Logan pill mill doctor gets maximum sentence
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A confidential informant working in a federal investigation spent less than three minutes inside a Texas doctor's office in Logan County but left with a $450 painkiller prescription.
That doctor now will spend the next six years in federal prison after admitting he was running a pill mill out of the Logan building that had no water or medical equipment.
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver sentenced Dr. Fernando Gonzales-Ramos, 47, of El Paso, to 71 months, nearly six years, in federal prison Tuesday afternoon. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute controlled substances in May.
The clinic made headlines in March when Gonzales-Ramos was arrested during a raid. Authorities said the so-called clinic he was operating on Old Logan Road had no running water or examining table. But there were patients lined up outside frequently.
The doctor told the court he accepted full responsibility. He said he tried to be a good father and role model for his three young sons and wanted to give them things he never had.
Gonzales-Ramos apologized for the tremendous pain and sorrow he caused his wife and family and close friends, several of whom traveled to West Virginia for his sentencing. He asked the court to be merciful.
His wife, Lisbette Polanco, wept as her husband spoke. Family and friends tried to comfort her.
Gonzales-Ramos moved to Texas in July 2011 but made trips back to West Virginia about once every three months to run his cash-only doctor's office in Logan. He primarily practiced in Texas where he worked as a primary care physician at VA Health Care System in El Paso.
Officers watched the building for a couple of days and sent in an informant for an appointment. The informant went into the doctor's office on March 2 and came back out less than three minutes later with a prescription for hydrocodone for which $450 was paid, according to court documents.
The informant was not examined or questioned by anyone in the office.
Investigators went back to the building March 3 and found a line of people waiting outside and a full waiting room inside. The building had no running water and no medical equipment.
Police reported that the doctor had an armed security guard, another man who carried brass knuckles and a nurse/receptionist working in the building.
"Dr. Gonzales-Ramos wasn't operating a doctor's office, he was running a drug den," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement released after the hearing. "His so-called office had no exam table, no running water and not even so much as a stethoscope.
"For thousands of dollars in cash, he was pumping out prescriptions for thousands of units of powerful narcotics."
Patients were charged $450 for Schedule III narcotics such as hydrocodone and Tylenol with codeine and $500 for Schedule II drugs such as morphine, Dilaudid and OxyContin.
The prescriptions were prewritten and stored in patients' files. The receptionist handed out the prescriptions for Schedule III drugs, while those seeking the stronger Schedule II narcotics saw the doctor, according to court records.
"This pill mill did enormous harm across a wide swath of our state and beyond," Goodwin said. "Doctors swear an oath to do no harm, so it's especially tragic when someone uses his or her prescription-writing privileges to fuel our region's worst crime problem.
"I hope these cases send a message: There are consequences if you abuse your power."
But defense attorney Ron Smith argued the doctor's long-term practice was different from other pill mills because he did see patients and compile progress notes on some of them.
"He readily admits that he crossed the line," Smith said during sentencing. "He started taking shortcuts. He didn't do all the things he should have done."
He said the doctor saw those patients who came in for Schedule II drugs.
"He didn't just hang a shingle and start prescribing drugs for cash," the attorney told the court, adding that Gonzales-Ramos' illegal actions evolved into what they were.
Gonzales-Ramos agreed to surrender his Drug Enforcement Administration registration as part of the plea agreement reached with the U.S. Attorney's office. In return the government agreed to ask for a 57-to-71-month sentence, instead of the possible 20 years.
Smith said his client had no prior criminal record, has a "tremendous bond" with his family and that 57 months was an "enormously long time" to be away from them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Loew contended that southern West Virginia had a huge prescription pill problem and that the sentence should send a message that doctors should abide by their oath to do no harm.
Copenhaver noted the doctor understood the seriousness of his offense and that he cooperated from the beginning with police but said that he conducted his business "not unlike the common street drug dealer" and that he handed out prescriptions "willy-nilly" to those waiting in line.
Copenhaver ultimately issued the maximum sentence the plea agreement allowed. He will spend three years on supervised release when he is released from prison. Copenhaver did not impose a fine, which would have been up to $1 million, saying the doctor had no hope of paying it.
Gonzales-Ramos requested to serve his sentence near his family in Texas, which Copenhaver said he would recommend. He remains at South Central Regional Jail, where he has remained since his March arrest.
FBI agents worked with the U.S. 119 Drug Task Force, State Police and the Logan Sheriff's Department on the investigation.
"The vast majority of physicians prescribe responsibly," Goodwin said. "But even a handful of bad doctors can flood our communities with illegal pills.
"Every time we put a law breaking doctor out of business, it's a big step toward getting this problem under control."
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.