He was a nurse. Then he became a minister. Then he went into banking. Now he's a federal prison inmate, charged with 12 armed bank robberies.
He got there because he became addicted to oxycodone, a pain reliever often referred to as OxyContin that also offers a feeling of euphoria. He's not an exception.
Thousands of previously upstanding citizens, including teens, are also getting addicted. Even in Lodi, oxycodone has its role.
It drove a 23-year-old man to rob a Lodi pharmacy at gunpoint five years ago. It caused a teenager and his protective father to have gun convictions on their records. And this spring, a Lodi teenager somehow survived a gunshot to the chest during what was supposed to be a quick oxycodone sale.
"The kids think it's cleaner than street drugs because it's pharmaceutical. It's not thought of as a street drug like meth," said Lodi Police Detective Steve Maynard, who investigates drug cases.
Since the beginning of the year, Lodi detectives have arrested eight oxycodone dealers. One man had 250 80mg OxyContin pills in his possession, Maynard said. One 80mg pill can cost as much as $80 on the street, meaning the suspect stood to make up to $20,000.
It has become very popular in local high schools, Maynard said, in part because teens can easily find it in their parents' and grandparents' medicine cabinets.
The abuse of oxycodone — often called OxyContin, which is a brand name form of it — is definitely a real problem, according to police, pharmacists and those involved in treatment and recovery programs.
"More than 90 percent of our kids have used OxyContin as part of their drug array," said John Lieberman, director of operations at Visions Adolescent Teen Center, a Malibu center that treats teens addicted to a number of vices.
Most teens don't stop to think that consuming large amounts of oxycodone can be fatal.
"It used to be that the biggest way that we would lose our kids was drugand alcohol-related vehicular accidents. That's not true anymore," he said. "Recently the statistics have changed: Kids are overdosing at a higher rate than they're dying in drug-related car accidents."
What is oxycodone?
Oxycodone has been available for years, but in March 2004 a generic version was released, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
That made it more widely available, and now it's sold under a variety of names — Percocet is a mix of oxycodone and acetaminophen, while Percodan combines it with aspirin.
Doctors prescribe it for extreme pain, usually for those battling cancer or with debilitating back pain.
The appeal is that it's a time-release drug, so one pill will gradually release the drug over a 12-hour time span. Like all drugs, it comes with a multitude of warnings, and can be fatal in overdoses.
"If people take enough of it, they will literally forget to breathe," said Dr. William Bligh-Glover, a coroner who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
In the 11 years he has worked in has worked in forensics, Bligh-Glover said he's seen plenty of drug-related deaths. The top three killer drugs are alcohol, methadone and oxycodone, he said.
Though the drug is designed to release slowly over hours, addicts and the naive have found simple ways to bypass that small hitch: They crush the pills and then swallow the powder, snort it or inject it directly into their veins, Bligh-Glover said.
Heather Edney was one of those injectors.
She grew up in a middle-class home, and from the outside everything seemed fine. That wasn't actually the case, she said, and as a teenager she discovered drugs could help her cope.
Legal drugs were easiest for her to get, and she kept using them through college, where she graduated with honors and began to run a non-profit. The addiction grew.
"There was a point where I was taking 40 Vicodin a day. I was a really sick person. Oxy's the same thing: You can take handfuls of them, and as you build up a tolerance you need more," she said.
She took to injecting oxycodone into her veins. She added heroin into the mix, which experts say is a common progression, since it's cheaper. That led Edney to try methamphetamine, which she said sent her out of control and soon left her jobless and homeless.
Someone invited her to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She agreed, and then went to another meeting. Someone else offered to help her get treatment. From there Edney went into detox, and then a six-month residential program.
Seven years have passed, and Edney hasn't relapsed. At one point she underwent surgery and had to take Vicodin. So she turned the medicine over to her sponsor, who doled it out to her in the most limited amounts.
Now she's director of marketing at KLEAN Treatment Center in Los Angeles. She raves about her family, her job, her house and her dog.
"There is an amazing life on the other side of addiction. It doesn't mean you have to lose your edge," she said.
How people get it
Edney, like others, found that oxycodone is an easy drug to obtain, in part because it's legal.
