Federal prosecutors made national headlines when they successful convicted Mobile pain doctors John Patrick Couch and Xiulu Ruan in 2017, but dozens of other opioid-related prosecutions have since been filed locally against medical professionals, drug dealers and pharmacy bandits.
All of that is a continuation of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) attempts to address the country’s ongoing opioid crisis, and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard Moore and his team of local prosecutors say they’re on the frontlines of that fight.
“For a smaller district, what we’ve done here over the past several years has been very innovative, and we really are on the cutting edge of these cases,” Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Chris Bodnar said. “We’ve gone around the country and helped train other prosecutors and federal agencies on how to work these cases. In addition, we also do outreach to universities, statewide medical boards and physicians groups on how to properly prescribe and what the law is.”
Bodnar and AUSA Deborah Griffin led the Couch and Ruan trial, and along with the rest of their team, were recently recognized for that work with an Executive Office for United States Attorneys Directors Award — a designation only 10 DOJ cases receive each year.
Recently, Griffin told Lagniappe federal prosecutors are continuing to bring criminal cases and civil actions against those who are driving the opioid crisis, whether they wear a white coat or a ski mask. Since 2017, she said around 50 prosecutions related to opioid abuse, theft and distribution have been brought in the Southern District of Alabama.
In addition to Ruan, Couch and seven other defendants associated with that investigation, federal prosecutors also successfully convicted Eastern Shore physician Rassan Tarabein for overprescribing narcotic medications. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison last year.
Some other prosecutions in the past two years include cases against individuals illegally buying and selling prescription pills and heroin and as well as patients — and, in some cases, employees — stealing doctor’s prescription pads in hopes of obtaining narcotics.
As part of a plea agreement in June 2018, Christopher Love admitted to stealing a pad of blank prescriptions from a local doctor and then using it to fraudulently obtain controlled substances he was then distributing. Another case that stands out is the prosecution of a group of serial burglars who targeted Walgreens pharmacies in three states, stole controlled medications and then sold them on the street. Raymond Ford, 28, was identified as one of the burglars after his DNA matched blood samples recovered after a break-in in Brewton, Ala.
Griffin said federal prosecutors are also able to take over cases that could be handled in state court — especially those involving defendants moving or obtaining large quantities of prescription pills. As with most drug cases, she said when handling prescription diversion crimes, investigators try to work backward from users, to sellers and to the suppliers.
“When you find someone selling controlled substances you try to figure out where they are getting them from,” she said. “Are they getting them outside the usual course of professional practice? Are they getting them on a regular basis? Are they doctor shopping, or is there one or two particular doctors who appear to be the source of the majority of those pills?”
In addition to using criminal prosecution, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is able to take certain civil actions in order to revoke or suspend physicians’ and pharmacists’ licenses to prescribe and distribute controlled drugs. Griffin said some doctors are also asked to do so voluntarily during criminal investigations — a tactic she said that has been “quite successful.”
Whether through civil or criminal action, Moore said his office would continue to be proactive and aggressive in combating the opioid crisis — something he identified as a critical priority for both the DOJ and the administration of President Donald Trump.
“We’ve talked about some of the successes that we’ve had, but this overdose rate is still way too high and we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Moore said. “That’s going to require education but also some prosecution and putting in the penitentiary these bad actors who are making money off of other people’s suffering.”
Speaking with Lagniappe, officials also discussed the recent release of the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS) data from 2006 to 2012. That data tracks all narcotics prescriptions sold in the United States — from manufacturers to distributors to pharmacies — and it shows millions of pills were coming into Mobile County during that time.
It was published as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit in Ohio involving city and county governments across the country who’ve sued manufacturers and distributors of opioid medications over the alleged harm they’ve caused in those communities. The city of Mobile and Mobile County are both part of that litigation, though it’s being handled by outside law firms.
After its own legal battle to get access to those ARCOS records, The Washington Post compiled and released a breakdown the data earlier this month. It indicates that every year between 2006 and 2012, there were 52 pills sent to Mobile County for every person who lives here. During that time, the now-closed Central Discount Drugs in Prichard received more than 6.7 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills — more than any other pharmacy in the county.
While that type of data can show the impact of the opioid crisis in a broad context, DEA Agent Don DeSalvo said ARCOS is only one of the tools investigators use. He also noted there isn’t anything illegal about large shipments of opioids if they’re finding legitimate patients.
“We’re more concerned with things like record keeping than the amount of pills,” DeSalvo said. So, for example, if a pharmacy has a large unexplained loss, that’s clearly an issue, but if they can account for everything, really they’re in compliance. Certain amounts may raise a red flag, which could lead to further investigation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s criminal.”
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