Physician Admits to Illegally Distributing 39,000 Pills, Pleads Guilty to Federal Conspiracy
LITTLE ROCK— Christopher R. Thyer, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and Stephen G. Azzam, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced today that Dr. Richard Duane Johns, 49, of Little Rock, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone without an effective prescription. Dr. Johns was responsible for illegally distributing at least 39,000 pills, with a street value of more than $1,000,000.
Dr. Johns pleaded guilty Thursday to a one-count superseding information before Chief United States District Court Judge Brian S. Miller, who will pronounce sentence at a later date. The conviction carries a maximum possible sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, $1,000,000 fine, and three years’ supervised release. Dr. Johns was initially charged with 18 others in a federal indictment returned on September 2, 2015.
As part of the plea agreement, Dr. Johns agreed to forfeit $155,620 that constituted proceeds of the conspiracy, and a Ford F250 truck that facilitated the conspiracy. The money and vehicle were seized during the investigation. Additionally, the parties have agreed to litigate at the time of sentencing any additional amount of money that is to be forfeited as proceeds of the conspiracy.
"Dr. Johns, while purporting to be a health-care professional, is nothing more than a common drug dealer," Thyer said. "With opioid abuse continuing to kill at alarming rates, and an opioid epidemic sweeping across the country, the fact that doctors sworn to help people are contributing to the problem is unconscionable. Dr. Johns will soon face the consequences of his illegal actions, and we will continue to aggressively pursue any health care professionals who have similar criminal thoughts in mind."
The conspiracy primarily operated in Lonoke, White, and Pulaski counties. On May 18, 2015, the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office took Dr. Johns into custody charging him with 187 counts of violating the Arkansas controlled substances act, a class C state felony. The federal indictment later charged Dr. Johns and 18 others in a conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. Dr. Johns was charged in six additional counts of illegal distribution of oxycodone which have been dismissed by the United States as part of the plea agreement.
This investigation began in November 2014 when Lonoke County Sheriff’s detectives responded to an opioid overdose death of an individual outside Cabot. The Sheriff’s Office solicited the assistance of the DEA, and the agencies began a joint investigation to determine the source of the oxycodone which led to the overdose. The investigation determined that 187 fraudulent prescriptions for oxycodone written by Dr. Johns had been filled and distributed since July 2014 in Lonoke County alone. The prescriptions totaled approximately 16,830 oxycodone pills with a street value of $504,900. A total of 38 individuals associated with Dr. Johns were charged with violating the Arkansas controlled substances act in Lonoke County Circuit Court. To date, 17 of those individuals have entered guilty pleas.
"This was a tremendous effort by all our agencies working together to get a drug dealing doctor off the streets before even more people were hurt," Lonoke County Prosecutor Chuck Graham said.
In White County Circuit Court, a total of 15 individuals associated with Dr. Johns were charged with various drug crimes associated with Dr. Johns’ enterprise. All 15 of those individuals have entered guilty pleas.
"This investigation was an excellent show of cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies," White County Prosecutor Rebecca Reed said. "Opioid addiction is a serious problem in our community and this case brought the topic to the forefront of substance abuse discussions."
During the course of the ongoing investigation, the DEA determined that Dr. Johns was part of a distribution network spanning several counties in which he would write oxycodone prescriptions in individuals’ names. Co-conspirators would bring names and dates of birth to Dr. Johns with the intent of buying a prescription for oxycodone. Dr. Johns would issue the prescription without examining the individual, and in many cases, without ever having met the individual. Dr. Johns would then sell the fraudulent prescriptions for $500 each.
Prescriptions were filled at local pharmacies, and the oxycodone tablets sold in the community for an average of $30 each. Co-conspirators acknowledged purchasing such fraudulent prescriptions from Dr. Johns since 2011. Dr. Johns pleaded guilty to illegally distributing 39,000 30 mg oxycodone pills from January 1, 2014 to May 2015, with the pills having a street value of over $1,000,000.
"Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in this country that destroys countless lives," DEA Special Agent in Charge Azzam said. "The DEA is fully committed to the pursuit of any individual who abandons their oath as a medical practitioner. This conviction sends a clear message to all who engage in the illegal distribution of prescription drugs: we will continue to work with our law enforcement partners, the medical community and the public to identify and stop those responsible for endangering lives in our communities and bring them to justice."
Of the 18 individuals federally charged with Dr. Johns, five have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, including Vanessa Byrd (plea entered 10/6/16); James Spiker, Jr. (plea entered 10/9/16); Aaron Cochran (plea entered 11/9/16); Randy Byrd (plea entered on 11/21/16); Donna Cearns (plea entered 1/4/17); and Christine Zeman (plea entered 1/23/17). Charles Mason’s charges were dismissed. Only Vanessa Byrd—who received 37 months’ imprisonment—has been sentenced. Trial on the remaining defendants is set for March 27, 2017.
The case against Dr. Johns is part of a larger national effort led by the DEA dubbed Operation Pilluted, an aggressive campaign that targeted the largest sources of illegally diverted pharmaceuticals in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The case was investigated by the DEA—Little Rock Diversion Squad, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Arkansas State Police, Central Arkansas Drug Task Force, Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office, White County Sheriff’s Office, and DEA Little Rock Tactical Diversion Squad composed of officers from the Conway Police Department, Beebe Police Department, Little Rock Police Department, Pine Bluff Police Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, and the Benton Police. Also involved in the investigation were the United States Marshals Service, Little Rock Police Department, and the Saline County Sheriff’s Office. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Anne Gardner.