tri-County Narcotics Task Force in Jackson, Miss., that Cleggett had supplied prescriptions for Oxycontin to a group of people who redistributed the drugs throughout Mississippi. Seventeen people eventually were arrested, the press release said.
The case was investigated by the Drug Diversion Unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA New Orleans Division
Having Dr. Cleggett arrested and the termination of her medical license aided Schneider’s fight against Purdue Pharma’s mis-marketing of OxyContin’s® addictive properties.
Schneider’s small victory in putting away Dr. Cleggett aided in dismantling a pill mill that was destroying communities throughout the southern United States. It also helped establish a prescription monitoring program (PMP) in Louisiana. This helped monitor drugs being sold by making all records electronic.
In 2017, Governor John Bel Edwards mandated the use of the Louisiana’s PMP for opioids making it a statewide comprehensive platform for healthcare professionals to review each patients’ controlled substance prescription history efficiently and quickly. The PMP is an electronic database run by the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy. It monitors controlled substances by compiling data on controlled substances dispensed in Louisiana and distributes this information to authorized individuals such as prescribers and pharmacists.
Act 76 requires prescribers to consult the PMP before prescribing opioids. This effort to combat Louisiana’s opioid epidemic helps verify whether the patient has other active opioid prescriptions. This electronic database works to “minimize any workflow disruption by providing near-instant and seamless access to critical controlled substance prescription history information to both prescribers and pharmacists. This platform utilizes current PMP prescription data and transfers it into electronic health records and pharmacy management systems”.
Using a PMP enables prescribers to verify prescriptions, identify potential substance abuse disorders and provide these patients with the necessary support, verify the controlled substance prescriptions associated with prescribers’ DEA registration numbers to identify potential fraud, correct errors, identify trends, and reduce potential adverse reactions.
Although Louisiana has made many changes to prevent substance abuse, the state still has a long way to go. In 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported 79.4 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons were written in Louisiana. This is higher than the national average rate of 51.4 prescriptions. Louisiana was among the top five states in the country for highest rates in 2018. Almost 40% of the reported drug overdose fatalities (1,140) in Louisiana involved opioids in 2018 totaling 444 deaths.
Data collected by New York State showed that “more than 500,000 people in the United States have died from drug overdoses since 2000; nearly 91 people a day. An average of one call every 45 minutes was reported to Poison Control Centers for pediatric opioid exposures from 2000-2015”. Like Louisiana, New York State also took steps in its crusade against the opioid epidemic.
Between 1999 and 2017, an estimated 250,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription painkillers, a plague ignited by Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin. Families, working class and wealthy, have been torn apart, businesses destroyed, and public officials pushed to the brink. Meanwhile, the drugmaker’s owners, Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, whose names adorn museums worldwide, made enormous fortunes from the commercial success of OxyContin.
In Pain Killer, Barry Meier tells the story of how Purdue turned OxyContin into a billion-dollar blockbuster. Powerful narcotic painkillers, or opioids, were once used as drugs of last resort for pain sufferers. But Purdue launched an unprecedented marketing campaign claiming that the drug’s long-acting formulation made it safer to use than traditional painkillers for many types of pain. That illusion was quickly shattered as drug abusers learned that crushing an Oxy could release its narcotic payload all at once. Even in its prescribed form, Oxy proved fiercely addictive. As OxyContin’s use and abuse grew, Purdue concealed what it knew from regulators, doctors, and patients.
Here are the people who profited from the crisis and those who paid the price, those who plotted in boardrooms and those who tried to sound alarm bells. A country doctor in rural Virginia, Art Van Zee, took on Purdue and warned officials about OxyContin abuse. An ebullient high school cheerleader, Lindsey Myers, was reduced to stealing from her parents to feed her escalating Oxy habit. A hard-charging DEA official, Laura Nagel, tried to hold Purdue executives to account.
In Pain Killer, Barry Meier breaks new ground in his decades-long investigation into the opioid epidemic. He takes readers inside Purdue to show how long the company withheld information about the abuse of OxyContin and gives a shocking account of the Justice Department’s failure to alter the trajectory of the opioid epidemic and protect thousands of lives. Equal parts crime thriller, medical detective story, and business exposé, Pain Killer is a hard-hitting look at how a supposed wonder drug became the gateway drug to a national tragedy.
Many of these investigations stem from business operations of what was, in essence, a ‘pill mill’ rather than a pain clinic or medical practice focused on pain management. They reaped millions of dollars in personal profits by operating destructive opioid pill mills in multiple states.
If you are aware of controlled substance violations in your community, you can submit your anonymous tip through the DEA online Tip Line.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Schedule II prescription painkillers, like oxycodone, cause more drug overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. Oxycodone and other Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and can be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected to get an immediate high. This abuse can lead to addiction, overdose, and sometimes death.
In the late 1990s, going into the 2000s, the rate of prescription opioid use began to rise, as did the number of overdose deaths related to prescription opioids. Oxycodone is a powerful opiate-based pain reliever sold under brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, and Tylox.
There were a lot of pill mills, a lot of unscrupulous physicians prescribing buckets full of oxycodone. There used to be the I-95, the “Oxy Express,” so people all along the East Coast of the United States would drive to Florida and access these pill mills. Following the crackdown on pill mills in Florida, Georgia became an attractive haven for them because the state had been slow to implement measures like a statewide database to track prescriptions and strict regulations for pain clinics.
Authorities Crack Down on Pharmacists Fulfilling and Dispensing Massive Amounts of Pain Pills
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