Prosecutors present evidence, testimony in murder case of Santa Rosa pain doctor
During the last three weeks of Jerri Lee Badenhop-Bionda’s life, her husband said he spent every day trying to get her treatment for an addiction to prescribed narcotics pills that made her lethargic and willing to let her finances and all else spiral into chaos.
Badenhop-Bionda, 52, of the Sonoma Valley, enjoyed many sober years after kicking a heroin addiction in the 1990s, according to her husband, Avery Badenhop, who testified in Sonoma County Superior Court Tuesday at a preliminary hearing for the doctor accused of killing Badenhop’s wife by overprescribing pain medications.
But sometime over the past decade, Badenhop-Bionda became desperately reliant on pain pills prescribed by Santa Rosa neurosurgeon and pain 7 Dr. Thomas McNeese Keller and other physicians, according to testimony from her husband and evidence prosecutors introduced in court. She died in 2016 from a lethal overdose of at least two opioids and the sedative Xanax, which Sonoma County sheriff’s detectives said were prescribed to her.
“I believe this doctor killed her,” Badenhop said, nodding toward Keller, 72, seated at the defense table in the courtroom.
State prosecutors Tuesday began outlining the evidence against Keller, who stands charged with second- degree murder in the deaths of four of his patients, including Badenhop-Bionda. Keller, who pleaded not guilty to the charges after his arrest in August, was also accused of felony elder abuse and four counts of issuing prescriptions without legitimate medical purposes in connection with four other patients.
The state charges came almost a year after Keller was indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of health care fraud and illegally distributing opioids. Keller suspended his medical practice last fall and surrendered his license to prescribe medications.
Keller remains in custody at the Sonoma County Jail on $12 million bail, a significant deterrent to release Deputy Attorney General Thomas Brennan argued was necessary because he claimed Keller posed both a risk of flight and a potential danger to public safety.
Prosecutors began by introducing into evidence Keller’s medical records for nine of his patients and the toxicology reports for the four who died, all of which were seized by special agents with a division of the California Department of Justice Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse.
Avery Badenhop was the only family member of one of Keller’s patients to testify Tuesday.
Prosecutors will continue outlining their case against Keller on Wednesday in what could be a two- or three- day preliminary hearing before Judge Chris Honigsberg will decide whether there is enough evidence to try Keller for murder and the other charges.
But potential weaknesses in the state’s case against Keller emerged Tuesday in questions from Keller’s attorney John Cox, who cross-examined investigators and Badenhop about how many doctors had issued prescriptions to her. Sheriff coroner detectives found a brown paper grocery bag about half full with a variety of medication bottles, not all prescribed by Keller, according to court testimony.
Keller’s attorney asked him if he knew how many doctors were prescribing pills to his wife.
Badenhop said he did not know.
“She was an addict. She had a doctor who would give her her fix,” Badenhop said.