A Chicago doctor accused of running a pill mill in an Appalachian county where painkillers are a public-health scourge was convicted Monday of causing the death of four patients who overdosed.
Dr. Paul Volkman, 64, faces 20 years in prison on those four charges, as well as eight other distribution counts that prosecutors said resulted in fatal overdoses but did not leave enough evidence to convict him of the deaths.
"The jury's verdict brings a measure of justice and closure to the victims' families," U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration considers Scioto County, where Volkman distributed the pills, one of the worst places for prescription painkiller abuse. Accidental drug overdoses driven by such addictions have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio.
In each of the four, Volkman was found guilty of illegally prescribing Oxycodone, a powerful painkiller that has been blamed for overdose deaths around the country and has become a substitute for heroin in many places.
Volkman plans to appeal after his sentencing, which is not expected for several months, his attorney, Candace Crouse, said Tuesday.
The jury acquitted Volkman of one distribution charge leading to a death, indicating how much they struggled with the evidence, she said.
"It's hard to understand why with the other people they didn't believe he was acting like a doctor," she said.
Volkman declined to testify at the trial that began March 1 and saw 70 government witnesses, including pharmacists, police investigators, clinic employees and patients who received pills from Volkman.
The verdict comes as Ohio lawmakers prepare to approve legislation that would require stricter regulation of the clinics, often dubbed pill mills for the practice of providing drugs-on-demand to patients who get only cursory examinations.
The four patients whose deaths Volkman was convicted of causing were Kristi Ross, who died March 9, 2004; Steven Heineman, who died April 29, 2005; Bryan Brigner, who died Oct. 2, 2005; and Earnest Ratliff, who died Oct. 29, 2005.
Family members of some of the victims were ecstatic with the verdict, said Lisa Roberts, the public health nurse in Portsmouth in southern Ohio, where Volkman worked at a clinic.
A 2007 indictment alleged Volkman went to work at the Tri-State Health Care and Pain Management clinic in the Ohio River town in 2003. The clinic was operated by a mother and daughter who have since pleaded guilty to one count of operating Tri-State as a place whose primary purpose was the illegal distribution of prescription drugs.
Denise Huffman and her daughter, Alice Huffman Ball, both testified against Volkman at trial.
The indictment said patients came from hundreds of miles away and were charged $125 to $200 in cash for visits to see a doctor.
Prosecutors said Volkman rarely, if ever, counseled patients on alternative treatments for pain, such as physical therapy, surgery or addiction counseling. Volkman denied the allegations and said he always acted in good faith.
Last year, federal prosecutors charged Columbus pharmacist Eugene Fletcher with nearly 200 counts of illegally disbursing prescription painkillers.
Prosecutors alleged Fletcher had conspired with Volkman, and Drug Enforcement Administration records show that Fletcher filled painkiller prescriptions in 2009 for two people who died of overdoses the next day.
Fletcher pleaded guilty to one count of illegally prescribing painkillers and faces a sentence of no more than two years. He also pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and hiding money by making cash deposits under a limit that triggers automatic bank review.
More than 1,300 people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2009 in Ohio, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Health. The number of fatal overdoses has more than quadrupled from 1999, when the state recorded 327 accidental deaths, according to the department.
The numbers are particularly bad in Scioto County, where high unemployment rates and a profusion of pill mills have led to growing addiction rates.
At least 117 people died of drug overdoses in the county between 2000 and 2008, according to county and state data. Rehab admissions in the region for prescription painkiller addictions were five times the national average in 2009.
The Senate Health, Human Services and Aging Committee was expected Wednesday to approve legislation that would require the State Board of Pharmacy for the first time to license pain management clinics as distributors of dangerous drugs.
Volkman was convicted of 12 counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, including four that contributed to a death; four counts of maintaining a drug premises; one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance; and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. In addition, he was acquitted of one count of distribution of a controlled substance contributing to one death, as well as an additional count of firearm possession.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.