Federal authorities said yesterday that they have dismantled a sophisticated local OxyContin ring and have arrested the Baltimore-area drug dealers who schemed to defraud pharmacies, cheat Medicare and profit by selling the addictive painkillers.
For at least five years, prosecutors say, the Baltimore group used phony prescriptions, make-believe "clinics" and other people's health insurance cards to dupe local pharmacies into doling out OxyContin and Roxicet - painkillers worth hundreds of dollars when sold illegally on the street.
OxyContin - sometimes called "hillbilly heroin" - is usually considered a rural drug, and is believed to be less prevalent in Baltimore than heroin or cocaine.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration says that the city is becoming a "source area" for abusers of painkillers in West Virginia and Virginia - areas where the drug has come under much scrutiny and is more difficult to obtain.
Yesterday, authorities charged 10 people with drug and fraud violations related to the alleged painkiller conspiracy - including Oliver Clifton Hudson and Gregory Wayne Banks, the Baltimore men they say organized the scheme.
Hudson, who is also known as Terrance Ruffin, and Banks had their initial appearances in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday, as did the others charged: Rebecca Hudson, Andrew Brian Daye, Keith A. Cooper, Alvin Ray Henry, Jacqueline Anderson, Richard Earl Williams, Vanessa Denesse Ellison and Nichelle Jacquetta Keith.
Because the court hearing was an initial appearance - where defendants are officially told of the charges against them - they did not enter pleas.
Hastily assembled defense lawyers, most of whom had learned of the case an hour or so beforehand, said they were reading the indictments and meeting their clients for the first time.
"Innocent until proven guilty," said defense lawyer Michael D. Montemarano, when asked to comment on the case.
Yesterday's arrests stem from a lengthy investigation into the illegal painkiller trade and related health care fraud in Maryland, said Frank Schissler, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which helped investigate the case.
Last December, a federal grand jury indicted 13 city residents on charges that they ran a similar ring out of a Southwest Baltimore carwash. That case, Schissler said, was part of the same investigation that led to yesterday's arrests.
Prosecutors say that Oliver Hudson, Banks and their crew used computers and photocopiers to create fraudulent prescriptions for painkillers.
They would use the names of fictitious medical clinics, prosecutors said, such as Atlantic Therapy Center, which was supposed to be on Hanover Street, and the Chesapeake Oncology Center, supposedly in the 900 block of Reisterstown Road.
The dealers would get phone numbers to go along with the "clinics," so that when a pharmacist called to check a prescription, Banks or Hudson could answer and verify it, prosecutors said.
Banks and Hudson sent "runners" to local pharmacies to pick up the phony prescriptions, prosecutors said. The runners would use health insurance cards - either their own or ones they "rented" from others - to pay for the drugs.
"The defendants were essentially billing the drugs to Medicare," Schissler said. "They only had to pay the co-pay."
The runners would turn over the drugs to Banks and Hudson, who would then sell the painkillers to users or other suppliers, prosecutors said.
If convicted, Banks and Hudson could face life in prison for the drug conspiracy charges. Banks and Hudson also are charged with engaging in a "continuing criminal enterprise" - a count that carries a 20-year minimum sentence.
The defendants are scheduled to return to court next week.