Kansas City pharmacist who diluted cancer meds is getting out of prison early

Robert Courtney was serving a 30-year sentence after pleading guilty to diluting medications for as many as 4,200 patients and pocketing the resulting profits.

by Dan Margolies, Kansas News Service

This story was updated to include the comments of the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Courtney.

Robert Courtney, the Kansas City pharmacist whose drug dilution scheme drew national headlines 19 years ago, is being released from prison seven years early.

In a letter last week, the U.S. Justice Department informed some of Courtney’s victims and members of their families that Courtney will be moved to a halfway house this week and then to home confinement in Trimble, Missouri.

The letter said that Courtney, 67, had been found eligible for home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorney General William Barr instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release inmates who are “at a minimal risk of recidivating.”

Courtney, whose pharmacy was located in Research Hospital in Kansas City, was sentenced in 2002 after pleading guilty to diluting medications for cancer patients and other seriously ill people and pocketing the resulting profits. He had been serving a 30-year prison sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado, a low-security prison for male inmates. He was due to be released in 2027.

People who learned of his imminent release said they were appalled.

Kelly Ann Allen, whose grandmother was treated with cancer drugs mixed by Courtney and died in 2000, said she had people whose parents were victims of Courtney’s scheme reach out to her this week.

“I lost my grandma when I was a teenager and that, of course, was difficult,” Allen said. “It’s hard to go from thinking an illness took your family member to thinking that greed and murder took your family member.”

Michael Ketchmark, a Leawood, Kansas, attorney who helped negotiate legal settlements on behalf of Courtney’s victims, said he couldn’t imagine the pain they were feeling.

“My heart goes out to all of Robert Courtney’s victims, the thousands of lives that he impacted. The pain that they must be feeling on hearing this is unimaginable.”

Gene Porter, a now-retired assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Courtney, said he disagreed with the decision to release him from prison.

“I can no longer speak on behalf of the WDMO USAO [U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri] and can only speak as a private citizen,” Porter said in an email. “In that capacity I can say this was an unfortunate and misguided decision. Robert Courtney should not have been released early and should have served the full 30 year sentence justly imposed by the district court.”

FBI and Food and Drug Administration agents began an investigation in the summer of 2001 after Kansas City oncologist Verda Hunter notified them that a salesman from drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. had told her Courtney was dispensing far more of the cancer medication Gemzar than he was purchasing.

Agents set up a sting operation to buy drugs from Courtney, who mixed cancer drugs for Hunter, and discovered that the drugs were far less potent than Hunter had ordered. One sample contained less than 1 percent of the prescribed amount.

Authorities said the scheme lasted for a decade and affected as many as 4,200 patients and 98,000 prescriptions for cancer medications and a variety of other drugs.

Hundred of his victims and their families sued Courtney and the makers of two of the cancer drugs Courtney diluted, claiming the companies knew or should have known of Courtney’s scheme through their detailed sales records.

The drug companies, Eli Lilly and Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., eventually entered into a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs, later revealed to total about $71 million. The company that insured Courtney and his two pharmacies agreed to pay an additional $35 million.

The settlements came after a Jackson County jury in October 2002 ordered Courtney to pay Georgia Hayes, an ovarian cancer patient, $225 million in compensatory damages and $2 billion in punitive damages. The judge later reduced the amounts to $30.1 million and $300 million.

The Hayes case was the only one to go to trial. The judgment was largely symbolic because Courtney had already agreed to forfeit his assets to the government. But the bellwether case was a major factor in persuading the drug company defendants to settle.

In handing down a maximum 30-year sentence in December 2002, U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith told Courtney: “Your crimes are a shock to the conscience of a nation, the conscience of a community and the conscience of this court.”

In a statement before his sentencing, Courtney apologized to his victims and his family: “From this moment, and for a long time to come, I will be agonizing over what I have done,” he said. “My hope is that … everyone knows that I apologize. And I’m sorry. For the rest of my life, any good that I can do, any kindness that I can show, I’ll do.”

Dan Margolies is senior reporter and editor at KCUR. He can be reached by email at dan@kcur.org or on Twitter @DanMargolies. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

See more at https://www.kcur.org/news/2020-07-13/kansas-city-pharmacist-who-diluted-cancer-meds-is-getting-out-of-prison-early.

Police notes

Shootings reported at homes

Shootings into occupied homes were reported on July 14 at different locations, according to a social media post by the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

Police responded to the 900 block of Scott Avenue and found evidence. While at the location, a caller from another location said their home had been struck while occupied. Officers responded and made a report, photographing the damage. The suspect is unknown, according to the report.

Police also responded to the 1000 block of Hasbrook for a shooting into an occupied home on July 14, according to a social media report by the police. The victims said an unknown person discharged a firearm at their residence and vehicle, causing damage, according to the report.

Burglary reported on Southwest Boulevard

An attempted commercial burglary was reported July 14 in the 600 block of Southwest Boulevard, according to a social media post by the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

An employee told police that an unknown suspect attempted to gain entry into the business by causing damage to the wall and window. No one was in custody, according to the report.

Robbery reported on Metropolitan

A robbery was reported July 14 in the 2800 block of Metropolitan Avenue, according to a social media report by the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

Officers responded and the victim said a suspect approached her, grabbed her cell phone and keys, and fled the area in her vehicle. The victim was not injured. Detectives went to the scene.

Shooting reported on North 18th

A shooting into an occupied vehicle was reported July 14 in the 1800 block of North 18th Street.

The victim said he was involved in a road rage incident with the suspect, the report stated. The victim said he heard a gunshot and a single round struck his vehicle. The suspect fled, according to the report.

BPU to meet Wednesday

The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Public Utilities will meet at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 15, for a work session, followed by the regular meeting.

The regular session will follow at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The meetings will be remote meetings through Zoom and telephone.

On the work session agenda is board ethics training.

On the regular agenda are a COVID-19 update and CARES Act update; a bond sale recap; a legislation update; miscellaneous comments and board comments.

The work session and regular meeting are not being held in a room that is public, but are conducted on the telephone and internet, with the public able to listen in.

Information about access to the meetings:

Toll free Info: 1 (888) 475 4499
Meeting ID: 474 681 940

Join Zoom meeting

Meeting ID: 474 681 940

To access the board meeting information packet, click the link below:

Members of the community who wish to speak to the board must be logged in to the Zoom meeting via the internet using their browser or the Zoom application. Members of the public will be asked to raise their hand to signal they wish to address the board.

During the public comment section of the agenda, community members will be asked to provide their name and address and will then have 5 minutes to speak.

The zoom application is free and can be downloaded from zoom for the following platforms:

PC – https://zoom.us/support/download

Mac – https://apps.apple.com/us/app/zoom-cloud-meetings/id546505307

Android – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=us.zoom.videomeetings&hl=en

iOS – https://apps.apple.com/us/developer/zoom/id530594111

You may also join from any web browser https://zoom.us/j/474681940

To raise your hand, click on the “Raise Hand” feature at the bottom of the application or window or press *9 if connected by phone only.