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Courtney admits guilt, apologizes to victims

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002

DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Pharmacist Robert R. Courtney was arrested in 2002, accused of diluting cancer drugs used in chemotherapy. Many of the drugs he sold were at less than 40 percent of their original strength. Courtney pocketed the profits, often hundreds of dollars per prescription. He would be sentenced to 30 years in prison in December 2002 and ordered to pay restitution of $10,452,109.67 to the victims and their families. There could have been as many as 4,200 recipients of the diluted drugs, some of whom died of their cancer.

A tearful Robert R. Courtney apologized to his victims Tuesday as he pleaded guilty to diluting their cancer drugs.

The Kansas City, North, pharmacist’s voice cracked as he stood before U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith and a courtroom jammed with his victims and relatives.

“Your Honor, I am guilty, and I accept full responsibility,” Courtney said. “And to the victims, I’m extremely sorry.”

Smith presided over a two-hour hearing in Kansas City on Courtney’s plea agreement.

Courtney, 49, was charged last summer with tampering with, adulterating and misbranding chemotherapy drugs that he sent to Kansas City oncologist Verda Hunter. The investigation drew worldwide media notice, rattling the trust that patients have in their pharmacists.

But prosecutors and investigators said Tuesday that Courtney’s guilty pleas to 20 felony counts would not end the inquiry, which FBI investigators have code-named Diluted Trust.

U.S. Attorney Todd Graves noted that Courtney now must cooperate, fully and truthfully, with investigators to avoid further criminal charges.

Graves’ office wants a complete account of all of Courtney’s criminal conduct to warn other patients who may have received diluted medications from his Research Medical Tower Pharmacy in Kansas City and Courtney’s Pharmacy in Merriam.

“There is much left to do in this case,” Graves said. “We’re only at the beginning of the end of the investigation.”

Graves promised that after authorities interviewed Courtney –– a process that could take weeks –– any new victims of his dilution scheme would be promptly notified and urged to seek medical attention.

Lawyers completed negotiations on the plea agreement last week. Although prosecutors thought their case against Courtney was strong, they wanted his help in identifying all victims of his dilution scheme. Defense lawyers wanted to protect Courtney from a long prison sentence and agreed to offer his assets to compensate victims.

In his plea agreement, Courtney confessed to diluting cancer drugs Taxol and Gemzar for 34 patients on 158 separate occasions between March and June 2001.

He also admitted other, uncharged criminal conduct. Courtney said he bought stolen chemotherapy medications and sold them from his pharmacy. And by diluting medications, he also caused physicians to unintentionally file false Medicare claims, he said.

Since Courtney was charged in August, investigators have found other medications that appear to have been diluted.

Courtney had told investigators that greed drove him to tamper with the expensive drugs. But in a statement to Smith on Tuesday, Courtney said he was mystified as to why he did it.

“Why did I commit these inordinate crimes, so profoundly inconsistent with my faith, with my beliefs and my relationship with my Lord and Savior?” Courtney said. “I’ve uncovered in my daily devotions … no rational explanation for this conduct. … I conclude I wanted to get caught by the flagrantness of the adulterations.”

Courtney’s admissions brought tears from some of his victims’ families. Through Courtney’s lawyers, his relatives declined to comment.

Smith did not set a date to sentence Courtney, who faces between 17½ and 30 years in prison. The sentence would carry no possibility of parole. That sentencing range was part of the plea agreement and represents a substantial departure from a 196-year sentence Courtney initially faced.

The concession was necessary to ensure Courtney’s cooperation with the continuing investigation, prosecutors said. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Porter said he planned to push for a 30-year term when Courtney is sentenced.

“It becomes the functional equivalent of a life sentence for a 49-year-old man,” Porter said.

Lawyers could speak only generally Tuesday about one of the most far-reaching aspects of the plea agreement. Under the plan, up to $12 million of Courtney’s assets that were frozen in a related federal civil case would be turned over to Smith to pay restitution to Courtney’s victims. …