Growing up the son of an itinerant revivalist minister, Robert Courtney learned what it was like to scratch for a living.
From Kansas to Arkansas to Alabama to Nebraska and to the Texas Panhandle, Courtney’s father took his family along a trail of rural congregations, none of which could pay a preacher much.
As a young adult, Courtney chose a career path as a pharmacist that portended much more financial comfort.
About a decade after graduating from pharmacy school, he bought a pharmacy near Research Medical Center in Kansas City. Later, he added a pharmacy near Shawnee Mission Medical Center.
By 2001, the year he turned 49, he lived in a large Northland home with his third wife and children. They traveled often to Colorado ski resorts and to the Caribbean but rarely socialized with neighbors.
He owned millions of dollars in stock and almost a million dollars in property, plus the pharmacies. He gave his church hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Then his success came crashing down.
Many of his prescriptions, it turned out, gave too little help or none at all to unsuspecting, seriously ill patients. People with lung cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and scores of other grievous and life-threatening ailments got only a fraction of the doses their doctors prescribed.
One sample of a chemotherapy drug showed it contained only 24 percent of the prescribed amount. Courtney charged $1,021 but delivered only $242 worth of the drug. The roughly $780 difference, repeated over and over, helped make him rich.
He began diluting drugs in 1992. As many as 4,200 patients might have been affected.
The scheme unraveled because of a sharp-eyed pharmaceutical representative and a concerned doctor.
In May 2001, a salesman for the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company told a Kansas City oncologist that Courtney’s pharmacy had bought only one-third the amount of the drug Gemzar that he purportedly provided to the oncologist.
The oncologist sent a sample to be tested. It contained only one-third of the amount prescribed. The oncologist told her lawyer. Her lawyer told the FBI.
In mid-August 2001, prosecutors charged Courtney with misbranding and adulterating a drug. By late August, about 80 agents and employees of the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration had joined the investigation.
The daughter of one deceased cancer victim called Courtney “a real-life monster in a white coat who smiles and pretends to help you.”
Eventually, Courtney faced charges of diluting the drugs of 34 cancer patients. He admitted tampering with prescriptions of eight cancer patients and pleaded guilty to 12 counts of adulterating chemotherapy medications. He also agreed that he diluted 50 additional doses of chemotherapy drugs prescribed for the eight patients, and that he diluted 102 doses for 26 additional cancer patients. Seventeen of the 34 patients had died.
As agents interviewed Courtney further, the list of horrors grew. He admitted diluting 72 different medications over nearly a decade. Most were cancer treatment drugs, but others could have been used to treat AIDS, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and other diseases.
Authorities estimated his scheme could have touched 400 doctors, 4,200 patients and as many as 98,000 prescriptions.
At his sentencing in December 2002, the judge was direct.
“Your crimes are a shock to the conscience of a nation,” U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith said. “You alone have changed the way a nation thinks … about pharmacists, the way the nation thinks about prescription medication, the way a nation thinks about those institutions we trusted blindly.”
Courtney’s insurance company agreed to pay $35 million to victims, and two pharmaceutical makers paid $71 million in settlements.
His assets were sold to create a fund for restitution. About 1,000 victims received more than $10,000 each.
When: 1990s - 2001 | What: Diluted prescriptions and pocketed money saved. | Where: Kansas City | Outcome: Sentenced to maximum of 30 years in federal prison.