California doctor accused of prescribing drugs in 5 deaths

This undated photo provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Office shows Stephen Scarpa, 25. Scarpa has been charged with murder in the death of an off-duty fire captain on a bicycle whom authorities say Scarpa struck and killed with his car. Authorities say Scarpa told investigators he was on drugs prescribed by Dr. Dzung Ahn Pham, a Southern California doctor who was arrested Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018 on charges of doling out drugs to patients he didn't examine and is alleged to have prescribed drugs to five people who died of overdoses, federal prosecutors said. (AP)
Updated 19 December 2018

California doctor accused of prescribing drugs in 5 deaths

  • State officials were aware of improper prescribing practices years before that, according to records at the Osteopathic Medical Board

LOS ANGELES: A Southern California doctor was arrested Tuesday on charges of doling out drugs to patients he didn’t examine and is alleged to have prescribed drugs to five people who died of overdoses as well as an impaired driver who struck and killed a bicyclist, federal prosecutors said.
Dr. Dzung Ahn Pham, 57, faces charges of illegally distributing opioids and other narcotics to what authorities called “patients,” but who were addicts using the drugs or people selling them on the street. He prescribed some drugs after receiving text messages requesting specific quantities and doses, prosecutors said.
“This case clearly and tragically illustrates the dangers of drug dealers armed with prescription pads,” said US Attorney Nick Hanna.
A phone call and email seeking comment from Pham’s lawyer, John Barton, were not immediately returned. Phone calls to Pham’s urgent care clinic in Irvine and a number listed for his home were not answered.
Pham’s record of prescribing large amounts of pills led a CVS pharmacy to stop accepting prescriptions from him more than five years ago when he couldn’t justify the number of pills patients were picking up, prosecutors said.
State officials were aware of improper prescribing practices years before that, according to records at the Osteopathic Medical Board.
Pham was reprimanded by the board in 2007 for excessive prescribing, prescribing without good faith examination, repeated negligent acts and prescribing to an addict, among other charges. Details of the record were not immediately available.
Between 2014 and 2017, Pham wrote prescriptions for five people who died from overdoses, prosecutors said. He’s not charged in those deaths, but those investigations are ongoing, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US attorney.
One of the overdose deaths was a 21-year-old man, identified in the affidavit only by initials S.L.S. who fatally overdosed on a combination of heroin and two of the types of drugs Pham prescribed. The man’s mother referred to Pham as “Dr. Feelgood.”
In November, a driver who fatally struck an off-duty firefighter training on his bike for a triathlon told investigators he was on drugs prescribed by Pham, prosecutors said. Several prescription bottles with Pham’s name were found in the driver’s car.
Orange County prosecutors have charged Stephen Scarpa, 25, with murder in the death of Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza.
The death came a few months after an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent was able to quickly score from Pham what is referred to as a “triple threat” or “holy trinity,” a combination of three types of narcotics, the affidavit said. Pham directed the agent to an Irvine pharmacy that filled many of his prescriptions.
The affidavit filed with the charges described many of Pham’s text messages, indicating in one case that he was having a sexual relationship with a patient. He was prescribing drugs to that woman and also to her 9-year-old daughter, according to the document by DEA Special Agent Lindsey Bellomy.
In another text exchange, Pham told someone he was concerned after learning that the gunman who killed 11 and wounded a responding officer who died from a fellow officer’s bullet during a shootout at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks last month had prescriptions Pham wrote for someone else.
The document does not provide any information on whether Ian Long, the shooter who took his own life after the Nov. 7 mass shooting, possessed any prescriptions written by Pham.
“I never saw Mr. Long before so I don’t know the implication of this information,” Pham wrote in the text message exchange, according to the affidavit.
The person Pham was texting responded by trying to reassure Pham he was in the clear if the prescriptions were not written to Long.
“If I give my meds to some crazy person its (sic) on me, not you, you have no control over what happened after a patient leaves your office,” the person replied.
The criminal complaint said Pham charged $100 to $150 a visit at his clinic and deposited $6.7 million into bank accounts between 2013 and September.
If convicted of the charges, Pham could face up to 40 years in prison, prosecutors said.


