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Online pill sales lead to arrests

The Baltimore Sun

Before federal agents arrested its owners yesterday, Baltimore's Newcare pharmacy appeared to be a phenomenal success.

The prescription drug distributor ordered 4,200 doses of the painkiller hydrocodone in 2003. In 2004, the orders bumped up slightly, prosecutors said in federal court.

Suddenly, sales skyrocketed into the millions. And this year, authorities said, the Northeast Baltimore company had already bought 4.8 million doses of the drug, commonly known as Vicodin.

But according to prosecutors, the amazing performance concealed a lucrative cybercrime: The company sold more than $20 million worth of the painkiller to Internet customers without legitimate prescriptions.

Federal drug agents fanned across the region early yesterday, charging Newcare's owners, seizing their expansive suburban homes in Harford County, locking up their luxury cars and shutting down their multiple bank accounts.

Carl J. Kotowski, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Baltimore office, said the operation at Newcare sparked the largest federal pharmaceutical drug investigation in the state's history.

"It's not like [they had] to go out onto the street," Kotowski said of Newcare's customers. "Everything is very discreet. You just go online. It's no different than buying a book on Amazon."

Like Quaaludes and Valium in the 1970s, Vicodin's illicit use has been treated recently by playwrights, novelists and screenwriters as a less dangerous, and more socially acceptable, way for characters to relieve life's pressures without resorting to heroin or cocaine.

On the Fox television show House, the irritable but brilliant Dr. Gregory House has suffered from chronic pain and battled an addiction to Vicodin.

But the increasing problem of illegal sales of prescription drugs online has also worried drug enforcement agents and anti-drug abuse advocates alike.

DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy told Congress in April that her agency had initiated 100 new Internet investigations involving the online sales of prescription drugs during the last fiscal year, arresting 62 people and seizing $44 million in cash, property, computers and bank account assets.

In the DEA's Operation Cyberchase, agents targeted about 200 Web sites alleged to have illegally sold prescription drugs and arrested 25 people in the United States, Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

Some advocates for more regulation said not enough has been done.

For the third year in a row, the number of Web sites selling controlled prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium and Ritalin has increased, according to a June report released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The report found that 89 percent of those Web sites selling controlled prescription drugs do not require prescriptions. Of those sites not requiring prescriptions, 30 percent advertised that no prescription was needed, 60 percent offered "online consultations" and 10 percent made no mention of a prescription.

"Any child can get, without a prescription, highly addictive controlled substances like OxyContin, Valium and Ritalin from Internet drug pushers," CASA Chairman Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former U.S. health secretary, said at the time. "The trend of teen 'pharming parties' will continue to increase as long as these drugs are so easy to obtain."

Califano's organization is calling for tighter federal laws to prohibit Internet sale or purchase of these drugs without original prescriptions based on a physician's examination. CASA also wants Internet search engines, financial institutions and shipping companies to help establish a national clearinghouse to catch rogue Internet pharmacies.

Now shuttered, Newcare is in the 3400 block of Sinclair Lane at a busy industrial intersection across from an auto parts store and flanked by a medical office and a heating-cooling business.

Yesterday, its owners - pharmacists Steven Abiodun Sodipo, 50, of Forest Hill and Callixtus Onigbo Nwaehiri, 48, of Jarrettsville - made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on drug and money-laundering conspiracy charges.

According to state records, Sodipo has been a licensed pharmacist in Maryland since 1988 and Nwaehiri since 1986.

They were joined in the indictment, which was unsealed yesterday, by Ahmed Alhaji Abdulrazaaq, 48, of Forest Hill. Federal authorities described Abdulrazaaq as one of two people who assisted with the illegal financial transactions.

Sodipo, Nwaehiri and Abdulrazaaq were held in custody until a detention hearing scheduled for tomorrow.

A fourth defendant, Nannette C. Patterson, 48, of Baltimore, is expected to turn herself in to authorities today.

Outside Newcare, DEA agents worked into the evening yesterday near a U-Haul truck and about 10 cars parked at the rear of the light-brown, one-story brick building. Blinds on the building's windows were closed, and the double-door entrance was locked.

More than 308,000 hydrocodone tablets were confiscated from Newcare with a estimated street value of $1.5 million, law enforcement officials said. The pharmacy, which was not opened to walk-in retail customers, was the top buyer of hydrocodone in the state, according to the DEA.

Also yesterday, federal agents in New Orleans shut down an Internet pharmacy they allege bought and sold millions of doses of hydrocodone last year. DEA officials in Baltimore said they could not comment on whether the two investigations are connected.

Prosecutors in Baltimore moved yesterday to seize assets equal to $20 million in illegal drugs sales they say were sold at a 300 percent markup since 2005.

As part of the forfeiture, they targeted 18 bank accounts; 10 vehicles, including a Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz; and five properties - three in Baltimore and two in Harford County. Kotowski described the pharmacists' suburban homes - one is more than 8,000 square feet and the other almost 6,000 square feet - as plush.

"When I worked in Miami, I saw some wild places. But this one was up there," he said of Sodipo's eight-bedroom house on Nora Court.

Hydrocodone, the drug at the center of the joint local and federal investigation of Newcare, is also sold under brand names that include Lortab, Lorcet and Zydone. An orally active analgesic, it can be as powerful as morphine.

Legitimate production of the drug increased fourfold in the 1990s, triggering a concurrent rise in illegal use, according to the DEA. About 20 tons of hydrocodone products are used annually in the United States.

Maryland has seen substance abuse treatment admissions for narcotic pain relievers, including hydrocodone, nearly triple in recent years, according to a May report from the Center on Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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