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Former patients say Santa Rosa pain doctor Thomas Keller, on trial for murder, provided good care

A Santa Rosa pain doctor on trial for murder launched his defense Thursday with the testimony of former patients who said he provided quality care for their chronic pain problems, offering another view of the man accused of recklessly over-prescribing opiates and causing the deaths of four patients.

In contrast to the image presented by prosecutors of a crass and careless doctor prescribing dangerous combinations and dosages of drugs, these patients who testified Thursday said they received no pressure to increase their intake of strong opiates from Thomas Keller, who ran a pain practice on Farmers Lane in Santa Rosa.

Kathleen Comfort, a longtime educator and Santa Rosa resident, said Keller provided valuable advice, steering her away from a procedure recommended by a Santa Rosa surgeon and referring her to a San Francisco specialist who has put her on a path of full recovery. Comfort testified that she has developed debilitating pain from spinal stenosis, a condition caused by the compression of the spinal column, and that Keller helped her maintain a low intake of pain medications so she could both work and walk.

“He always treated me with respect,” Comfort said.

Keller is charged with second-degree murder for the deaths of four patients: Tripo Nelson, Ashlee McDonald, Dean Rielli and Jerri Lee Badenhop-?Bionda. The four Sonoma County residents all died of drug overdoses between 2013 and 2018. He is also charged with elder abuse and recklessly prescribing medications in connection with five additional patients.

Keller is also facing federal charges and a June trial for prescribing drugs outside the scope of practice and two charges of Medicare fraud.

Comfort and other patients’ testimony Thursday bolstered the defense’s argument that Keller provided fine care to his pain patients, which included some struggling with substance abuse, even if he may have been an abrasive and unlikeable character at times.

Keller’s defense began Thursday morning after the prosecution rested their case. The trial began four weeks ago and has involved testimony from relatives of patients who died as well as former patients who claimed Keller fueled or created their addictions with lasting, painful consequences to their lives.

Last week, the prosecution presented portions of Keller’s private journal in which he wrote sometimes hateful and derogatory thoughts about his patients, appeared to celebrate their deaths and called himself a legal drug dealer.

The trial started with the tearful testimony of a woman who pleaded with Keller to reduce the opiates and other drugs he had prescribed because of the terrifying effects: falling asleep while standing.

Her mother stopped breathing on several occasions and had to be resuscitated.

Her mother, Andrea Flocchini, would die from an overdose on July 18, 2014, two days after filling a prescription from Keller for oxycodone.

Prosecutors said Flocchini’s death should have been a warning to Keller about the grave risks his patients faced taking increasing dosages of a risky combination of drugs called the “holy trinity” - opiates, muscle relaxers and a potent category of anti-anxiety medications.

Prosecutors said they didn’t know about Flocchini’s death until they had already charged Keller with the other murders.

During cross examination of Comfort Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Meghan Anderson suggested Keller was a different doctor to patients with confidence compared to ones who came in with more vulnerabilities.

Comfort answered affirmatively when Anderson suggested that she was an aggressive advocate for her own care and passionate about her career.

“Is it fair to say you’re not a pushover?” Anderson said.

“Yes,” Comfort said.

A 52-year-old Sonoma County man testified he has suffered from debilitating back pain ever since 2000 when he was forced to try to catch a 300-pound coworker who leapt from a ladder during a team-building exercise required at Kaiser Permanente.

David Burleson said he eventually had to quit his job because the pain was intolerable and has been on disability for more than 15 years.

He has been a patient of several pain doctors including Keller and they have all prescribed him a combination of opiates and anti-anxiety benzodiazepines, which help him sleep.

“When you went to Dr. Keller, did he increase your dosage?” asked Keller’s defense attorney, Jonathan Cox.

“No, I started asking for less,” Burleson said, adding that Keller was supportive.

Burleson said he decided on his own to decrease his pain pill intake after nearly falling asleep at the wheel in 2012 with his wife and son in the vehicle.

Keller’s defense is expected to present a medical expert to offer an opposing opinion on the factors that led to the deaths of Keller’s patients, seeking to rebut evidence from the prosecution pointing to a pattern of reckless prescribing.

A mother of one of the people who died is also expected to testify that she feels her daughter’s death was a suicide and not caused by Keller.

The trial is expected to close mid-March, then go to the jury for deliberations.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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