By Ed Runyan
News out of the Trumbull County Courthouse in the past year has focused increasingly on damage to people’s lives resulting from drug abuse.
Examples include the dazed Austintown truck driver with unprescribed pills in his body who killed three Marine Corps recruits in a crash on state Route 5 west of Warren in 2010 and the former Austintown man whose combination of unprescribed drugs and alcohol led to a head-on crash in Newton Township last year that killed a couple returning home from an anniversary dinner.
Last month, federal, state and local officials said they had completed a 10-month investigation, resulting in nearly 100 indictments of Warren-area residents accused of drug and weapons dealing. Much of it focused on street sales of heroin.
And two weeks ago, state statistics showed Trumbull County had among the highest number of overdose deaths per capita in the state in 2011, ranking seventh highest among Ohio’s 88 counties. Mahoning County ranked 19th; Columbiana County, 52nd.
While officials watched Ohio’s drug-abuse death rate rise 335 percent between 1999 and 2009, it might have seemed as if the problem was focused in southern Ohio, where unscrupulous doctors ran so-called “pill mills” — a place for patients to buy large amounts of dangerous painkillers after only a few minutes in a doctor’s office attached to the pharmacy.
But the 2011 statistics showed Trumbull County’s accidental death rate to be in the same league with the southern Ohio counties.
April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, says Trumbull County did have one sort of “pill mill” of its own, though it was never formally called that.
In 2009, officials with Trumbull County’s chief narcotics unit, the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, as well as the Ohio Board of Pharmacy conducted an investigation of Overholt’s Champion Pharmacy and Dr. Peter Franklin, who ran a Middlefield pain clinic.
They discovered that Franklin wrote prescriptions in 2007 and 2008 for large amounts of pain medications and other dangerous drugs such as OxyContin, methodone, hydromorphine, methodose, Suboxone, oxycodone — sometimes 10 times the normal amount.
And Overholt’s Champion Pharmacy, owned by Kenneth Overholt Jr., filled many of the prescriptions.
Investigators say their actions were illegal because they knew the drugs were not for a valid purpose.
Though the phrase “pill mill” typically refers to a pharmacy that also employs a doctor, the Overholt pharmacy was the “pill” half of the mill, officials say. The dozen pill mills in southern Ohio also worked on a strictly cash basis, which was not alleged at the Overholt pharmacy.
Overholt, a Champion Township trustee from 1982 to 1997, was a well respected member of the community, and the pharmacy was among the community’s most respected businesses.
But in March 2011, Overholt, then 56 and ill from a chronic lung condition, pleaded guilty to five counts of drug trafficking. He was sentenced earlier this year to 18 months house arrest on five counts of aggravated drug trafficking. He forfeited $100,000 in drug-trafficking proceeds.
Documents from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy show that Overholt filled prescriptions seven times in eight months for one man — referred to as “Joseph H.” — giving him 900 tablets of 8 milligram hydromorphone three times in three months, plus 120 tablets of oxycodone, 240 tablets of methadose, 60 capsules of Adderall and 60 tablets of diazepam each of the three months.
Darryl Rodgers, drug court coordinator for Trumbull County, said he’s never seen such a large amount of drugs for one person in 25 years in the business. The hydromorphone and oxycodone are pain pills. The three others calm a person down.
“I don’t know how a person could take all of those without overdosing,” Caraway said of the hydromorphone — which works out to 30 per day. “You would have to assume they’re selling those.”
Two pharmacists who worked for Overholt — Andrea Luchette, 39, of Masury and Robert Gaves, 65, of Newton Falls — pleaded guilty to complicity to deception to obtain a dangerous drug for filling many similar prescriptions at Overholt’s direction. Both were sentenced by the court to probation.
The state permanently revoked the pharmacy licenses of all three in October 2011.
Franklin, 73, of Geauga County, was murdered by his wife in August 2009.
“I’m glad they lost their licenses and can’t put more pills out there,” Caraway said of the three pharmacists, saying it’s important for other pharmacists to know that their careers can be over if they don’t do their job.
Now under new ownership, the pharmacy has been renamed Champion Medicine Shoppe.
Caraway and Jeff Orr, commander of TAG, say it’s hard to quantify the amount of damage that resulted from the Dr. Franklin-Overholt Pharmacy connection.
Mike Burnett, an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor working on the cases against Overholt, Luchette and Gaves, said he believes the extra drugs had an impact on Trumbull and Geauga counties.
“I believe it made it easier to get access to these drugs, he said.
Caraway and Orr say Dr. Franklin isn’t the only physician guilty of overprescribing pain medications locally.
“Why do so many doctors write so many prescriptions for pain medication in Trumbull County? I don’t know,” Orr said. The number of opiates prescribed in Trumbull County is “well above the average” with the pain killer OxyContin being the most abused, Orr said. He suspects one reason is they are fearful of lawsuits.
Caraway says doctors in some cases are helping people supplement their incomes by prescribing a larger amount of drugs than they need because the patient wants extras to sell.
Jesse L. Wimberly, public information officer for the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, said the agency takes the criminal actions of the pill mills, Overholt, Luchette and Gaves seriously because pharmacists play such an important role in public safety.
“They’re the last person you see when you’re getting the prescription,” he said. “The doctor can write the prescription all day long, but the dispensing of the medicine is the final transaction.”
People already understand how important that is when evaluating the interaction of drugs, Wimberly said.
For instance, the pharmacist is responsible for knowing whether two doctors have prescribed medicines that will badly interact with each other.
Equally important is to “check it for legitimate purposes,” he said.
Pharmacists frequently alert officials to possibly illegitimate prescriptions, he said, but it’s “the ones who pick up on [bad prescriptions] and continue to profit off of it; they are the ones being charged,” Wimberly said.
Passage of House Bill 93 in May 2011 has helped prevent additional pill mills from opening in Ohio, Wimberly said.
Investigations closed 11 pill mills blamed for making the Portsmouth area one of the worst in the nation for prescription- painkiller abuse, he said.
In Trumbull County, signs point to significant declines in drug abuse. For example, overdose-related deaths fell 39 percent in 2012 from 2011, according to Trumbull County Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk.
Caraway said she thinks the actions taken by the state have tightened the flow of prescription drugs in Ohio, but sometimes that just causes a user to switch to street drugs such as heroin.
Sometimes it causes people to seek help. The best way is to call 211, Caraway said, and speak to a crisis counselor at the Help Hotline of Youngstown.