Southern California

Physician and Pharmacy Help Fuel Demand for Illegal Pain Pills

Federal prosecutor says these health providers are acting as "drug pushers"

He would visit the doctor during peculiar hours; between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday.

Under the cover of darkness, in a strip mall in La Puente, a man calling himself "Juan" came in search of powerful pain pills and other controlled substances. He didn't have any identification and he told the doctor he was either drunk or on drugs.

It didn't matter. He got what he came for.

Dr. Daniel Cham, who was a licensed physician in California at the time, handed "Juan" prescriptions for hundreds of pills including Oxycodone, a powerful opioid, Xanax, a sedative, and Soma, a muscle relaxer.

"Dr. Cham was not practicing legitimate medicine. Dr. Cham was, in the eyes of the law, a drug pusher," said Ben Barron, an Assistant United States Attorney who prosecuted Dr. Cham who was charged with narcotics trafficking, money laundering, fraud, and making a false statement to authorities.

What Dr. Cham didn't know was that the patient who called himself "Juan," was actually an undercover Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detective and that he was secretly filming his interactions with the physician.

During one visit, Dr. Cham asks the undercover agent, "What else do you need?" In response, the detective tells him, "How about some Soma?" Dr. Cham then asks how much he wants. "Let's go with 3 times a day," replies the agent.

Dr. Cham also asked the detective how he wanted the prescriptions filled out. "Is it all on one script?" asks Dr. Cham. The detective responds, "Can you make it two again like last time? Can you put the Oxy and Soma together and the Xanax on the other one?"

"Dr. Cham did no physical examination; he would tell the agent what symptoms he should claim to feel," said Barron. "Dr. Cham demanded 300 dollars cash for a prescription for hydrocodone or vicodin."

Barron says the doctor would sometimes ask for more money when the undercover agent asked for more powerful pain pills like oxycodone. The prosecutor says that's typical in these cases. The more powerful the medication, the more money the physician wants in return for a prescription.

"When's the last time you went to a doctor and the doctor said I'm sorry it's cash or money order only," said Barron.

According to legal documents obtained by the NBC4 I-Team, Dr. Cham wrote prescriptions for three million Oxycodone and Hydrocodone pills. Many of them were given to drug dealers who then sold the medications to other dealers and customers in Texas, Washington and Oregon.

"In Dr. Cham's case, we were actually able to link his prescriptions to multiple deaths. In particular the death of a young woman in Oregon," said Barron.

Her name was Jessica Morretti and she was the mother of two young daughters. Morretti was found passed out in her car in Grants Pass, Oregon. She never regained consciousness. The Oregon State Medical Examiner said "the level of oxycodone in Morretti's system was within the lethal range." Pills she obtained from a local drug dealer who got them from a prescription written by Dr. Cham.

"There's absolutely no way that somebody could spread that volume of narcotics to the black market to addicts, and it not result in major debilitating injuries, death and obviously the emotional trauma that comes with it," explained Barron.

Dr. Cham pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of oxycodone and one count of money laundering. He's now awaiting sentencing where he faces up to 40 years in prison.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health show that California is doing better than most states in preventing opioid abuse. And most opioid abusers get their pills from friends and family members not the black market. But Barron points out that these Southern California based "pill mill" medical professionals are helping fuel opioid abuse epidemics in other parts of the country. And Barron says Dr. Cham isn't an anomaly. He says other local medical professionals are also cashing in on the nationwide demand for opioids.

In January, for instance, a federal jury found brothers Berry and Dalibor Kabov guilty of distributing narcotics and money laundering. The brothers ran Global Compounding Pharmacy in Brentwood. Law enforcement officials say the business was simply a front for old fashioned drug dealing.

"This crime is all about creating a veneer of legitimacy," said Barron. "Before they opened the pharmacy they were black market drug dealers selling oxycodone all over the country."

Police used surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the pharmacy. While they often saw the Kabov brothers pulling up in their BMW's outside the business, they say they never saw any customers go in. At the same time, police were recording Berry Kabov's phone calls when he was arranging to sell pain pills to a drug dealer in Ohio.

Kabov can be heard on the call saying, "these things are like gold down there man, they go like for 50 bucks a pill."

Federal authorities say the pharmacy shipped thousands of pain pills to dealers in the Midwest, hidden in the pages of bodybuilding magazines, or in care packages containing cookies and other items. In one box, the brother included a note reading "get well soon." The drug dealers would then sent cash back to the Kabovs tucked inside the magazines.

"The illegal opioid trade involves just about everybody in the medical community," said Barron.

The Kabovs are scheduled to be sentenced in July. They face maximum sentences of over 300 years in federal prison.

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