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Five charged with running Baltimore County pill mill

Five charged with running Baltimore County pill mill
(Baltimore County Police Photo)

Gerald Wiseberg makes for an unlikely drug kingpin, but federal authorities say the 81-year-old Korean War veteran helped run an operation that doled out vast amounts of powerful prescription painkillers.

Wiseberg and his business partners opened a clinic in Baltimore County in early 2011, soon after the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a similar operation he ran in Florida. Wiseberg's office here attracted droves of former customers from other states, according to a federal indictment that was unsealed Friday charging them with a drug conspiracy.

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Prescription opiates have become a popular alternative to heroin, and the charges highlight what experts say is the whack-a-mole character of illegal dispensaries. As various states launch crackdowns, these clinics move their shops and addicts follow, medical experts say.

In many cases, even high-volume opiate operations look like legitimate medical businesses with properly licensed physicians signing off on prescriptions. But authorities say these doctors pose a threat similar to drug dealers on the street.

"Medical professionals who distribute oxycodone without valid medical need place users in grave danger," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "Pharmaceutical pills can be just as harmful as illegal drugs when they are used without proper oversight."

In addition to Wiseberg, Michael Resnick and his wife, Alina Margulis, and doctors William Crittenden and Daniel Alexander were charged in the case.

A lawyer representing Wiseberg in a separate case in New York said that he had not seen the new indictment but that pain clinics like those run by his client have been unfairly targeted by the DEA. Wiseberg has not been jailed and is awaiting a court hearing.

Attorneys for the other defendants or their family members either could not be reached or declined to comment Friday.

New Yorkers Resnick, 53, and Margulis, 48, traveled to Deerfield Beach, a small coastal city in Florida, to lay the groundwork for opening the pain clinic. They met with Wiseberg to learn how to operate one, according to the indictment.

In February 2011, agents raided Wiseberg's Florida operation as part of a statewide crackdown, but the trio's plan to set up in Baltimore County was already under way. They opened Healthy Life Medical Group that March, authorities say. Wiseberg was not charged in connection with the Florida clinic.

In Maryland, Wiseberg signed up as co-owner and a $12,000-a-month consultant, while Margulis and Resnick handled the day-to-day operation of the clinic. They started working out of an Owings Mills office before moving to a larger space in Timonium.

Healthy Life hired Crittenden, who served as medical director, and a mix of other doctors and physician assistants to see customers and write prescriptions, according to the indictment.

Customers flocked to the clinic, the majority coming from other states, including Kentucky, to get oxycodone and alprazolam (the generic name for Xanax), according to the charges. The customers would gather in rowdy crowds outside the clinics, and some people slept in cars nearby, according to an investigation by the Maryland Board of Physicians.

In a single year, 2,423 customers at Healthy Life were prescribed a total of 1.4 million oxycodone pills that collectively weighed 31 kilograms, according to the indictment. The clinic made at least $2 million in that time, authorities say, charging customers $300 in cash for a first appointment and $250 for each subsequent visit.

The clinic took steps to appear legitimate, according to the indictment. It referred customers to an all-cash MRI provider to make it appear that the patients had legitimate pain, informants told investigators.

Customers were also required to undergo urine tests, so it looked as if the clinic was screening for drug abusers. But authorities say pills were prescribed whatever the outcome of the scans or tests.

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Customers were also asked to complete a form that included the question: "Do you now or have you ever worked for a Federal, State or Local Government Agency?" according to the indictment. Investigators wrote that the question was designed to ferret out undercover police.

An informant tipped the DEA to the clinic soon after it opened, and the flood of out-of-state residents trying to fill prescriptions for opiates attracted the attention of nearby pharmacists, according to a search warrant application filed in the case.

Baltimore County detectives quickly turned the pill shoppers into informants. A number explained that authorities in Kentucky had made it difficult to get hold of high doses of prescription opiates, so they turned to Wiseberg's operation in Florida, according to the search warrant.

Until recently, Kentucky had one of the highest rates of prescription opiate abuse in the nation, but after it started a system to track the drugs, it fell to 31st. Maryland was one of the last states to begin using such a system.

After the Florida clinic was shut down, Wiseberg directed customers to his new operation in Baltimore County, according to court documents.

The DEA continued to round up witnesses and in July 2011 began a series of undercover visits to the clinic that continued into March 2012, according to the search warrant. In January 2012 agents set up a hidden camera to watch who came and went from the medical office, according to the warrant.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Board of Physicians, which regulates doctors, began investigating Crittenden. After the board visited Healthy Life in August 2011 with subpoenas, Crittenden resigned his $1,500-a-day job and was replaced by Alexander, according to the indictment.

In 2012, Crittenden agreed to have his medical license revoked for unprofessional conduct at Healthy Life. Alexander's license was later suspended for two months and the medical board placed him on probation.

Another doctor associated with the clinic — whose license had previously been suspended for sexual misconduct involving a female prison inmate — also was sanctioned. That doctor was not charged in the criminal case.

Online records with the Board of Physicians indicate that a number of others who worked there are still practicing in Maryland.

Authorities raided Healthy Life's offices in May 2012, and a Baltimore County grand jury indicted Resnick, Margulis and Wiseberg on drug charges. Those charges were dropped in June, as prosecutors knew federal charges would be forthcoming, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

Wiseberg was hit with federal drug and money-laundering charges in Manhattan late in 2013. Authorities there allege that he had helped run an online pharmacy scheme designed to connect customers who had fraudulent pain medication prescriptions with the drugs themselves. The customers would pay $6 to $9 a pill, about six times the regular price, according to court documents.

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Wiseberg's lawyer in that case, Stanislao A. German, said prosecutors had asked his client to cooperate and said that if he did not, he could be indicted in Maryland. Wiseberg declined the offer, German said, adding that his client denies all allegations in the New York case.

"He's going to fight the charges," he said.

Wiseberg's clinic in Florida ran without problems, German said, until the pain centers got a "bad rap" with the DEA.

In the meantime, investigators had been painstakingly digging through the Maryland operation's finances and other records to bolster their case, according to Gary Tuggle, head of the DEA's Baltimore office.

In a statement, Tuggle said his agency would continue to battle with clinics that illegally hand out prescriptions for painkillers.

"Those who operate these facilities do so out of pure greed and disregard for human life," he said.

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