"People who have terminal illnesses sell it, people steal it from those with terminal illnesses, you can get it on the Internet. I used to go doctor shopping, tell them I had back pain," she said, recounting how she paid a doctor cash for the office visit, then took the prescription to a specific pharmacist he recommended.
Federal investigators do sometimes go after such doctors. In May 2009, a San Fernando doctor was convicted of writing numerous oxycodone prescriptions for illegitimate purposes, according to a press release the DEA issued at the time.
Some patients never even visited him, but gave him as much as $300 cash in exchange for a prescription. Jurors found him guilty of 13 felonies, after hearing testimony that in 2007 he was the No. 3 prescriber of oxycodone in California.
In Lodi, word on the street is that someone will get a prescription for 500 pills, then sell half of them, said Maynard.
Once dealers find a way of getting oxycodone, they sell it for roughly $1 per milligram, said Adam Kaye, who manages a 24-hour Walgreens pharmacy in Stockton and teaches at University of the Pacific's pharmacy school.
He said local high school students have told him oxycodone is so common that dealers quietly offer it for sale in fast food restaurant parking lots. Most teens think it's no big deal.
"They all have fun, take a couple pills, drink some alcohol," Kaye said, noting that the youths sometimes don't even know what pills they are ingesting. "People should be careful. It's not something like the first time you had a beer you may have gotten dizzy — this could kill you," he said.
Criminal cases in Lodi
While most experts mentioned oxycodone deaths due to overdoses — including celebrities — a Lodi teen survived a different kind of near-death experience two months ago.
On May 25, 19-year-old Odai Abu-Arqoub allegedly went to buy OxyContin on West Walnut Street, according to Lodi police. He and a friend were making the transaction late at night when another man arrived and demanded the cash and their car keys. A scuffle ensued.
Then a shot was fired, and Abu-Arqoub began bleeding from the chest. He survived the injury.
Another Lodi man, 23-year-old Aaron Young, was arrested several weeks later, and prosecutors have charged him with attempted murder. He's jailed on $150,000 and will return to court Friday. Police are still seeking 19-year-old Robert Antonio Barnes-Thomas.
Two other highly public Lodi cases involved guns and oxycodone, including the August 2005 armed robbery of now-closed Lakewood Drugs, in which 23-year-old Paul Mueller demanded the drug. He ultimately pleaded guilty to robbery, as well as a previous unrelated charge of possession of oxycodone without a prescription.
It doesn't just happen in Lodi. There's the matter of the nurse-turned-minister-turned-banker now facing at least two decades in prison for armed robberies. He recently talked to Dr. John E. Mayer, a Chicago psychologist who focuses on substance abuse treatment, as part of the court process.
The man, whom Mayer did not name, is smart, well-educated and soft-spoken. He hid his addiction from his wife and children, from his co-workers, from the youths to whom he ministered.
"He said, 'If you want to know how I felt without the drug, it's like I was in a deep hole with no way out. I was surrounded by darkness. ... When I took the drug, it allowed me to climb out of that hole and feel normal,'" Mayer said.
As a former nurse, the man knew how to walk into an emergency room and feign back pain, and what to say to get an oxycodone prescription rather than another drug. Eventually, after losing his banking job, the man couldn't afford his habit.
"Life for these people really disintegrates," Mayer said. "Life becomes an unending quest to see how you're going to procure more and more."
And so the man started robbing banks, getting between $3,500 and $7,600 at a time. The FBI caught up, and they charged him with 12 robberies. He told investigators the total was closer to 24, Mayer said.
What is OxyContin?
Though most people have heard of OxyContin, that’s actually a brand name for oxycodone, an opiate or narcotic.
It’s a time-release pain reliever that controls intense pain for a long period of time, rather than working for a little while and then wearing off. It changes the way the brain and nervous system respond to pain.
Other brand names include Oxydose, OxyIR and Roxicodone.
Some forms are combined with other pain relievers and anti-inflammatories:
- Combunox: combined with ibuprofen.
- Endocet, Percocet, Roxicet and Tylos: combined with acetaminophen.
- Endodan, Percodan and Roxiprin: combined with aspirin.
— Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at firstname.lastname@example.org.