Despite repeated warnings and complaints from pharmacists and other physicians, a Santa Barbara doctor dubbed the “Candy Man” continued to write prescriptions for narcotic pain killers and sedatives, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
Julio Gabriel Diaz’s attorney, however, put the blame on dishonest patients.
In the past, prosecutors have said his practices led to the deaths of 20 patients.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Wolf pointed to the death of 27-year-old Adam Montgomery in her opening statement to jurors.
“He died alone, a day after Thanksgiving,” Wolf said. “He was an addict in desperate need of a doctor’s help.”
Montgomery received 1,140 opiates that were “highly addictive, highly dangerous and highly abused,” Wolf said.
“Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear how the defendant abandoned his duties as a doctor and became a drug dealer,” Wolf said.
Despite warnings and pleas from professional colleagues, Diaz “continued to sell and prescribe highly addictive, controlled substances…. for no legitimate medical purpose,” Wolf said.
The case against Diaz started when many of those professional colleagues began complaining to the authorities, Wolf said.
At Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, officials began logging how many of Diaz’s patients came in suffering withdrawal and overdoses, Wolf said. They counted about 410 emergency room visits by his patients from January 2009 to December 2010, according to prosecutors.
Diaz did not stop “until his practice was closed down,” Wolf said.
When one of his staff raised concerns about the prescriptions, Diaz fired her, Wolf said.
Some patients would drop by without an appointment and receive a prescription, Wolf said. Some would get pills even when they didn’t see the doctor, Wolf said.
Most of the patients were in their 20s and paid cash, prosecutors alleged.
Diaz’s attorney, Kate Corrigan, said her client’s practice initially focused on elderly patients, who could be relied upon to be honest about their symptoms. After he took classes in pain management, the focus of his practice changed and so did his base of patients, who weren’t so honest about what they needed, Corrigan said.
“I’m going to ask you to take a broad look at the evidence,” Corrigan told the jurors. “Be open minded and find my client did not violate the law the way the government is arguing and return a verdict of not guilty.”
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in December allowed Diaz to withdraw a guilty plea based on a claim that he received ineffective counsel from his prior attorney, Michael Guisti.
In January 2014, Diaz admitted 10 counts of distributing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose and one count of distributing controlled substances to a minor.
Diaz now faces 79 counts of prescribing narcotics outside the usual course of professional practice, including drugs such as oxycodone, methadone, hydromorphone, fentanyl and hydrocodone, and five counts of prescribing drugs to patients younger than 21.
At a hearing in June 2014, Guisti argued that Wolf told him that his client could get probation for his guilty plea to 11 out of 88 felony counts.
Guisti said then he was unaware federal prosecutors would raise at sentencing the issue of the 20 deaths allegedly linked to the Santa Barbara physician’s prescriptions. Carney said at the July 2014 hearing that it was clear the defendant faced up to 200 years in federal prison.
“I told him I’m not going to sentence him to 200 years, but I didn’t know how far below 200 years I was going to go,” Carney said.
Guisti argued that his client was never charged with the overdose deaths, but Carney said that did not matter.
“If the deaths can be linked to the prescriptions for medication that was not medically necessary, I feel under the law I must — I don’t think it’s discretionary — I must consider that,” Carney said.
At the hearing last summer, Wolf denied her office ever offered probation.
In her motion objecting to the withdrawal of the guilty plea, Wolf argued, “Bad advice about the length of a sentence rarely supports a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Wolf planned to argue for a 14-year prison sentence for Diaz.
Corrigan alleged her client received “totally deficient” legal representation by Guisti, and at trial “will have the opportunity to exercise his rights to review the discovery and make informed decisions.”
In the plea deal, Diaz said he doled out narcotics such as Oxycodone, methadone, Hydrocodone, Alprazolam, fentanyl and Hydromorphone in 2009 and 2010.
— City News Service