SAN DIEGO – On March 12, 2018 the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of eight people charged for their alleged roles in a San Diego “pill mill” operation involving the distribution of hydrocodone.
Egisto Salerno, 73, of San Diego, a medical doctor who owns and operates a medical office on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego was one of those arrested, along with:
Stephen Toney Age: 57 San Diego
April Cervantes Age: 27 San Diego
David Apple Age: 25 Chula Vista
Amber Horne Age: 28 El Cajon
Lonnell Ligon Age: 55 San Diego
Shalina Latson Age: 47 San Diego
LaJuan Smith Age: 38 San Diego
Each is charged with one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a controlled substance.
“It is simply outrageous that a supposed medical professional would betray the trust put upon him/her to prescribe dangerously addictive drugs only when medically necessary,” said California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) President Alan Barcelona. “We have a crisis in this country when it comes to the misuse of prescription painkillers and it’s weighing heavily on society.”
The complaint alleges that, beginning not later than November 2014, defendant Stephen Toney and others recruited individuals, often homeless or of limited means, to pose as “patients” at the office of Salerno to obtain hydrocodone prescriptions. Salerno, who received an office visit fee for each “patient,” performed a cursory or no physical examination and prescribed the hydrocodone despite the lack of any legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice.
The “patients” were paid for turning over their hydrocodone tablets to defendants. The defendant recruiters arranged transportation of these “patients” to Salerno’s office, to a pharmacy to pick up the hydrocodone, and then returned them to or near homeless shelters or their residences. Toney and other co-conspirators allegedly intended to further distribute these hydrocodone tablets.
Salerno is alleged to have prescribed hydrocodone for, among others, dead “patients” and “patients” who were in jail and who could not, therefore, have been in Salerno’s office when they were allegedly examined by Salerno and hydrocodone was prescribed in their names. For example, one patient died in October 2015 and Salerno allegedly saw that patient and prescribed hydrocodone in that patient’s name five times after death, including two prescriptions written more than a year after the death.
According to the charging documents, Salerno and two of his medical assistants allegedly falsified chart notes and medical records to justify these hydrocodone prescriptions and further the conspiracy. In one instance, the medical chart for an undercover agent who visited the clinic was seized by agents during execution of a search warrant. That chart included a set of medical examination notes in Salerno’s handwriting and signed by him purporting to document a visit that never occurred. The charging documents allege that hydrocodone was prescribed on that date in the name of the undercover agent and the tablets were picked up from the pharmacy by defendant Stephen Toney.
Hydrocodone is the generic name for a narcotic analgesic that is sold under a variety of brand names such as Vicodin, Norco and Lortab. When legally supplied by a licensed practitioner for a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional practice, hydrocodone is used to combat moderate pain. It is a Schedule II controlled substance (narcotic) that is widely abused and it is frequently diverted from legitimate medical channels and distributed illicitly on the street for profit and abuse.
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Conspiracy to Unlawfully Distribute and Dispense a Controlled Substance, 21 U.S.C. 846
Maximum penalty: 20 years’ imprisonment; $1,000,000 fine or twice the pecuniary gain or loss, whichever is greater, and five years’ supervised release.
Drug Enforcement Administration
Internal Revenue Service
Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General
California Department of Health Care Services
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department
California Department of Justice
San Diego Police Department