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Cincinnati pharmacist gets two years in pain-pills case

A suburban Cincinnati pharmacist who dispensed thousands of pain pills that then were sold and abused in Eastern Kentucky must serve two years in prison, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Thomas Stark must also pay a $10,000 fine, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove said.

Stark already has forfeited $100,000 to the government, the amount he made by improperly dispensing 11,000 methadone pills.

Stark, in his mid-60s, was charged in one of Eastern Kentucky's largest conspiracies involving people who traveled out of state to get prescriptions for pills, then diverted the drugs to the illegal market at home.

That problem has increased during the past few years as people sought to avoid scrutiny by authorities in Kentucky and the state's electronic prescription-tracking system, police have said.

Last fall, police charged more than 500 people in the state's largest-ever drug round-up. Many are accused of bringing pills back from Florida.

In the drug ring in which Stark was charged, scores of people from the Pike County and Floyd County area went to doctors in Louisiana, Philadelphia and Cincinnati from 2001 to 2007 to get prescriptions, according to court documents.

Stark's attorney, Patrick Hanley, urged Van Tatenhove to sentence Stark to no more than a year and a day in prison.

Stark, who has serious heart problems, has lost his profession, paid $100,000 and become a felon, Hanley said.

The state took away Stark's license after he was charged.

Hanley also pointed out that when Stark started getting carloads of patients from Kentucky with prescriptions from Lloyd Naramore, a physician who had an office nearby, he checked with federal authorities to confirm Naramore had the right to issue drug orders.

Stark also called Ohio officials for guidance on whether it was OK to fill prescriptions for the Kentucky residents — not the act of someone trying to cover up a criminal conspiracy, Hanley said.

Hanley said officials told Stark the prescriptions raised red flags, but none told him it was wrong to fill them.

However, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West, said those red flags — such as groups of people from four hours away paying cash for pills — were obvious. Stark, who had a duty to fill prescriptions only for legitimate medical reasons, should have known better, West said

The prosecutor recommended a 24-month sentence.

That was far below the advisory guideline range of 108 to 135 months. Stark's clean record, his helping the government in the investigation and other factors figured in the recommendation for a lower sentence.

Van Tatenhove told Stark that he had a commendable record as a family man and small business owner and had been a respected professional.

But Van Tatenhove said letting Stark go with no prison time would not recognize the seriousness of a crime that destroys lives. The pills dispensed by Stark fed debilitating drug addiction in Eastern Kentucky, the judge said.

The judge said schemes to divert prescription pills to the black market require the involvement of doctors, who can be reckless or complicit, and pharmacists, who are expected to be gatekeepers.

"Having heard that there were red flags, the expectation of the law is that you would have done something different than what you did," Van Tatenhove said.

The judge said that under the law, Stark had to report to prison immediately.

Stark is among 22 people charged in the conspiracy led by Timothy Wayne Hall of Floyd County. In addition to obtaining pills through prescriptions in other states, the drug ring smuggled OxyContin from Michigan.

All told, they brought 200,000 pills into Eastern Kentucky.

All have pleaded guilty, including Hall, Naramore and a physician from Philadephia. More than a dozen people have been charged in a related case.

The investigation is continuing, West said.