Former Clay County pharmacist gets 10 years in prison for illegally selling pain pills

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 18, 2013 

A former Manchester pharmacist has admitted he routinely filled pain-pill prescriptions for people even though there were plenty of signs those customers were drug addicts or dealers.

Terry Tenhet owned Community Drug Pharmacy, which was used by drug organizations that allegedly distributed hundreds of thousands of pills to feed the crippling substance-abuse problem in and around Clay County, federal authorities have said in court documents.

Terry Tenhet, 63, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in London to a charge of conspiring to illegally distribute the painkiller oxycodone from March 2011 to September 2012, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey.

His wife, Melissa Tenhet, 50, pleaded guilty to the same charge Monday. She was the pharmacy's office manager.

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar sentenced Terry Tenhet to 10 years in prison and Melissa Tenhet to one year and one day, Harvey said.

As part of their plea deals, the two forfeited property worth $3 million, including about $1 million in cash, their home in London, six vehicles, land and luxury watches, according to Harvey's office.

Friends described Melissa Tenhet as an exemplary mother with high ethical standards, and Terry Tenhet as a generous family man. But Harvey said Tenhet, with his wife's help, used his position as a pharmacist to engage in an extensive drug-trafficking conspiracy.

"In so doing, he inflicted a great deal of pain on his community — one already hard hit by the scourge of prescription drug abuse," Harvey said in a statement.

Investigators identified cases in which people overdosed and died soon after filling prescriptions at Community Drug, according to court records.

Tenhet, who had a drug problem, gave up his license, agreed to sell his pharmacy and went through treatment after investigators searched his home and business in 2012, according to court documents.

Harvey said Tenhet essentially "stumbled" into the conspiracy after filling a prescription. That was in 2010, when he filled a prescription from an out-of-state doctor for a person who had become a casual friend after working on Tenhet's house, according to court documents.

That person told others that Community Drug would fill such prescriptions, and more and more people started bringing them in, according to the court document.

There has been a problem for several years with people from Eastern Kentucky going to doctors in other states to get prescriptions, then abusing or selling the drugs at home. That trend started at a time Kentucky had a model prescription-monitoring system, and other states such as Florida and Georgia did not.

Tenhet developed a practice of filling out-of-state prescriptions on a cash-only basis and raised his prices as other local pharmacies refused to fill such orders because they were suspect, according to plea agreements and a sworn statement from Douglas I. Dalrymple, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who investigated.

Dalrymple said another local pharmacist told authorities of being aware of Tenhet charging $1,300 for 400 pain pills, far more than the pharmacy run by the witness would have charged.

As his trade flourished, Tenhet saw a number of things that should have put him on notice that a lot of his customers were drug addicts or traffickers, according to the plea deals he and his wife signed.

For instance, people with out-of-state prescriptions were coming into the pharmacy in groups and sharing money to pay for pills, and nearly all patients of particular doctors had identical prescriptions for a cocktail of oxycodone and other pills regardless of their age, physical status or ailment, Melissa Tenhet said.

It has been common for large drug dealers in Eastern Kentucky to "sponsor" addicts in order to get pills. Typically, the dealer pays the cost for a carload of people to go to a doctor in another state, then splits the pills with the addicts.

One Georgia pediatrician wrote more than 800 prescriptions for oxycodone to people from southeastern Kentucky that were filled at Community Drug, and a Georgia pain clinic specifically referred people to Community Drug to fill its orders, according to court documents.

There were other red flags among Terry Tenhet's customers as well, according to court documents.

Many of them appeared to be poor, but they had large amounts of cash, and some were obviously high on drugs when they came to the pharmacy. In one case, a person passed out while waiting in line but got a prescription anyway, according to Dalrymple's affidavit.

Tenhet filled the out-of-state prescriptions despite the warning signs. His wife acknowledged she was aware of the red flags but directed others at the pharmacy to fill suspicious prescriptions "on limited occasions," according to her plea agreement.

Dalrymple said witnesses told authorities there was a line out the door at Community Drug on Saturdays, that there were drug deals in the parking lot and that employees feared for their safety.

The investigation showed that from 2006 to 2009, Community Drug distributed an average of 150,000 dosage units of oxycodone annually, but that figures jumped to 360,000 in 2011, according to a court document.

Some pharmacists working for Tenhet would not fill the out-of-state drug orders, but Tenhet would, and at times, he and his wife would direct another employee to fill the orders if a pharmacist refused, Dalrymple said.

One drug dealer said he escorted about 100 people into the pharmacy through the employee entrance to get prescriptions filled, Dalrymple said.

Witnesses said Tenhet altered records and switched pills from his other Clay County pharmacy, Medi Center, to cover the high volume of prescriptions.

"I think it's just an old story: the temptation of quick and easy money just proved too great for Mr. Tenhet, and he's now going to pay a steep price for that," Harvey said in an interview. "We hope his case will send a message to others who might be tempted in a similar fashion."

Reporter Jim Warren contributed to this story.Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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