Former patient and undercover agent testify in Santa Rosa doctor’s murder trial
A patient of the Santa Rosa pain specialist on trial testified Thursday that she first met him in the role of caretaker for her husband, who was awaiting spinal surgery for a disabling neck condition.
But a month into that treatment, Dr. Thomas Keller offered to prescribe narcotics for the wife, Jennifer Silver, even though she had no real complaint at first beyond occasional soreness from daily workouts at the gym, according to her testimony in Sonoma County Superior Court.
Silver described a bewildering ramp up in the potency and number of drugs she was prescribed by Keller, leading quickly to an acute, debilitating addiction that lasted over four years of visits with the doctor.
Then in late 2015, he suddenly, inexplicably told her “to get the f--k out” when she came in to renew her prescriptions one day, she testified. It was “devastating.”
Her testimony came in the fourth week of a trial in which Keller stands accused of causing the death of four patients who died of drug overdoses while under his care between 2013 and 2018. The patients, all Sonoma County residents include Tripo Nelson, Ashlee McDonald, Dean Rielli and Jerri Lee Badenhop-Bionda.
The California Attorney General’s Office, in a first-of-its-kind case for the state agency, has charged Keller with four counts of second-degree murder, charges that could earn him 60 years to life in prison.
The doctor has shuttered his Farmers Lane office and surrendered his medical license. He has been held in the county jail since his arrest last August. His bail is set at $12 million.
In a separate jury trial scheduled for June in federal court, Keller faces three charges of prescribing drugs outside the scope of practice and two charges of Medicare fraud.
Silver said at times she was taking 29 pills a day, most of them from the so-called “holy trinity” — a high-risk cocktail of Oxycodone, Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and Soma, a muscle relaxer. After Keller abruptly canceled her treatment she was forced to detox on her own, cold turkey, without help, she said.
“It was like dying,” she said, describing weeks of vomiting, dry heaves and other unpleasant symptoms.
She is one of four victims identified in the criminal complaint whom prosecutors said Keller prescribed drugs to without any legitimate medical reason.
Another of the victims, an undercover agent who posed as a drug-seeking patient, testified Thursday that Keller told him he shouldn’t be taking opioids, but the doctor prescribed them anyway.
The undercover agent, California Department of Justice Special Agent Ross Martin, told of laying the trap that would help support bringing charges against Keller. It required first that he start a doctor-patient relationship he discovered would be weird in the extreme.
He had partial proof in a video-recording taken with a hidden camera during a 2018 visit in which Keller appeared both giddy and agitated, telling jokes to any patient within earshot and grousing in crude language about the impact of increased alarm over the nation’s opioid epidemic.
He had in his office several copies of a newspaper story about the risks of using narcotics to treat chronic pain. At one point during Martin’s visit Keller handed him the article to read, Martin said.