MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Family doctor Robert Ritchea pleaded guilty Monday to running a pill mill out of his office and for laundering money from the illegal operation. Ritchea entered a plea to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. He's facing up to 40 years in prison on both counts combined.
Prosecutors point to pill mills for fueling the country's deadly opioid epidemic. Alabama currently leads the nation in narcotic prescription use, according to recent studies.
Ritchea quietly stood in federal court and admitted to using his practice as a pill mill, prescribing addictive opioids to people who didn't need it, knowing the pills could or would be sold on the street.
"If America doesn't get in control of its drugs, its drugs are going to get in control of America," stated U.S. Attorney George Beck. "When a maverick doctor prescribes opioids to someone whose isn't entitled to them, and over prescribes, he's committing a felony and he is acting as bad as the Mexican cartel."
Beck bluntly stated Ritchea and doctors like him are no different than drug dealers. Those close to Richea's case describe it as extreme compared to similar cases investigated in the state.
Court documents depict a desperate situation: patients showing up to Ritchea's practice in vans and buses, some from out of state, who would get their prescriptions and travel elsewhere to have it filled to avoid red flags.
A local pharmacist was noted in court documents stating most pharmacies the size of his fill around 600 Roxicodone pills in a week. His pharmacy was filling 4,000 pills a week for Ritchea's patients alone. Corporate loss-prevention launched an investigation to rule out whether the pills were being stolen due to the high volume processed in the pharmacy.
Other pharmacists across the state reported Ritchea to the DEA citing red flags such as out of state addresses and prescriptions for high numbers of narcotics.
The system of checks and balances worked. Investigators were tipped off and many pharmacists refused to fill Richea's prescriptions.
"The pharmacists did what they should do and cut his supply off," Beck explained. "Instead, this doctor goes straight to the manufacturing companies and hides the purchase of those drugs."
Ritchea pleaded guilty in court to going straight to the drug manufacturer, purchasing the opioids, and dispensing the narcotics inside his office. Beck explained investigators are still working to assign a monetary amount to those transactions, as they were generally made in cash and difficult to track.
Beck said the practice of usurping pharmacies for narcotics is a red flag.
"It's not against the law, but it's a way to hide the false practice they are conducting," Beck said. "Obviously, some of those patients who were getting the drugs were disturbing them and selling them."
Court documents also showed a patient of Ritchea's who was prescribed a large dose of controlled substances died from an accidental overdose, something that was not addressed during the hearing.
Ritchea could face up to 40 years combined for both charges. He is no longer practicing medicine and has surrendered his medical license.
Ritchea was taken into custody immediately after the hearing and will be detained until his sentencing. A date for that hearing has not been set. His attorneys declined to comment following the hearing.