Monday, October 20, 2003
Texas pharmacist William A. Stallknecht began selling Viagra online five years ago to customers in Australia, Canada, Mexico and the United States. At first, he was "fabulously successful," his former business partner said. But the market became crowded with other Internet pharmacies. Stallknecht, 57, shifted to selling the painkiller hydrocodone and other controlled substances through his San Antonio Web site.
Customers contacting thepillbox.com would be steered to a physician referral service he owned. After a brief telephone conversation, a doctor would write a prescription and fax it to Stallknecht, who received half of the $100 "consulting" fee, as well as any profits from selling the drugs.
Before it was forced to stop selling prescription drugs in November 2001, thepillbox.com generated more than $7.7 million from controlled substances, netting as much as $300,000 a month, according to court records. The online pharmacy sold more than 8.4 million doses of hydrocodone and Diazepam. "It was just an easy way to get drugs, either to abuse it or to sell it," said Jerry Ellis of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston office, which conducted an 18-month investigation of the online pharmacy.
In March 2002, the government indicted Stallknecht, three doctors and Brian Hilldebrand, operator of the referral service. All have pleaded guilty to illegally dispensing hydrocodone and are awaiting sentencing. Stallknecht forfeited $1 million and his pharmacy license.
Jeffrey N. Finnell decided to sell prescription drugs online in the summer of 2000. Operating out of his auto repair business in Mesa, Ariz., he and his partner, Patrick Dixon, started myprivatedoc.com and two other Web sites. They quickly attracted thousands of customers seeking an array of painkillers and other controlled substances. Doctors in eight states, including Alaska, Florida and Idaho, wrote the prescriptions. Drugstores in California and Arizona filled the orders.
In June 2002, federal prosecutors in Arizona moved to seize several million dollars in assets from the Web sites, owners, doctors and pharmacies. The prosecutors estimated that in a 14-month period, the operation handled more than 35,000 prescriptions and dispensed 2 million doses of controlled substances. According to court records, the Web sites grossed an estimated $4 million, with Finnell receiving $726,000 and Dixon, $719,000.
In its civil complaint, the government said customers paid inflated prices and tolerated "the delay because either they had no doctor who would prescribe the drugs . . . or they sought to avoid scrutiny."
Finnell declined to be interviewed. Dixon said they started the business to "fill a niche" and voluntarily closed when the DEA informed them they were violating the law.
Food and Drug Administration investigators trolling the Internet discovered Gerald Bevins's Web site in 1998. In October of that year, they boarded his motor home after he wheeled it into the parking lot of a McDonald's near San Diego. Inside, they seized the painkillers Percodan and Darvon, which Bevins had purchased in Mexico.
Along with his wife and daughter, Bevins was operating a mail-order business that sold Mexican drugs. No prescriptions were required. Bevins accepted only money orders. He would either drive to Mexico or use a runner to pick up the drugs, which he then repackaged and shipped via Federal Express. To avoid detection by customs inspectors, he instructed his runners to change license plates before crossing the border, according to his plea agreement.
Bevins imported Ritalin, Valium, Percodan and Clonazepam, a "date rape" drug. He made between $800,000 and $1.5 million in profit.
In September 2001, Bevins was sentenced to two years in federal prison. His wife died before sentencing. His daughter pleaded guilty to helping to bring in "misbranded drugs" and received probation.
Carl D. Roberts insists all he wanted to do was help people. After his wife was hit by a drunk driver, he set up a Web site in his home in Powell, Tenn., to find innovative drugs for treating brain injuries. But his site turned into something entirely different, federal prosecutors maintain.
According to court records, success123.com (also known as the Mail Order Pharmacy) was a portal for customers seeking OxyContin. For as much as $500, subscribers could purchase "gold" and "deluxe" memberships that provided exclusive access to suppliers in Mexico, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Roberts pleaded guilty to dispensing controlled substances in September 2002 and was sentenced to 57 months.
Aiding Roberts with his site were others he met online.
Frank N. Assaf Jr. had connections to a Mexican pharmacist who supplied him with thousands of OxyContin tablets. Gold members e-mailed orders to Assaf.
Between 2000 and 2002, he received about $2.1 million. Assaf kept cash in two safes at his Tucson home and in bank accounts under aliases, including one in Riga, Latvia. In a November 2002 raid, agents found 50,200 pills, ampules and tablets at the house. According to Assaf's computer inventory, two customers had spent more than $50,000 and 22 had spent more than $20,000. In August, Assaf pleaded guilty to illegally distributing OxyContin and was sentenced to 44 months.
Investigators were stunned when they visited the tiny storefront offices of the Internet-based pharmacy in Norman, Okla., in December 2000. Barely open two months, it was filling hundreds of prescriptions daily for its nationpharmacy.com Web site, the Internet arm of a brick-and-mortar drugstore called Main Street Pharmacy.
"There were cases of hydrocodone from ceiling to floor in a room that was maybe 8 by 8," said Cindy Hamilton of the Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy. "You couldn't maneuver."
In March 2001, the state agency revoked the pharmacy's license. The owner, pharmacist Clayton Fuchs, 32, was indicted in Texas on related charges, along with three doctors, two pharmacists and a business partner. The doctors have pleaded guilty. Fuchs is awaiting trial and has appealed the pharmacy board's ruling. According to pharmacy board records, Main Street sold about 1.5 million doses of hydrocodone in four months. Profits from Fuchs's Internet operations were used to purchase a $675,000 house, $505,851 in other real estate, a $92,650 Mercedes, a 2001 BMW and a 1.735-carat diamond ring, the federal indictment states.
Through his lawyer, Fuchs declined to be interviewed.
"That business was like a Home Shopping Network for hydrocodone," said John Duncan, chief agent of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. "All they were doing there was pushing dope."
-- By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty