Pill-mill doctor sentenced to four life terms in prison

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 14, 2012 

A doctor convicted of writing prescriptions for pills that contributed to overdose deaths in northeastern Kentucky and elsewhere has been sentenced to four life terms in prison.

Paul H. Volkman, 64, helped run one of the biggest pill-mill operations of the last decade in southern Ohio, improperly writing prescriptions to drug addicts from Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and other states in return for cash, prosecutors said in court documents.

U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, who sentenced Volkman on Tuesday in Cincinnati, also ordered him to forfeit $1.2 million.

Volkman worked at Tri-State Health Care and Pain Management in Portsmouth, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Greenup County, and at other locations in the area from April 2003 to early 2006.

He wrote prescriptions for at least 3.3 million pain pills and for an unknown number of anti-anxiety and other types of pills, according to interviews and court records.

At one point, Volkman was the largest buyer of oxycodone in the nation, prosecutors said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration looked into 34 overdose deaths among Volkman's patients, 19 of them from Kentucky, said James Geldhof, DEA diversion program manager for the region that includes Kentucky.

"He was as bad as any doctor in the country," Geldhof said.

The business was well known to addicts and police in northeastern Kentucky, said Lewis County Sheriff Johnny Bivens.

"We had a litany of people going over to his office," he said. "It was terrible."

Many of the pills Volkman prescribed ended up diverted to illegal sales in Kentucky, police said.

Bivens and Greenup County Coroner Neil Wright said authorities knew there was a problem when they started finding bottles of pills prescribed by Volkman during raids and with the bodies of people who had died of drug overdoses.

"We said, 'Where's the pills coming from?' That's your first question," Wright said.

Volkman made customers swear they weren't police officers, kept armed guards and wrote prescriptions for hundreds of pills at a time to people who had drug problems, federal prosecutors said in a motion.

"He gave pills to people who were high on pills; he gave pills to people who had overdosed on pills; he gave pills to people who were trying to get off pills; he gave pills to people who weren't taking the pills; he gave pills to people who risked death if they took the pills as prescribed," prosecutors argued.

The DEA blocked Volkman from writing prescriptions in early 2006, and he was indicted on federal charges the next year.

A jury convicted him of numerous drug charges in May 2011. The jury also found him guilty in the overdose deaths of four people.

The clinic where Volkman, of Chicago, started working in April 2003 was owned by Denise Huffman and managed by her daughter, Alice Huffman Ball, according to court records.

The DEA said Denise Huffman earlier had worked at a clinic in Greenup County operated by David Procter. Procter operated what federal authorities said was a pill mill that helped launch several other doctors later convicted in drug cases.

Procter pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2003 and was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.

Denise Huffman, 57, opened a clinic of her own in South Shore in 2001 and then moved across the Ohio River to Portsmouth in 2003, the DEA said in one document.

She and her daughter were indicted with Volkman. Both pleaded guilty to operating a place that existed to distribute drugs.

Alice Huffman Ball, 36, was sentenced to five years in prison. Denise Huffman has not been sentenced.

Bivens said Volkman's life sentence will give him time to reflect on the countless lives he helped ruin.

"It's a good Valentine's Day gift," Bivens said.

Even after he was convicted last year, Volkman maintained he had done nothing wrong and argued prosecutors had failed to prove the charges against him. He has said he will appeal.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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