OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A former Oklahoma doctor pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges on Wednesday in connection with the drug overdose deaths of several patients.
William Valuck, a former pain management doctor, pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder under a deal with Oklahoma County prosecutors, who agreed to drop dozens of drug charges. The deal calls for the 71-year-old Valuck to spend eight years in prison.
Investigators have said Valuck prescribed more controlled narcotic drugs than any other physician in the state, sometimes as many as 600 pills at a time. Valuck had originally faced first-degree murder charges, which carry up to life in prison.
Nearly two dozen of the victims' relatives attended the hearing, including some who spoke to the court ahead of Valuck's plea. James Lambert, whose daughter Victoria Lambert died from a drug overdose, said her death should send a message to physicians to prescribe such narcotics responsibly.
"Make sure they know what they're doing when they dispense medication. That way we don't have to go through this again," he said.
Stephanie Beesley, whose husband Paul Beesley died from a drug overdose, tearfully described his long-term fight with drug addiction as a large color portrait of him was displayed in the courtroom.
"He had a part in his own death," she said, but added: "I don't understand the manner in which the medications were prescribed."
Michael Green, the brother of drug overdose victim Christina Green, said he felt no sympathy for Valuck.
"He knew the chance he was taking," Michael Green said. "Eight years doesn't seem just to me. He knew this was unethical."
Valuck, wearing a gray-striped, jail-issued jumpsuit and shackled by chains at the wrists and ankles, sat with his attorneys as the statements were made. He did not speak to the victims' family members and said nothing in his own defense.
Afterward, First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said he agreed to accept a plea in the case to bring it to a quick resolution.
"A plea was the best way to reach finality for the families," the prosecutor said.
Rowland also said the case should serve as a warning for physicians not to place financial gain ahead of their professional responsibility.
Valuck was charged in connection with the deaths of patients who prosecutors say died of overdoses from drugs he prescribed them. Those drugs included the narcotic painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone, as well as alprazolam, Valium and Soma.
Federal and state authorities began investigating Valuck in February 2012, after being called by pharmacies and patients' relatives concerned about the amount of narcotics he was prescribing. Investigators later "saw vanloads" of patients pull up at Valuck's pain management clinic in south Oklahoma City, where the parking lot was always full of vehicles, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mary Surovec testified during a hearing in April.
Some pharmacies even faxed to authorities copies of prescriptions Valuck had written that the pharmacies refused to fill.
Surovec said DEA officials were concerned that some of the controlled drugs Valuck was prescribing in large quantities were being funneled into illegal markets and sold on the street.
She said Valuck accepted only cash for office visits by patients and would not bill health insurers.
After charges were filed in January, Valuck's patient files were seized and later examined by another osteopathic physician, Dr. Arthur Douglas Beacham III, who testified that drugs were prescribed by Valuck although there was no record that patients were examined to determine if the drugs were actually needed.
He said patient documentation, including assessments of patient complaints, was inadequate and that in some cases there was no documentation that Valuck even saw the patient on the day he wrote a prescription.