JUN 27 (ATLANTA) – Abuse of pain medications like oxycodone continues to plague Georgia communities at epidemic levels and now accounts for six times more deaths than all of the traditional illegal drugs combined. The United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia has enhanced its prosecution efforts on the prescription drug abuse problem as part of a broad effort to reverse this deadly trend.
“The abuse of prescription drugs and its related criminal activity is a significant public safety problem in many Georgia communities - one we have made a central focus of our office,” said United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates. “This problem is too big to prosecute away and requires solutions from doctors, pharmacists, legislators, and public health officials. But we are committed to prosecuting and punishing those who are the primary contributors to this problem.”
“Over the past decade Oxycodone and other opioids have risen to be the most abused and overdose related drugs in the State of Georgia,” said C. Richard Allen, Director of the Georgia Drugs & Narcotics Agency. “Five of the top eight drugs found in overdose deaths are opioids. Of those eight, Oxycodone products are #2 on this list. Ten of the top twenty five most prescribed drugs are opioids. We applaud the U.S. Attorney's office and its efforts to help stop, or at least slow down this deadly epidemic.”
In the past year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has successfully prosecuted three cases that reflect the broad spectrum of criminal activity associated with prescription drug abuse.
Most recently, nine of eleven defendants were sentenced last week for participating in a scheme to obtain and sell painkillers using forged prescriptions. “Many of the defendants sentenced were themselves addicts, some of whom became addicted after receiving a lawful prescription for oxycodone,” said Yates. “Some of them even engaged in further criminal behavior to feed their own addiction. These criminal acts also perpetuated the addiction of others by putting the drugs on the street. It’s a terrible cycle.”
According to United States Attorney Yates, the charges and other information presented in court in the prosecution of eleven defendants, Holly Worley forged prescriptions for oxycodone using the names of actual doctors. The remaining ten defendants would then present the forged prescriptions at numerous pharmacies throughout the Atlanta and North Georgia area to obtain what appeared to be legitimately obtained pain medication. Once the conspirators received the drugs, Worley and Jason Johns would deliver the drugs to others to have them sold on the streets. Worley rewarded the co-conspirators for the participation with either cash or a portion of their oxycodone pills.
All eleven defendants pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess oxycodone with intent to distribute, and many were sentenced by United States District Court Judge Orinda D. Evans on June 19 and 20, 2014:
James Brandon Sweatman, 27, and Brian Thompson Myers, 33, both of Cumming, Ga., are scheduled to be sentenced on July 7, 2014.
“This case demonstrates cycle of harm caused by the abuse of prescription drugs,” said U.S Attorney Yates. “Through the combination of incarceration and substance abuse treatment, we hope to break this cycle so that the defendants can become productive members of society.”
Prescription drug abuse manifests itself in many different ways. Falsifying prescriptions, theft, or just purchasing pills on the street are some of the more popular methods of illegally obtaining oxycodone. However, many abusers of prescription drugs also obtain oxycodone from illegitimate pain clinics, known as “pill mills.”
“Illegitimate pain clinics prey on so-called patients who are addicted to opiates,” said Harry S. Sommers, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division. “Some of the doctors who dispense these addictive analgesics often operate under the guise of a stethoscope and a white coat, when in actuality they are nothing more than drug traffickers.”
In one recent “pill mill” prosecution, Jason Cole Votrobek and Roland Rafael Castellanos were non-physician owners of the ‘Atlanta Medical Group’ (AMG) medical clinic in Cartersville, Ga., which served as a front for the mass distribution of addictive pain killers.
“The defendants in this case preyed upon those addicted to prescription drugs in order to line their own pockets,” said Yates.
In their respective capacities, Votrobek and Castellanos, along with Jesse Violante, financed the clinic and worked to procure and distribute oxycodone pills to addicts and distributors. Votrobek, Castellanos, and Violante directed the clinic’s doctors to see as many patients as possible, and to prescribe as many oxycodone pills as possible, in order to generate mass profits. Dr. James Chapman allegedly did so, however, without conducting sufficient medical examinations and, indeed, according to evidence produced at trial, was frequently incapacitated due to intoxication. Tara Atkins served as the office manager. She filled out prescriptions for the doctor to sign, and the amounts of pills distributed to patients were excessive, and with unusual dosage patterns.
