Pharmacist who diluted medication sentenced to 30 years

Friday, December 6, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A pharmacist who diluted chemotherapy drugs given to thousands of cancer patients was sentenced to the maximum of 30 years in prison Thursday after the victims' families tearfully told how the scheme had cost them precious days with their loved ones.

"Your crimes are a shock to the civilized conscience," U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith told Robert R. Courtney. "They are beyond understanding."

Courtney, 50, was also ordered to pay $10.4 million in restitution and a $25,000 fine. He showed no emotion as the judge announced his sentence.

His attorneys said he was remorseful, and they urged the judge to impose the lightest possible sentence under the plea agreement -- 17 1/2 years without parole.

"I have committed a terrible crime that I deeply and severely regret," Courtney told the court in a soft, shaky voice before being sentenced. "I wish I could change everything."

But federal prosecutors requested the maximum for a "cold-blooded" crime they said hastened at least one patient's death and was motivated by greed.

"What did these women lose? What did he take from them to satisfy his avarice? He took their hope and quality of life," prosecutor Gene Porter said.

Guilty plea

Courtney pleaded guilty in February to 20 counts of altering the cancer drugs Taxol and Gemzar. Those counts stem from his dilution of 158 chemotherapy doses prepared for 34 patients of a Kansas City doctor.

But Courtney admitted in his plea agreement he had been diluting drugs since 1992, affecting as many as 4,200 patients, 400 doctors and 98,000 prescriptions.

Muffled sobs could be heard in the courtroom Thursday as witnesses testified. So many people -- cancer patients and their relatives, reporters, lawyers and Courtney's family and friends -- attended that officials provided a closed-circuit TV feed to another room in the courthouse.

"I leave Robert Courtney in your hands for his lifetime, and in the Lord's hands for eternity," said patient Georgia Hayes, who earlier won a $2.2 billion verdict in her lawsuit against him. "May God have mercy on his soul."

Steven Coates showed a picture of his wife, Evelyn "Johnnie" Coates, who died of cancer last year at 53, shortly before the investigation became public.

Coates said his wife was not able to fulfill her dream of watching her infant grandson grow up. In the weeks before her death, she was in so much pain that she was unable to hold the boy.

"She still thought she would beat this dreaded disease, not knowing she was playing against a stacked deck," Coates said.

Prosecutors said that while the diluting of the cancer drugs probably hastened some deaths, proving it in court would be difficult.

"Robert Courtney, in their opinion, is a serial killer in that he diluted these lifesaving substances," said attorney Michael Ketchmark, who represented victims who sued Courtney for damages. "They consider this his judgment day."

Courtney made more money by diluting the medications. Authorities said he could pocket $780 on a single dose of Gemzar by putting only a small fraction of the prescribed amount into an intravenous solution.

In a statement to prosecutors, Courtney cited pressure to pay a $600,000 tax bill and a $1 million pledge to his church.

The government has frozen at least $8 million in Courtney's personal and corporate assets, and the church has pledged to return more than $600,000 he donated.

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