EBRSO: Pharmacist’s question helped unravel drug ring

A pharmacist at Messina’s Pharmacy asked a sports medicine clinic to verify a prescription one man dropped off Dec. 2, and as it turns out, the request led to the unraveling of a large prescription drug ring that had operated in Baton Rouge for more than five years.

A doctor at the Louisiana Spine and Sport Medicine told the pharmacist he never wrote that prescription, leading him to check his records and find 231 more prescriptions he said he never wrote.

That put the newly formed Drug Tactical Diversion Squad on the trail of nine people who filled the prescriptions, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Hicks said that as a result of the investigation, state, local and federal agents arrested one Plaquemine man and four Geismer residents Friday in what she called a “large-scale and sophisticated” operation that resulted in more than 40,000 Oxycodone and 20,000 Hydrocodone pills, among other prescription drugs, being fraudulently obtained using the bogus prescriptions.

The street value of the drugs — Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, amphetamines and injectable testosterone — is about $1.37 million, Hicks said.

“Illegal prescription drugs on our streets and in the hands of our children are an ongoing and growing problem,” East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said in a news release. “It is imperative that we combine our resources to crack down on this sort of drug trafficking.”

Tracking his prescriptions using his Drug Enforcement Administration number, which the DEA used to track prescription medications, the doctor at the clinic gave deputies the names of nine people who received the prescriptions from August 2008 to December 2013, including a clinic employee, the employee’s wife and two former clinic employees, court records show.

All but four of the 232 bogus prescriptions that used the name of the doctor at the Louisiana Spine and Sport Medicine were written by Christopher Armstrong, 39, of Geismer, a licensed physician’s assistant at the clinic, Hicks said.

Court records indicate Armstrong also wrote another 149 bogus prescriptions on behalf of another doctor at Louisiana Spine and Sport Medicine, and Benjamin Landry, a former clinic employee, was used as a middle man for the transactions.

In one instance, one man told deputies he met Landry in February 2012 and mentioned that he had back problems, according to an arrest warrant. Landry invited him to visit the clinic, where a doctor prescribed him Lortab for his pain.

In a subsequent meeting between the Landry and the man, Landry proposed a deal: He would give the man fake prescriptions and once they were filled, Landry would pay the man $1,000 for the pills, the warrant said.

On the man’s next visit, Armstrong gave the man a prescription for 240 oxycodone pills, which he filled, then gave to Landry for $1,000 cash, records show. After that visit, Landry told the man “It was no longer necessary for him to keep coming to the clinic and that he would take care of him personally,” the warrant said.

Landry and Armstrong, co-owners of IceHouse Restaurant, 14111 Airline Highway No. 127, Baton Rouge, used the business to conduct drug deals and possibly launder drug money, Hicks said.

Landry and the man would meet outside IceHouse or other places for the transactions, records show. Landry quit the clinic in August 2013, records show.

The arrangement between Landry and the man continued until Dec. 2, when Landry called him to say the forged prescriptions had been discovered and instructed him not to go back to Messina’s Pharmacy to pick up the medication, the warrant said.

“I think this is a prime example of what working together can accomplish to clean up our streets,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “We will not tolerate those who illegally obtain prescription drugs that corrupt our streets.”

The following people were arrested in the operation:

  • Armstrong, 37112 Cobblestone Ave., Geismar, was booked into the Ascension Parish Jail on counts of distribution and manufacturing of Schedule II drugs and racketeering.
  • Landry, 58475 Island Drive, Plaquemine, was booked into the Iberville Parish Jail on counts of distribution and manufacturing of Schedule II drugs and racketeering.
  • David Hagstad, 43, 37092 Sue St., Geismer, was booked into the Ascension Parish Jail on 21 counts of obtaining a controlled dangerous substance by fraud.
  • Angelica Hagstad, 43, 37092 Sue St., Geismer, was booked into Ascension Parish Jail on 15 counts of obtaining a controlled dangerous substance by fraud.
  • Gretchen Armstrong, 40, 37112 Cobblestone Ave., Geismer, was booked into the Ascension Parish Jail on 101 counts of obtaining a controlled dangerous substance by fraud.

Hicks said more arrests are pending.