South Korean ‘cult’ blamed for spike in coronavirus cases

Updated 29 February 2020

South Korean ‘cult’ blamed for spike in coronavirus cases

  • Critics say the group’s secretive nature and the manner in which it worships could have lead to the fast spread of the virus
  • Most of the confirmed cases are in the city of Daegu, about 300 km southeast of Seoul, where large services for Shincheonji members were held on Feb. 16

SEOUL: With the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketing in South Korea in the past week, a local fringe Christian sect has been blamed for the growing outbreak.
As of Wednesday, a total of 1,261 people had tested positive with 12 deaths reported. Just a week ago, the number of infected persons stood at 50. However, South Korea has seen by far the highest number of the Covid-19 cases outside China.
Health authorities believe the Shincheonji Church of Jesus is at the heart of the alarming spread of the pandemic, as more than half of the confirmed cases have been found to be linked to the religious sect, which is widely regarded as a cult.
“The mass infections came after Shincheonji followers took part in the Feb. 16 service and had frequent contacts around that time,” Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC), told reporters on Wednesday.
Most of the confirmed cases are in the city of Daegu, about 300 km southeast of Seoul, where large services for Shincheonji members were held on Feb. 16. Thousands of worshippers are believed to have attended, authorities said.
The other cluster of infections is a hospital in Cheongdo, a neighboring county of Daegu. Shincheonji members are also known to have visited the hospital, according to the KCDC officials.
Officially called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, the group was founded in 1984 and claims to have around 240,000 followers worldwide.
Shincheonji followers are taught to believe that Lee Man-hee, the founder of the organization, is the second coming or the returned Christ. The church claims the Bible is written in metaphors which only its founder can correctly interpret.
Critics say the group’s secretive nature and the manner in which it worships could have lead to the fast spread of the virus.
“They hold services sitting packed together on the floor and kneel very close to one another,” Shin Hyun-uk, director of the Guri Cult Counseling Center, said.
Shin was a member of the cult for 20 years until 2006 and has been leading a campaign to extract members from the church ever since he realized that “the group was not a normal religion.”
Shin said the Shincheonji churchgoers shout out “amen” at the top of their lungs “after every sentence the pastor utters.”
“While holding services, worshippers send respiratory droplets flying everywhere, causing the virus to be transmitted easily,” he said.
Most members of the church hide their membership, which means the virus goes undetected, Sin warned.
“Few families of the Shincheonji members know their sons, daughters, wives, husbands and parents were taken in the cult religion. I guess only 20 to 30 percent of the family members of the Shincheonji worshippers would recognize it,” he said. “That’s the key reason health officials have difficulty in tracking and curbing the virus being transmitted from worshippers to others.”
A 61-year-old female member of the sect tested positive for the virus last week, but initially refused to be transferred to a hospital so as not to reveal the fact that she had attended Shincheonji gatherings.
A Daegu health official responsible for quarantine also revealed he is a Shincheonji member after being tested positive.
Critics say uncovering the identities of Shincheonji members will be difficult since the group conceals the names of politicians, public officials and other celebrities.
Amid growing public anger at the sect, the group said at the weekend that it will fully cooperate with government investigations.
On Tuesday, officials broke into the group’s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, to discover a full list of members for quarantine measures.
The government said it has secured a list of 212,000 Shincheonji worshippers and will begin conducting coronavirus tests on those who have respiratory symptoms.
Over 800,000 people have signed an online petition since Saturday after it was filed on the website of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae.
Authorities are looking into how the disease was first transmitted to the group. More than 9,000 Shincheonji worshippers have been put under quarantine.
The Seoul government has been scrambling to contain growing expressions of public anger.
As of Wednesday morning, over 400,000 South Koreans had signed an online petition calling for President Moon Jae-in to be impeached.
Petitioners say Moon failed to halt entry to visitors from all parts of China, only prohibiting the entry of foreigners from China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, is located.
Meanwhile, the US Forces Korea (USFK) reported on Tuesday that it had detected the first infection in one of its troops. The 23-year-old soldier is stationed at Camp Carroll, near Daegu, but has been quarantined at his home off base, according to the command. The development came a day after a widow of a retired US soldier living in Daegu contracted the virus.
“KCDC and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” the USFK said in a news release Feb. 25.
“USFK is implementing all appropriate control measures to help control the spread of Covid-19 and remains at risk level ‘high’ for USFK peninsula-wide as a prudent measure to protect the force,” it said.
More countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, have started to impose bans on South Korean travelers because of the virus outbreak.