A Del Mar osteopath will spend nearly five years in federal custody for selling prescriptions for powerful pills to drug dealers and addicts, in exchange for cash and gifts.
William Joseph Watson, 59, who was an osteopathic physician in Del Mar, was sentenced Monday morning in federal court. He pleaded guilty in August to one count of conspiracy to distribute and dispense oxycodone without a legitimate medical purpose.
The U.S Attorney’s office had filed a 40- count criminal complaint against him, alleging a blatant and wide-spread practice of illegally selling prescriptions for controlled substances. At his sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge James Lorenz indicated that if Watson had insisted on a jury trial, he could well have been convicted on numerous counts, and faced decades in federal prison.
On his way to Federal Court before the sentencing hearing, Watson told NBC 7 Investigates, “I’m a great doctor. I’ve treated so many people.”
His court-appointed lawyer, Lynn Ball, also told Judge Lorenz that Watson “had provided a tremendous service to his patients,” and was a gifted healer and alternative therapist, who has “magic touching hands.”
The defense said Watson’s medical practice -- and his entire life -- was sidetracked by mental illness, including bi-polar disorder, manic behaviors, and problems with alcohol. Watson lectured his patients about the dangers of food additives and non-organic products, and was stridently anti-war. Those comments alienated many patients, who stopped seeing Dr. Watson.
Addressing the judge before the sentencing, Watson said “everything was very confusing” in his life -- and his osteopathic medical practice -- during the years in question (2007-2014). He admitted making “serious mistakes” and said he accepts full responsibility for wrongly prescribing thousands of powerful narcotics, including Oxycodone, to patients without performing a proper physical exam and property assessing their need for the addictive pain killers. “I strayed away from my priorities and values,” Watson told the judge.
Watson’s attorney asked the judge to sentence his client to just five months in custody, with 500 hours of community service, providing healing massages for nursing home patients.
But prosecutor Fred Sheppard argued for a 63 month prison term, telling the judge that Watson “doled out (narcotic prescriptions) to anyone who walked in the door” and increased his income three-fold by selling those prescriptions.
In his plea deal, Watson admitted to giving painkiller prescriptions to addicts and dealers, who would use the drugs themselves or sell them on the street.
In return, those “patients” gave Watson thousands of dollars in cash and luxury gifts, including designer handbags, vintage wines and jewelry, according to DEA agents. Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates reveal Watson charged about $170 for a prescription for a month’s supply of highly-addictive pain-killers. DEA investigators said some of those patients re-sold the prescription narcotics on the street, or exchanged them for heroin.
The doctor’s actions contributed to the overdose death of a young patient, said prosecutor Sheppard, who told the judge that “40 percent of the pills (that Watson) peddled were not for medical purposes… He did this for money, flat out, and he ruined lives.”
Judge Lorenz acknowledged that Watson had done much good during his medical career, but called him a “drug dealer” who had done “insurmountable harm” to drug-addicted and drug-seeking patients. The judge subtracted six months from the prosecutor’s requested 63 month sentence due to Watson’s mental health issues, and ordered him to serve 57 months in custody, followed by 36 months supervised release.
The defense and prosecution agreed that Watson can remain free until January 8, on which date he will self-surrender, to begin his federal prison sentence.
Outside court, after the sentencing, Watson ignored his attorney’s advice, and spoke at length with NBC 7 Investigates.
He said some patients pressured him for the narcotics and controlled substance, and ignored his advice that they try natural remedies.
“I tried to say, 'Breathe in ease, breathe out disease. Eat a healthy diet. If you're eating a healthy diet and you're breathing, you don't need it.’ I would try that and they wouldn't do that. If they still thought they needed the medicine, I would give them the medicine."
In an interview with NBC 7 Investigates, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Laura Duffy, said Watson is the first doctor in recent memory to be sentence to prison for prescription violations, in this federal court district. Duffy said physicians who ignore the law and write prescriptions for drug-seeking
patients are no better than drug dealers.
“This is part of what is creating such a problem in this country and this community,” said Duffy. “So doctors should expect that if they're involved in this kind of behavior, that they will be targeted for prosecution."