Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

A former physician dubbed the “Candy Man” for writing illegal prescriptions for a significant volume of narcotics for his patients, including at least one who died, was sentenced Monday to 27 years in federal prison.

Julio Gabriel Diaz, 67, was convicted Aug. 28 of 79 counts of writing medically unnecessary prescriptions for narcotic painkillers and sedatives for nine patients, including the one who died.

In January of last year, Diaz struck a plea deal, which he won the right to have withdrawn a year ago when it became clear he would not get probation as he believed and that prosecutors were prepared to argue for a 14-year sentence.

Defense attorney Kate Corrigan argued for 120 months, saying the higher term would amount to a life sentence.

But U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney sided with Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Wolf, who argued that a message of deterrence needed to be sent, and sentenced the defendant to 327 months behind bars.

“A medical doctor is supposed to do no harm,” Wolf told City News Service.

The prosecutor added she argued for the “deterrent value to any other doctor who would consider profiting from the sale of prescriptions and prescription medications by turning people into addicts and fueling their addictions with these incredibly dangerous and highly addictive and destructive drugs.”

Diaz — whose patients called him the “Candy Man” — committed a severe breach of trust, the prosecutor said.

“He’s a highly educated man, respected by society, and he’s taken an oath to do no harm and instead he became a drug dealer,” Wolf said. “He even testified during the trial that overdoses were something he had to get used to, and basically my position is that is the response of a drug dealer. To a drug dealer, overdoses are a cost of doing business.”

The drugs prescribed by doctors are just as dangerous as the popular opioids on the street such as heroin, but patients get a “a false sense of security” they don’t get from a dealer who peddles them illegally, Wolf said.

There’s also evidence that some patients who become addicted to prescription narcotics often turn to drug dealers, whose services can be less expensive, when the addicts can no longer obtain prescriptions, the prosecutor said.

Wolf also noted that abuse of prescription narcotics is a national issue, but has become a particularly thorny problem in Orange County.

After Diaz struck his plea deal last year, Wolf alleged the actions of the defendant may have led to the deaths of as many as 20 patients.

Wolf pointed to the death of 27-year-old Adam Montgomery in her opening statement to jurors, saying he received 1,140 opiates that were “highly addictive, highly dangerous and highly abused.”

Despite warnings and pleas from professional colleagues, Diaz “continued to sell and prescribe highly addictive, controlled substances … for no legitimate medical purpose,” Wolf said.

According to the prosecutor, the case against Diaz started when many of those professional colleagues began complaining to the authorities.

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 the prosecution.

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, and some would get pills even when they didn’t see the doctor.

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.

In January 2014, Diaz pleaded guilty to 10 counts of distributing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose and one count of distributing controlled substances to a minor. But Carney allowed Diaz to withdraw his plea, saying he received ineffective representation from his previous lawyer.

—City News Service

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