Murder trial begins for Santa Rosa doctor accused of overprescribing opioids
After years watching her mother’s addiction grow, Sonoma County resident Jaidene James confronted the doctor writing her mother’s prescriptions for the strong opiate oxycodone, she testified in court Wednesday.
In an exam room beside her mother, Andrea Flocchini, James told Santa Rosa pain doctor Thomas Keller she feared the drugs were making her mother lethargic and clumsy, sometimes causing her to suddenly fall unconscious, she said from the witness stand in Sonoma County Superior Court. James said she repeatedly found her mother unresponsive on the floor in their home, sometimes forcing her to revive her with CPR and call 911.
“I explained she was abusing the pills, hurting herself and couldn’t stop,” James, 28, said.
On the first day of trial in an unusual case of a doctor accused of killing four patients by overprescribing opioids, state prosecutors said Keller continued prescribing strong pain medication to Flocchini for at least another year after that exam room encounter. Flocchini died after overdosing on the medication on July 18, 2014 — two days after she received 120 pills of oxycodone prescribed by him, according to court testimony.
“This case is about betrayal,” Deputy Attorney General Meghan Anderson said during opening statements to the jury. “The evidence will show the defendant betrayed his patients time and again by turning them into drug addicts.”
Keller, 72, was arrested in August and stands accused of second-degree murder in the deaths of Sonoma County residents Tripo Nelson, Ashlee McDonald, Dean Rielli and Jerri Lee Badenhop-Bionda, charges that together carry a potential prison term of 60 years to life.
Keller is not charged in the death of Flocchini. But prosecutors said her death should have been a warning for Keller and put him “on notice” that he was putting his patients’ lives in danger.
He is also charged with elder abuse and recklessly prescribing medications in connection with five additional patients he treated at his medical practice on Farmers Lane, which he opened in 2008. Keller shifted his focus to pain management starting in 2011.
Keller’s lawyer asked jurors to be cautious about blaming a doctor for the complicated health conditions and history of drug abuse among some of his patients. Defense attorney John Cox asked the jurors to listen to evidence showing that while Keller may have been unhappy and rude, he treated a group of patients living with chronic pain at a time when medical providers had been trained to eradicate patient pain and drug companies were peddling opioids as safe.
“I don’t expect you to like Dr. Keller, you might hate him — I don’t care,” Cox said. “Hatred is not evidence of a crime.”
Against a backdrop of an entrenched opioid epidemic, the case is one of a handful across the country where prosecutors have brought murder charges against doctors or pharmacists seeking to hold the providers responsible for patients’ addictions and deaths. A Los Angeles doctor is serving 30 years to life in state prison after a jury in 2015 convicted her of three counts of second-degree murder for opioid-related deaths, as well as 20 other crimes.
Keller’s trial is the first led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra following an investigation led by a division of the California Department of Justice Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse.