Two years ago, Fred Whitney Edwards had a promising future.

As head of the D.C. medical clinic he had inherited from his father, he had a busy practice dispensing painkillers and weight-loss drugs, and he and his lawyer fiancee, Donna Banks, were planning a big family wedding.

Then, the day before the celebration, a Drug Enforcement Administration investigator showed up on Banks's doorstep. Edwards, he told her, was not a doctor. Though his patients believed otherwise, Edwards had never completed medical school, and he had been writing hundreds of dubious narcotics prescriptions using his late father's name.

Banks called the wedding off. And yesterday, Edwards, now 36, was sentenced by a federal judge in Alexandria to nearly six years in prison.

The child of a wealthy District physician, Edwards attended the Bullis School in Potomac and earned a biology degree from the University of Virginia in 1985. He then helped run a boarding house for students in the District, according to court records.

But by the mid-1990s, Edwards's father, Clarence, needed help. Once the top-billing doctor in the District's Medicaid program, Clarence Edwards was running the Capitol Hill Medical Weight Loss Clinic and Full Service Medical-Surgical Center. But he was having heart problems, so his son joined the clinic as the office manager, according to court records.

As time passed, Fred Edwards took over more duties in the clinic and began wearing a white coat and seeing patients, authorities said.

Clarence Edwards was hospitalized with a heart ailment in fall 1997 and died that December. But Fred Edwards continued to see patients and dispense medicine using his father's Drug Enforcement Administration number.

"Fred had devoted the last five years of his life to care for his father and his medical practice," Andre Banks, who met Edwards at U-Va. and remained his friend, wrote to the judge in charge of the case. "Any lapses in Fred's good judgment [were] the result of the duress and hardship that were forced upon him by the unexpected loss of his beloved father."

Court records cite nearly 200 prescriptions for dozens of addictive and potentially dangerous drugs, all written after Clarence Edwards's death. Among the drugs were Percocet, Xanax and Valium, all controlled substances that are closely regulated.

"This was very serious because he was prescribing medicine to people who thought he was a doctor," said Preston Grubbs, the acting special agent in charge of the DEA's Washington division.

Eventually, one of the prescriptions drew official scrutiny and Edwards's scheme collapsed. He pleaded guilty in October to one count of distributing a controlled substance.

But he still has supporters.

"Fred has always been a very loving and caring individual. He always tried to help everyone he could," Robert McInturff, a former patient and friend of Clarence Edwards, wrote to the judge in charge of the case. "This man deserves whatever mercy the court can spare this man. This is not an evil man."

Yesterday in court, Edwards apologized to his former fiancee and others he had let down, likening himself to a child who causes horrible car crashes by jaywalking.

Federal sentencing guidelines left U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee little discretion in the case. Though Edwards got a slight sentence reduction because he had no prior criminal record, the sheer volume of prescriptions required a lengthy prison term.

Lee gave Edwards 70 months in prison.