Former Union General Hospital CEO, ER director, and Blairsville physician indicted for illegally prescribing and obtaining prescription pain pills
GAINESVILLE, Ga. - John Michael Gowder, Dr. David Gowder, and Dr. James Heaton, have been indicted as part of Operation SCOPE on federal charges for illegally prescribing and obtaining thousands of doses of prescription pain medications outside the usual course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate medical purpose. They are expected to appear in federal court in Gainesville, Georgia to be arraigned on the charges on April 9, 2018.
“These defendants allegedly abused their positions as medical professionals to obtain illegitimately thousands of doses of prescription pain medications and now face serious federal charges,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “The Department of Justice is committed to fighting the opioid epidemic through the aggressive investigation and prosecution of licensed medical practitioners who abuse their positions of trust to engage in illegal conduct.”
“Americans rely on healthcare providers, many of whom are medical doctors, to use their training to help patients and to ‘do no harm.’ The physicians and the hospital CEO in this case violated the law and betrayed their responsibilities by unlawfully obtaining and dispensing prescription opioids,” said Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division. “The moment these individuals decided to engage in this criminal behavior, they became nothing more than traditional drug traffickers. DEA, its law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are committed to stemming the tide against the current opioid epidemic.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment, and other information presented in court: From 2011 to 2015 John Michael “Mike” Gowder was the Chief Executive Officer of Union General Hospital in Blairsville, Dr. David Gowder was the Emergency Room Director at Union General, and Dr. James Heaton operated a family practice clinic in Blairsville, Georgia.
Mike Gowder and Dr. David Gowder allegedly conspired together to illegally obtain oxycodone, hydrocodone, and alprazolam. Dr. David Gowder unlawfully obtained these controlled substances from patients that he treated at the hospital. He also illegally issued prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone, and alprazolam in the names of his and Mike Gowder’s family members, existing hospital patients, and fictitious patients. The prescriptions were issued outside the usual course of professional practice and Mike Gowder and Dr. David Gowder knew the drugs obtained with the prescriptions were not intended for the persons for whom the prescriptions were allegedly written. The drugs obtained with the illegal prescriptions were not for any legitimate medical purpose.
Dr. David Gowder would direct Union General Hospital employees to fill the prescriptions at local pharmacies. He would provide cash to the employees to pay for the drugs and would direct the employees to return the drugs they obtained to him. Mike Gowder used his position as the chief administrator at Union General Hospital to fire hospital employees who tried to expose Dr. David Gowder’s illegal prescribing and obtaining of oxycodone, hydrocodone, and alprazolam. He also used his position to intimidate other employees into concealing Dr. David Gowder’s unlawful acquisition of controlled substances.
Between April 2013, and April 2015, Dr. David Gowder issued at least 19 illegal prescriptions for oxycodone pills, 21 illegal prescriptions for hydrocodone pills, and five illegal prescriptions for alprazolam pills, including by forging the names of other physicians.
Dr. Heaton illegally prescribed oxycodone and other controlled substances to Mike Gowder, Mike Gowder’s family members, and others, knowing that the prescriptions were issued outside the usual course of professional practice and that the pills obtained with the prescriptions had no legitimate medical purpose. Dr. Heaton violated standards of medical practice by prescribing thousands of doses of oxycodone and other controlled substances to Mike Gowder, Mike Gowder’s family members, and others without adequately documenting the medical need for the prescriptions in patient files and without monitoring patient abuse of the pills they obtained.
Mike Gowder obtained oxycodone by fraud, subterfuge, and deception by filling the illegal prescriptions that Dr. Heaton issued for oxycodone at different pharmacies in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in an effort to conceal the large numbers of oxycodone pills that Dr. Heaton was prescribing to him.
Between May 1, 2013, and June 16, 2015, Dr. Heaton wrote at least 74 illegal prescriptions for oxycodone to Mike Gowder. In addition to filling the prescriptions at pharmacies in Georgia, Mike Gowder often travelled to North Carolina and Tennessee to fill multiple prescriptions a month at pharmacies in those states. On multiple occasions, Dr. Heaton wrote two prescriptions for oxycodone for Mike Gowder on the same day. On other occasions, Mike Gowder would travel to North Carolina to fill one prescription and Tennessee to fill the second prescription to conceal the fact that multiple prescriptions were written to him on the same day.
Oxycodone and hydrocodone are powerful pain medications that are listed as controlled substances under federal law because each has a high potential for psychological and physical abuse and dependence. Oxycodone, which may be combined with acetaminophen, is sold generically under brand names including Percocet, Endocet, Oxycontin, and Roxicodone. Hydrocodone is sold generically or under brand names including Lortab, Vicodin, and Norco. Alprazolam is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. It is sold generically and under the brand name Xanax.
John Michael Gowder, 60, Dr. David Gowder, 61, and Dr. James Heaton, 61, all of Blairsville, Georgia, are expected to be arraigned April 9, 2018, at the federal courthouse in Gainesville, Georgia. Members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges. The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove each defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
This case is being investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and members of the Union County (Georgia) Sheriff's Office, Cherokee County (North Carolina) Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency and Zell Miller Mountain Parkway Drug Task Force.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys William L. McKinnon, Jr., and Laurel R. Boatright are prosecuting the case.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement (SCOPE). We also recommend parents and children learn about the dangers of drugs at www.justthinktwice.gov.
For further information, please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Public Affairs Office at USAGAN.PressEmails@usdoj.gov or (404) 581-6016. The Internet address for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is http://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga.