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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, January 21, 2020

“Pill Mill” Doctor Pleads Guilty to Opioid Distribution, Admits Signing Prescriptions for Dead and Jailed Patients

Assistant U. S. Attorneys Larry Casper (619) 546-6734 and Victor White (619) 546-8439   

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARYJanuary 21, 2020

SAN DIEGO – Egisto Salerno, a medical doctor practicing in San Diego, pleaded guilty to opioid distribution in federal court today, admitting that he signed bogus prescriptions for multiple deceased or incarcerated patients.

According to his plea agreement, Salerno, 75, illegally distributed 78,544 hydrocodone pills. Hydrocodone is an opioid pain medication commonly known as Norco or Vicodin. Salerno admitted that his prescriptions for the 10 mg tablets were outside the usual course of his medical practice and were without a legitimate medical purpose.

“We will continue to zealously pursue doctors who write opioid or other prescriptions that are plainly outside their professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer.  “Even a medical degree does not put one above the law.” Brewer praised prosecutors Larry Casper and Victor White and DEA agents for their commitment to achieving justice in this case.

“Because of pill mills operated by doctors like Egisto Salerno, our country has been devastated by the negative effects of prescription pain medication,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge John W. Callery.  “But DEA and our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office are fighting back.  Today’s guilty plea is testament to their teamwork and dedication in thwarting the opioid crisis in the San Diego area.  Dr. Salerno’s medical career is over; he betrayed his oath to the medical community and his patients.  DEA and our partners will continue to conduct these investigations to ensure doctors are following the rules set forth when prescribing potentially deadly drugs.”

Salerno also admitted that an undercover federal agent who visited Salerno’s clinic on six occasions received six hydrocodone prescriptions containing Salerno’s signature. In a separate instance, on a date when the undercover agent did not visit the clinic and the doctor did not see him, Salerno acknowleged that a prescription was written in the name used by the undercover agent and that Salerno completed and signed a progress note in the “patient” chart for the purported visit that did not occur.

Salerno used his medical practice on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego to carry out this criminal activity between November 2014 and February 2018, the plea agreement said. During this period, Salerno also acknowledged that he pre-signed prescriptions and often allowed his non-physician employees to complete those prescriptions; and that, with regard to one of the multiple dead “patients,” his signature appeared on at least five prescriptions made out in the “patient’s” name that were issued and filled more than a year after the “patient” died.

Salerno is the seventh defendant to enter a guilty plea in connection with the pending case that flowed from the investigation of this “pill mill.”  Each of the defendants is awaiting sentencing.  The plea agreements of the six other defendants show that paid patient “recruiters” were bringing “patients,” many of whom were homeless, to Salerno’s office to secure hydrocodone prescriptions; that, after the prescriptions were written, the “patients” were brought to pharmacies to fill the prescriptions; “patients” turned over their hydrocodone tablets to the recruiters in exchange for payment and, in some instances, recruiters picked up the tablets from the pharmacies themselves; and, in turn, those hydrocodone pills were being sold by the lead recruiter in San Diego and that such pills were also smuggled into Mexico and sold to a pharmacy there.

The guilty plea was entered before, and accepted by, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant who will sentence Salerno on May 11, 2020.

DEFENDANT                                   Case Number 18-cr-1405-BAS                                                       

Egisto Salerno, M.D.                          Age:    75                    San Diego, California

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Distribution of Hydrocodone in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. Sec. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C)

Maximum Penalties: Twenty years in prison and $1 million fine

Prior Guilty Pleas in same case:

Stephen Toney, Sr.:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         March 16, 2020

Amber Nicole Grabau:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         March 9, 2020

Lonell J. Ligon:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         April 6, 2020

Shalina D. Latson:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         March 9, 2020

LaJuan D. Smith:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         February 3, 2020

April J. Cervantes:

Pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.

Sentencing Date:         March 2, 2020

INVESTIGATING AGENCY

Drug Enforcement Administration

Topic(s): 
Opioids
Prescription Drugs
Press Release Number: 
CAS20-0121-Salerno
Updated January 21, 2020