Perry doctor killed by patient

CORNETTSVILLE — A man seeking prescription painkillers shot and killed a doctor at a Perry County medical clinic Tuesday morning, according to state police.

Dr. Dennis Sandlin, 57, of Delphia died after being shot at Leatherwood/Blackey Medical Clinic in Cornettsville.

John Combs, 46, of Redfox in neighboring Knott County, was arrested after the shooting, state police said. Combs has been charged with murder.

Perry County Coroner Jimmy Maggard said Sandlin was shot in the head with a handgun while writing on a chart outside the clinic's exam rooms. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:53 p.m. An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday in Frankfort.

The shooting took place in front of other staff and patients, said Mike Caudill, CEO of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., which owns the clinic.

Police say Combs went to the office to see Sandlin, the only physician on the staff of about 20 at the clinic in the mountainous southern part of the county.

Clinic employees said Combs became angry and combative after refusing to take a urine test as a requirement for being prescribed pain pills, Perry County Sheriff's Deputy Sam Mullins said.

Early Tuesday, Combs had tried to obtain pain pills at a clinic in Whitesburg, Mullins said.

When he was refused at the Leatherwood/Blackey Medical Clinic, Combs threatened to come back and blow up the clinic, Mullins said.

Mullins responded to that complaint about 9:30 a.m. Combs had left by then, and clinic employees declined to press terroristic threatening charges against him.

Mullins said he thought Combs was doctor-shopping for pain pills and would move on to another clinic.

At about 11:40 a.m. Sandlin was fatally shot. No one else was hurt.

Mullins said he was shocked by the shooting.

"He must have really been over the edge for his pills," the deputy said of Combs. "He went ballistic."

Combs was wanted on an outstanding bench warrant. A state trooper waited for Combs at the suspect's home and arrested him there, Mullins said.

Combs was being held at the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard. Bail had not been set as of Tuesday evening.

Jail Deputy Damon Hickman said Combs was calm when he came to the jail.

His criminal history in Fayette County includes a 1994 conviction for second-degree sexual abuse; he pleaded guilty in 2002 to a charge of criminal trespassing and in 2003 to possession of marijuana in Fayette County, court records show.

Sandlin was a native of Perry County who was married and had a stepdaughter, said Pat Wooton, a former Perry County sheriff who is the slain doctor's uncle.

Sandlin's two sisters live in Jackson and Lexington; he had a brother who died of cancer a few years ago, Wooton said.

Caudill said Sandlin had worked at the clinic for 25 years and was nearing retirement.

Reached at the couple's home Tuesday afternoon, Sandlin's wife, Terri, was too distraught to talk.

Sandlin's sister, Leila Smith of Jackson, said the shooting "needs to be a wake-up call."

It's not unusual for addicts to seek drugs from health-care providers in Eastern Kentucky, Wooton said.

"We've all seen patients become visibly upset" when they didn't get the drugs they wanted, said Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a doctor from Perry County who said he has known Sandlin for years.

"Here's someone who came back home to help his community ... an innocent victim of a problem that is an epidemic throughout this state."

Wooton said he understood Sandlin previously had been involved in an incident in which he physically fought with a man seeking drugs.

"Denny knocked him out," Wooton said.

But generally, Sandlin was "a very gentle person," Mongiardo said.

"He was very laid-back, mild-mannered, never raised his voice," Mongiardo said. "I can't begin to tell you how heartbroken we all are. He's taken care of generations of families."

Caudill said Sandlin was well-loved. He had recently participated in a program to collect $10,000 worth of Christmas gifts for children.

The gifts are to be distributed next Tuesday, Caudill said.

Sandlin would take time to talk with patients, and he was "particularly gifted" at caring for older people, Wooton said.

The clinic is closed until Monday.

"MCHC is a family and will pull together to overcome this," Caudill said.

The non-profit Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp. is based in Whitesburg and is one of the largest rural health centers in Kentucky, according to its Web site.

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