Evidence offered at trial established that the clinic was really a drug distribution operation with over 98 % of its patients traveling to the clinic from surrounding states, the majority from Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of those visiting had obvious signs of being addicts. The clinic engaged in unusual practices, like, permitting non-medical staff to assist with medical procedures, such as taking blood pressure, to maximize the number of patients seen. Indeed, in 2011, the clinic was one of the ‘Top 15’ purchasers of oxycodone in the nation. Votrobek and Castellanos made millions of dollars during the clinic's approximately one year of operation. Votrobek and Castellanos established multiple bank accounts, many in third party names, to conceal the windfall profits.
Jason Cole Votrobek had previously been acquitted in Florida of similar charges stemming from his ownership of a Florida pain clinic. During trial, the government offered evidence that Votrobek, 30, of Vero Beach Fla., Roland Rafael Castellanos, 34, of Hollywood, Fla., and Jesse Violante, 35, of Vero Beach, Fla., financed and operated the clinic. Tara Atkins, 36, of Cartersville, Ga., served as the office manager. Dr. James Chapman, 64, of Macon, Ga., served as the primary doctor.
Both Votrobek and Castellanos were convicted on March 26, 2014, after a month-long jury trial on federal drug and money laundering charges for owning and operating the AMG pain clinic, and, on June 19, 2014, they were each sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. Jesse Violante was sentenced to four years and four months in prison and Tara Atkins was sentenced to two years in prison. Dr. James Chapman is presently awaiting trial.
In another recent case, Gerald Young and Rodney Strachan were two Florida men who supplied large amounts of the prescription narcotic oxycodone to pill distributors in northwest Georgia. They were sentenced to federal prison in February 2014.
Young and Strachan stockpiled copious amounts of oxycodone pills, which they would then provide to John Gregory Alvarez and his co-conspirators on consignment. Alvarez’s drug trafficking organization was part of a thirteen-person conspiracy that distributed oxycodone in northwest Georgia and laundered the proceeds of the illicit sales of the pills. The organization obtained the vast majority of its pills from Florida. Specifically, Alvarez, and later co-defendants that he recruited, would travel to Florida on a monthly basis to obtain prescription oxycodone painkillers from both Young and Strachan.
Members of the Alvarez organization would sell the pills for a profit, and then reinvest the proceeds into the organization by using the funds to pay for the previous month’s supply of narcotics. The reach of this organization’s illegal oxycodone distribution included not only the northwest Georgia area, but also extended into Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Investigators determined that this conspiracy was responsible for trafficking hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills.
Young, 69, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was sentenced to ten years, one month in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Strachan, 58, of Pompano Beach, Fla., was sentenced to nine years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. They were the last defendants to be sentenced for their roles in this oxycodone distribution ring based in Rossville, Ga. For his role in leading the northwest Georgia drug trafficking organization, Alvarez was sentenced on October 21, 2011, to 21 years, ten months in prison to be followed by six years of supervised release.
“The significant sentences imposed for Young and Strachan are another indicator of our office’s continued commitment to ending the illegal distribution of prescription painkillers in our community,” said Yates. “In recent years, the abuse of oxycodone has risen to epidemic proportions, and fatal overdose rates continue to rise. Anyone who is involved in the illegal acquisition and distribution of pain killers, including unscrupulous doctors, pharmacists, or clinic owners, is on notice that they will be found out and prosecuted.”
In addition to prosecuting criminal cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has conducted outreach events to spread the warning to Georgia communities about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and the need for treatment and services for those who become addicted to the substances. In 2011, the office hosted a prescription drug summit at Georgia State University that brought together speakers from national and local law enforcement agencies, medical experts in prescription drug abuse, pharmacists, and substance abuse counselors, to explore the scope of the prescription drug abuse problem and steps to address the problem. In 2014, the office hosted a second summit focusing on the rising dangers of synthetic drugs, convening law enforcement together with medical experts, educators, and university and school officials to publicize the devastating effects of these drugs and how we can best target the problem.
The Worley case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Elizabeth M. Hathaway, and it was investigated by special agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, and the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.
The Votrobek and Castellanos case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys G. Scott Hulsey, Cassandra J. Schansman, and Laurel R. Boatright, and investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration’s Diversion Group, Bartow/Cartersville Drug Task Force, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation; with special assistance from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Kentucky State Police.
Assistant United States Attorney C. Brock Brockington prosecuted the Young and Strachan case, and the investigation was conducted by special agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, officers of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force, and deputies of the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office.
The DEA encourages parents, along with their children, to educate themselves about the dangers of legal and illegal drugs by visiting DEA’s interactive websites at www.justthinktwice.com, www.GetSmartAboutDrugs.com and www.dea.gov.