Second Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid Strikeforce Takedown Results in Charges Against 13 Individuals, including 11 Physicians
(Eleven Defendants Convicted by Guilty Pleas as a Result of the First ARPO Takedown in April)
Memphis, TN – The Justice Department announced today the second coordinated law enforcement action of the Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid (ARPO) strike force, resulting in charges against 13 individuals across five Appalachian federal districts for alleged offenses relating to the over prescription of controlled substances through "pill mill" clinics. Of those charged, 12 were charged for their role in unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances and 11 were physicians. The alleged conduct resulted in the distribution of more than 17 million pills.
This action follows the first such takedown in April of this year, which involved charges against 60 defendants, including 53 medical professionals, in 11 federal districts, alleging the illegal distribution of more than 23 million pills. The charges brought in April have already resulted in 11 guilty pleas in seven federal districts, including guilty pleas by nine medical professionals, including seven physicians.
The charges announced today aggressively prosecute medical professionals whose alleged prescribing behaviors have contributed to the opioid epidemic, particularly medical professionals who are involved in the unlawful distribution of opioids and other prescription narcotics, a particular focus for the Department. According to the CDC, approximately 115 Americans die every day of an opioid-related overdose.
"The Department of Justice will not relent in its aggressive pursuit of those responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic in Appalachia," said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. "Medical professionals who violate their solemn oaths and peddle opioids for profit should know that we will find you and ensure that the justice system treats you like the drug dealer you are."
"Opioid misuse and abuse is an insidious epidemic, and unfortunately, causes individuals to engage in criminal behavior that contributes to the problem," said U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant of the Western District of Tennessee. "Just as this office will hold medical professionals accountable for over-prescribing opioids, we will also pursue federal charges against any person who exploits the medical profession for their own selfish desire to obtain highly addictive prescription drugs by dishonest methods."
In the Western District of Tennessee, one defendant was charged. Additionally, three medical professionals have pleaded guilty.
Erin Pealor, 35, of Memphis, was charged with nine counts of attempting to acquire or obtain a controlled substance by misrepresentation by fraud, forgery, deception or subterfuge. The charges stem from Pealor’s role in knowingly and intentionally attempting to obtain Schedule II controlled substances, namely Ritalin, Adderall, Methylin andMethylphenidate, by fraud, forgery, deception and subterfuge, by filling out prescriptions with false and fraudulent patient names and forging the signature of a physician. This case was brought with the assistance of the DEA and the State of Tennessee-OIG. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Ann Weber Langley of the Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Erskine of the Western District of Tennessee.
In addition, several indictments brought in the coordinated action in April 2019 have already resulted in guilty pleas. On July 22, 2019, Michael Hellman, a physician, pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. These charges stem from Hellman prescribing Percocet and Promethazine with Codeine outside the scope of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jillian Willis and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Allen of the Western District of Tennessee.
On April 16, 2019, Kathryn Russell, a nurse practitioner who practiced in Memphis, Tennessee, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances. Russell wrote prescriptions for opioids that had no legitimate medical purpose and that were outside the usual course of professional practice. In an eight-week period, Russell prescribed more than 7,800 oxycodone pills, more than 6,000 benzodiazepine pills, and more than 1,000 pills of carisoprodol.
On Sept. 19, 2019, Michelle Bonifield, a Bells pharmacy technician pleaded guilty to filling an opioid prescription without a legitimate medical purpose while working at Mehr Drug Store.
The charges and allegations contained in the indictments are merely accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
The Fraud Section leads the ARPO Strike Force. Since its inception in October 2018, the ARPO Strike Force, which operates in 10 districts, has charged more than 70 defendants who are collectively responsible for distributing more than 40 million pills.