A Chicago doctor who prosecutors say dispensed more of the powerful painkiller oxycodone from 2003 to 2005 than any other physician in the country was sentenced Tuesday to four life terms in the overdose deaths of four patients.
Dr. Paul Volkman made weekly trips from Chicago to three locations in Portsmouth in southern Ohio and one in Chillicothe in central Ohio before federal investigators shut down the operations in 2006, prosecutors said. He was sentenced in federal court in Cincinnati.
"This criminal conduct had devastating consequences to the community Volkman was supposed to serve," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Adam Wright and Tim Oakley said in a court filing ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
"Volkman's actions created and prolonged debilitating addictions; distributed countless drugs to be sold on the street; and took the lives of numerous individuals who died just days after visiting him," they said.
The 64-year-old Volkman fired his attorneys earlier this month and said he acted at all times as a doctor, not a drug dealer.
"The typical drug dealer does not care how much drugs a client buys, how often he buys, or what he does with his drugs," Volkman said in a 28-page handwritten court filing Monday, maintaining that he did all those things and more for his patients.
Volkman was also handed prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years on 13 other counts related to drug trafficking. He received five years for possessing a weapon while participating in drug trafficking.
He was also convicted of eight other distribution counts that prosecutors said resulted in fatal overdoses but didn't leave enough evidence to convict him of the deaths.
One of the four patients whom Volkman was convicted of killing through an overdose was Steven Hieneman. He died on April 20, 2005, shortly after Volkman prescribed a combination of oxycodone, hydrocodone and other drugs, according to the 2007 indictment against Volkman.
"He was no more than a cash cow to them," his mother, Paula Eastly, said Tuesday after the sentencing. "The week before he died he tried to commit suicide and they knew that, and they still seen him. So that's how money-hungry they were."
Eastly, 59, of Greenup, Ky., said she takes comfort in Volkman's long sentence and the message it will send to other doctors who illegally prescribe pain pills.
"We cannot do anything about the past, but we can do something about the future," she said.
Volkman declined to testify at a lengthy trial last spring that saw 70 government witnesses, including pharmacists, police investigators, clinic employees and patients who received pills from Volkman.
A 2007 indictment alleged Volkman went to work at the Tri-State Health Care and Pain Management clinic in southern Ohio 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, testified against Volkman at trial. Beckwith on Tuesday sentenced Denise Huffman to 12 years and eight months in prison. Huffman, 58, also faces three years of supervised release after she serves her time.
Huffman Ball was sentenced last year to five years in prison.
The indictment against Volkman 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 alternate treatments for pain, such as physical therapy, surgery or addiction counseling. Volkman denied the allegations and said he always acted in good faith.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has identified southern Ohio as one of the hardest hit spots in the country for painkiller abuse. Overdose deaths driven by prescription painkiller abuse are now the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio over car crashes.