Montgomery, Ala. – On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, Dr. Robert M. Ritchea, 54, of LaGrange, Georgia, was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison for operating a “pill mill” through his medical practice and for money laundering, announced Acting United States Attorney A. Clark Morris. A “pill mill” is a medical clinic created to dispense controlled substances inappropriately, unlawfully, and for non-medical reasons.
According to court documents, Dr. Ritchea operated a family medical practice in Phenix City, Alabama. At that practice, Dr. Ritchea wrote prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and hydromorphone, knowing that his patients did not actually need the drugs prescribed. Dr. Ritchea laundered the proceeds of his unlawful drug dealing by purchasing Schedule II pain medications—specifically, hydromorphone and hydrocodone—directly from a drug manufacturer. Dr. Ritchea then distributed the pills directly out of his medical practice. This was necessary to keep his “pill mill” operational since many pharmacists in and around Phenix City refused to fill the illegitimate and unlawful prescriptions Dr. Ritchea wrote.
At the sentencing hearing, the Government introduced evidence that, in at least one case, one of Dr. Ritchea’s patients died as a result of a methadone overdose just days after receiving a prescription for that drug from Dr. Ritchea.
The sentencing court also heard testimony from former patients of Dr. Ritchea’s who had maintained their addictions to prescription drugs by obtaining monthly prescriptions from him. These patients testified that they made cash payments to Dr. Ritchea of at least $150 each month in exchange for office visits and prescriptions. The patients described the horrible impact the addiction had on their lives and families.
Additionally, members of the medical community in the Phenix City-Columbus area testified. A pharmacist described the unusually large prescriptions Dr. Ritchea’s patients brought to his pharmacy. A physician who operated an addiction rehabilitation clinic told the court that he had given his patients an ultimatum—they could not remain in his rehabilitation program if they were simultaneously receiving prescription drugs from Dr. Ritchea.
When he imposed the sentence, Chief United States District Judge W. Keith Watkins told Dr. Ritchea that his conduct was not far removed from the conduct of a drug dealer operating on a street corner. The judge also stressed the need to deter other doctors from overprescribing prescription drugs. The 120-month sentence reflects one of the largest ever imposed by a federal judge in Alabama on a doctor for operating a pill mill.
“The abuse of opiates destroys careers, divides families, severs relationships, and, as we saw in this case, it takes lives,” said Acting United States Attorney Morris. “In exchange for monthly cash payments, Dr. Ritchea poured poison into his community. Society trusted Dr. Ritchea to care for the sick, not make people sick. Dr. Ritchea violated that trust and the harm he caused was immense. I believe the ten-year sentence was certainly justified.”
“IRS-CI, in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Alabama, our local and federal partners, is dedicated to eradicating pill mill operations,” stated Acting Special Agent in Charge, James E. Dorsey of IRS-Criminal Investigations. “The prescriptions obtained from pill mill clinics are most often sold or diverted on the streets feeding this epidemic and devastating communities. The laundering of these illegal profits enriches those who perpetuate the scheme. IRS-CI will remain committed to investigating those entrusted with patient well-being, who seek self-enrichment by promoting substance abuse through pill mills.”
“Opiate abuse is a major problem across the Nation, including throughout the Middle District of Alabama,” said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Bret Hamilton. “The diversion of prescription pain medication contributes to the widespread abuse of opiates, is a gateway to heroin addiction, and is devastating our communities. This investigation demonstrates the strength of collaborative law enforcement efforts and our strong partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to aggressively pursue anyone that illicitly distributes these drugs. And this sentencing is evidence to how egregious federal courts view these charges."
This case was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Tactical Diversion Squad and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division (IRS-CI), with assistance from the Opelika Police Department, the Chambers County Drug Task Force, the Auburn Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Russell County Sheriff’s Office, the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.
Assistant United States Attorneys Jonathan S. Ross and R. Rand Neeley prosecuted the case.