Two pharmacists accused of selling nearly 10 million addictive painkillers illegally over the Internet were portrayed yesterday by a federal prosecutor as having been involved in "a monster of a conspiracy" and by defense attorneys as merely taking advantage of the vast reach of cyberspace to succeed in a legitimate business.
The two men, Steven Abiodun Sodipo, 51, of Forest Hill and Callixtus Onigbo Nwaehiri, 48, of Jarrettsville, were indicted in September on charges of dispensing hydrocodone - which commonly sells as Vicodin - under bogus prescriptions to clients all over the country from their Baltimore pharmacy, Newcare Home Health Service. At least two customers died after suffering overdoses, prosecutors said.
The pharmacists were charged also with engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, laundering money and tax violations. A third man, Ahmed Alhaji Abdulrazaaq of Forest Hill, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the IRS and is to be tried separately.
In opening statements yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Smith told jurors in Baltimore's federal court that Sodipo and Nwaehiri, both licensed pharmacists, "turned their backs on their professional responsibilities" by embarking on what they should have known were illegal Internet drug sales.
"They were no different than pushers," Smith said of the defendants, who, if convicted, could receive sentences of between five years and life in prison. "To knowingly fill an invalid prescription is a crime."
Sodipo and Nwaehiri owned and operated Newcare in the 3400 block of Sinclair Lane, a business they founded in 1993 that initially specialized in delivering medications and medical supplies to nursing homes and other assisted-care living facilities. There was no walk-in service as in traditional, drugstore-based pharmacies.
Smith told the jury that the defendants also operated a real-estate development and custom-building entity and hoped to expand that and the pharmacy operation to their native Nigeria and other African nations.
"What happened? They got greedy," the prosecutor said. "It's the oldest story in America."
In 2004, according to a 15-count indictment, the two men began to participate in a nationwide conspiracy to illegally sell hydrocodone to any customer with a valid credit card, even to those they knew were addicts.
Smith said some customers were charged as much as $115 for an online medical "consultation" before the drug sale went through, and $25 in shipping costs, in addition to prices for the drugs that were many times what they would have been through normal transactions.
In 2004, Newcare bought 4,600 doses of hydrocodone for resale. The following year, Smith said, a huge spike in online demand led Newcare to purchase 4.2 million hydrocodone doses - when the national average was 84,332 units per pharmacy. The numbers kept increasing, she said, until the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Newcare's 55,000-square-foot facility in October 2006 and arrested its owners. More than 50 employees of the pharmacy lost their jobs.
The prosecutor said that, before Newcare's closure, an indication of the breadth of the defendants' dealings were the numerous "phone calls from agitated customers that poured into Newcare day after day because their drugs were late or their prescription was a pill short."
But Kenneth W. Ravenell, a lawyer representing Sodipo, described both defendants as "hardworking, decent men" who "wanted to make money the right way."
The fact that Sodipo's success enabled him to buy a "beautiful home," Ravenell said, should not be held against him: "It wasn't greedy - it was hard work."
Like anyone in business these days, he said, the defendants took advantage of the Internet's immense possibilities to increase their sales.
"They didn't become - as the government claims they did - criminals," he said. "No one will tell you that it's illegal to be involved in the dispensing of drugs on the Internet."
Newcare's purchases of hydrocodone were made from what prosecutors said was a criminal enterprise based in Florida that, over several years, supplied pharmacies around the country with $50 million worth of drugs. Prosecutors said they believe the head of the enterprise, Barry Brooks, has fled the United States and is hiding in Spain.
"They know he's there, but they haven't been able to find him," said Jerry Mooney, a lawyer for a prosecution witness, Adam Kaps, who operated the enterprise's computer systems in Florida. Newcare was the most productive pharmacy under Brooks' domain in terms on Internet sales, Mooney said during a break in the court proceedings.
"The issue is that these guys should have known there was no doctor-patient relationship," he added.
Kevin McCants, an attorney for Nwaehiri, told the jury the government cannot prove that the defendants knew the prescriptions they filled were not backed by legitimate doctor-patient contacts. McCants said also that Sodipo and Nwaehiri approached the Maryland Board of Pharmacy for advice before embarking on the Internet sales.
"Does that sound like a criminal?" he asked. "There's nothing insidious here."