Phenix City “pill mill” doctor gets 10 years for drug conspiracy

(File: CBS News)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A LaGrange man will now spend the next 10 years in prison for operating a “pill mill” through his medical practice in Phenix City.

Prosecutors say 54-year-old Robert Ritchea received his sentence Tuesday. Court records show Ritchea had a family doctor’s office in Phenix City where he wrote prescriptions for highly abusive prescription drugs, knowing his patients didn’t actually need them.

Ritchea was also convicted of money laundering after using the proceeds from his illegal drug dealings to buy more drugs for his “pill mill” directly from the manufacturers. Prosecutors say Ritchea needed to buy the drugs direct and sell them from his office, since pharmacists in the Phenix City areas refused to fill his unusually large prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and hydromorphone.

At the sentencing hearing, the Government introduced evidence showing in at least one case, one of Dr. Ritchea’s patients died from a methadone overdose just days after receiving Ritchea’s prescription for that drug.

The sentencing court also heard testimony from former patients of Dr. Ritchea’s who had maintained their addictions to prescription drugs by obtaining monthly prescriptions from him. These patients testified they made cash payments to Dr. Ritchea of at least $150 each month in exchange for office visits and prescriptions.  The patients described the horrible impact the addiction had on their lives and families.

When he imposed the sentence, Chief United States District Judge W. Keith Watkins told Dr. Ritchea his crime was no better than a drug dealer operating on a street corner. The judge also stressed the need to deter other doctors from overprescribing prescription drugs.

The 120-month sentence reflects one of the largest ever imposed by a federal judge in Alabama on a doctor for operating a pill mill.

“The abuse of opiates destroys careers, divides families, severs relationships, and, as we saw in this case, it takes lives,” says Acting United States Attorney Morris. “In exchange for monthly cash payments, Dr. Ritchea poured poison into his community. Society trusted Dr. Ritchea to care for the sick, not make people sick.  Dr. Ritchea violated that trust and the harm he caused was immense.  I believe the ten-year sentence was certainly justified.”

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