Two doctors from New York and New Jersey are among 22 people charged in a ring that federal prosecutors say trafficked in and sold millions of dollars' worth of oxycodone tablets to people across the region.
Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, said 16 of those charged, including the alleged ringleaders, 47-year-old Christopher Erwin of Barnegat, were arrested Wednesday morning and were due in court later in the day. Another person was already in custody on an unrelated matter; the rest, including one of the doctors, 53-year-old Hassan Lahham of New York City, were still being sought Wednesday afternoon.
"We have a good idea of where they likely are, and we're looking for them,'' Fishman said. He declined further comment on the search, but said he was confident the remaining defendants would be tracked down soon.
All 22 are charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute oxycodone. Each could face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million, and it wasn't known Wednesday afternoon if any of the defendants had retained attorneys.
The doctors -- 50-year-old Jacqueline LoPresti, an osteopath who has an office in Little Silver, N.J., and Lahham, who was licensed in New York -- illegally wrote more than 6,000 prescriptions for more than 500,000 oxycodone tablets between January 2009 and December 2010, Fishman said, despite knowing they would be redistributed as part of the trafficking scheme.
In return, they allegedly received various cash payments from the ring's leaders.
Fishman said Erwin and other ring members recruited people to pose as patients, who would receive only cursory examinations by the two doctors. The doctors would then give them painkiller prescriptions that were not medically necessary.
The ring also employed "runners'' who would take the patients to various pharmacies in Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean counties to have the prescriptions filled, Fishman said. This was part of the ring's efforts to avoid detection by pharmacists or law enforcement authorities.
The drugs were turned over to high-ranking ring members, who then sold or arranged the sales of various quantities of the 30-miligram tablets to individuals at various locations across the region.
In return for their services, the patients and runners received either cash payments or some of the pills obtained through the scheme, and in some instances, both.
"Erwin had the pills go through him or those close to him, so he could control the flow,'' Fishman said during a news conference outside the federal courthouse building in Trenton.
Noting that prescription drug abuse is "the fastest growing drug problem in the country,'' Fishman said it was particularly troubling to find that two doctors were involved in the matter.
Fishman also noted other recent cases of physicians facing similar allegations. "We trust our doctors to heal our bodies, not poison our communities. We can't and we shouldn't put up with those we count on for our well-being to make a fast buck peddling pills.''