MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - One of the largest pill mill prosecutions in Alabama’s Middle District is nearing the end.
Thursday, six defendants who worked for Dr. Gilberto Sanchez, the owner of Family Practice, were sentenced in federal court.
Those sentenced included two doctors, two nurse practitioners, a nurse, and a licensed counselor. Visiting Judge Sharon Blackburn presided over the sentencings, calling the defendants, “highly-educated drug dealers.”
Nurse practitioner Elizabeth Cronier was sentenced to two years probation for her involvement in the pill mill and a $1000.00 fine. Cronier worked for Sanchez and remained at Family Practice following his arrest. The defense maintained Cronier didn’t write prescriptions for controlled substances that were medically unnecessary, however she didn’t report Sanchez’s prescribing habits to authorities.
The government maintained Cronier helped investigators develop this case and exposed Sanchez was violating bond conditions by practicing without a license.
Nurse practitioner Steven Cox was sentenced to three years probation for three felony counts, which will be served concurrently, or at the same time. He was ordered to pay a $2,000.00 fine and restitution in the amount of $385.28 to Blue Cross Blue Shield, the monetary victim in his case. The defense explained Cox worked at Family Practice as a second job, only seven days a month. The government explained Cox was instrumental in building cases against others in this prosecution, stating his information led to guilty pleas of at least two other defendants.
Dr. Julio Delgado was sentenced to two years probation and admitted guilt for his role in the pill mill scheme. Delgado stated he overwhelmingly didn’t sign the prescriptions for unnecessary opioids, generally deferring to Dr. Sanchez. Delgado still has a medical license and is currently practicing medicine that focuses on the underserved and less fortunate population.
Licensed counselor Johnnie Sanders was sentenced to seven months in prison for health care fraud and ordered to pay more than $13,700 in restitution. Sanders received a custodial sentence due to a prior criminal offense. Court documents state Sanchez required patients who received controlled substances to see a counselor. Sanders collected a cash payment from the patients while Family Practice also bill the patients' insurance for the counseling visit. The government stated at least three other witnesses would have corroborated the information in the indictment.
Three character witnesses testified on Sanders' behalf including two patients and her husband. Sanders told the judge she took a guilty plea in the 2008 case to avoid her husband going to prison, now that case was the overarching reason she would be sentenced to prison. The judge took issue with the claim and took a recess to pull the 2008 case, stating she had never loved anyone that much to take a guilty plea for them - perhaps other than her children.
The judge also stipulated that Sanders receive substance abuse and mental health treatment, including an alcohol monitoring device. If Sanders violates the terms of her three year probation, she will likely be sent back to prison.
Nurse Stephanie Ott was sentenced to two years probation for conspiracy to defraud the United States. Ott read a tearful statement to the judge stating the emotional journey of accepting her role in this scheme and how she's overcome great odds to rebuild her personal life.
“My heart breaks for all the good people harmed by him [Sanchez]: patients, workers, and friends,” Ott stated.
The government added that Ott was the most helpful defendant who appeared before the judge Thursday, stating without her specificity and breadth of information they would not have been able to prosecute multiple defendants.
The judge entered a probationary sentence and commended Ott for her courageous turnaround stating, “now you can start your life over the minute you walk out of that door.”
Dr. Willie Chester was sentenced to two years probation and a $5,000 fine. Chester volunteered to surrender his medical license following his arrest, according to the defense, Chester won’t likely seek to have it reinstated due to his age.
Many contend these defendants likely wouldn’t have been involved in this activity if they had not been working for Sanchez, the reported mastermind behind this profitable pill mill scheme.
To date, 15 people have been indicted in this case, and two defendants have had their charges dropped. All 13 remaining defendants were convicted. Twelve pleaded guilty and one defendant, Lillian Akwuba, went to trial and was convicted on 27 counts.
Those convicted include six doctors, three nurse practitioners, one nurse, one licensed counselor, and two office administrators:
- Dr. Gilberto Sanchez, owner of Family Practice, pleaded guilty – serving 12 years in prison
- Dr. Shepard Odom, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Dr. Julio Delgado, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Dr. Shepard Odom, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Dr. John MacLennan, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Dr. Willie Chester, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Lillian Akwuba, nurse practitioner, convicted on 27 counts, awaiting sentencing
- Elizabeth Cronier, nurse practitioner, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Steven Cox, nurse practitioner, pleaded guilty , probationary sentence
- Stephanie Ott, nurse, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Johnnie Sanders, licensed counselor, pleaded guilty, sentenced to seven months in prison
- Misty Fannin, administrator, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Farley Pugh, office manager, pleaded guilty, probationary sentence
- Suzanne Brownfield, billing, charges dropped
- Akash Kumar, billing, charges dropped