San Diego

San Diego Doctor, Recruiters Busted in ‘Pill Mill' Opioids Operation

Dr. Egisto Salerno, 73, is accused of prescribing hydrocodone as part of an opioids ring in San Diego County

A San Diego-based doctor was arrested alongside seven other suspects accused of running a “pill mill” operation that allegedly included the doctor writing opioid prescriptions for dead or jailed “patients.”

The Office of U.S. Attorney Southern District of California Adam L. Braverman announced details of the case Monday involving a group facing federal charges stemming from their alleged roles in a conspiracy to possess – with the intent to distribute – hydrocodone.

Hydrocodone is a narcotic analgesic sold under a variety of brand names including Vicodin, Norco and Lortab. When legally supplied by a doctor, the drug is used to combat moderate pain. However, today, hydrocodone is widely abused and distributed illicitly on the streets for profit.

At the center of this federal case is San Diego resident Dr. Egisto Salerno, 73, who owns and operates a medical office on El Cajon Boulevard.

Braverman’s office said the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also arrested these local residents in connection with the so-called “pill mill”: Stephen Toney, 57, of San Diego; April Cervantes, 27, of San Diego; David Apple, 25, of Chula Vista; Amber Horne, 28, of El Cajon; Lonnell Ligon, 55, of San Diego; Shalina Latson, 47, of San Diego; LaJuan Smith, 38, of San Diego.

According to a federal complaint, in November 2014, Toney and others recruited people – often homeless people – to pose as “patients” at Salerno’s office where they could obtain prescriptions for hydrocodone.

For each patient, Salerno was paid an office visit fee. Despite performing no physical examination on the patients, the documents said Salerno prescribed them hydrocodone.

The patients would then be paid to turn over the opioids to Toney and the defendants, who allegedly co-conspired to further distribute the hydrocodone tablets on the streets.

The complaint said the defendants – or “recruiters” – would arrange transportation of the patients to Salerno’s office and then to a pharmacy to pick up the pills. After the patients did their part, they were returned to their homeless shelters or homes.

In addition to writing prescriptions for these patients without a medical need for hydrocodone, Braverman’s office said Salerno also sometimes wrote prescriptions in names of patients who were dead or in jail and couldn’t have visited his office.

For instance, the doctor claimed he had seen a patient after the patient had died in October 2015. He prescribed hydrocodone in that patient’s name five times after death, including twice more than a year after the person had died.

Salerno had his medical assistants allegedly falsify chart notes and medical records to justify the prescriptions and advance the pill mill conspiracy. 

The U.S. Attorney said the opioid crisis, furthered by cases like this one, is “ravaging families in San Diego and Imperial Counties and is part of a national epidemic.”

If convicted, Salerno, Toney and the other defendants face a maximum of 20 years in prison, a fine of $1 million and five years of supervised release.

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