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Santa Rosa surgeon faces murder charges for overprescribing pain medications

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A Santa Rosa doctor faces second-degree murder and elder abuse charges for allegedly overprescribing pain medications causing the deaths of four patients, in an unprecedented case statewide, the California Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday.

Neurosurgeon and pain management specialist Dr. Thomas Keller, 72, stands accused of four counts of felony murder, a single felony count of elder abuse plus four felony counts of issuing prescriptions for opioids without a legitimate medical purpose between 2013 and 2018, according to a criminal complaint filed Aug. 8 in Sonoma County Superior Court.

“This is the first time we have arrested and presented charges against a doctor for murder for overprescribing opioids,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

The complaint alleged that Keller often prescribed his patients maximum dosages of narcotic painkillers in quantities of 180 to 300 pills for each prescription.

Keller was arrested Monday in Santa Rosa and booked into Sonoma County Jail, where he remains in custody pending arraignment and bail consideration in Sonoma County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Keller’s attorney John Cox said the charges Becerra’s office brought against his client are an effort to second guess and criminalize an established doctor.

“The Attorney General’s Office is absolutely overreaching in an effort to try and show they are doing something about the opioid crisis,” said Cox, who has offices in Santa Rosa and San Francisco. “Keller has been a pillar in the Santa Rosa community for many years and grew up there, and he has always tried his best to treat patients properly. This case is an injustice to him.”

The state’s criminal charges come almost a year after Keller was indicted by a federal grand jury for alleged health care fraud and illegally distributing opioids for a period of more than a year.

State authorities began investigating Keller a little more than a year ago for alleged elder abuse. That investigation culminated this week when state officials worked with local law enforcement agencies to arrest the surgeon.

Keller earned his medical license in California in 1974, after graduating from the UC Davis School of Medicine. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army and Air Force as a neurosurgeon. In 2008, he opened a private practice in Santa Rosa where he treated patients for pain management and neurology disorders. As of Wednesday, the Medical Board of California still lists Keller on its website as having an active medical license.

Keller had his medical license temporarily suspended in 1990 for allegations of sexually abusing 10 female patients, according to a complaint filed that year by the Medical Board of California. His license was reinstated in 1994 and Keller completed a probation period in 1997, which included 42 psychotherapy sessions and supervised volunteer work within the medical community.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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