New Jersey doctor, 17 others arrested in alleged oxycodone ring

BELLEVILLE, New Jersey (WABC) -- A medical doctor from New Jersey and 17 others have been arrested in an alleged opioid distribution ring that involved the illegal sale of tens of thousands of oxycodone and Xanax pills.

Authorities say Dr. Craig Gialanella, 53, sold prescriptions for cash to the ring of drug dealers in Atlantic County, writing fraudulent prescriptions for individuals who had no legitimate medical need for the highly addictive pills.

Dr. Gialeanella, an internist with a medical practice at on Newark Avenue in Belleville, was arrested on July 17 and charged with second-degree distribution of narcotics.

Prosecutors identified the alleged leaders of the Atlantic County drug ring as 54-year-old Mary Connolly; her ex-husband, 53-year-old Douglas Patterson; and her daughter, 28-year-old Lauren Connolly, all of Egg Harbor Township.

They and 13 other defendants -- including Mary Connolly's 31-year-old son Robert Connolly, of Galloway -- are charged with either second- or third-degree distribution of narcotics or conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Mary Connolly's son Michael Connolly, Jr., 33, of Galloway, is charged with third-degree obtaining narcotics by fraud, bringing the total number of suspects charged to 18.

Officials say the charges stem from what was dubbed "Operation Oxy Highway," an ongoing joint investigation targeting corrupt health care professionals and "pill mills." Since 2014, the team has charged six doctors, including Gialanella, with illegally distributing opiates, including two doctors charged with strict liability for overdose deaths.

"Doctors who act like drug dealers and illegally dole out prescriptions for these highly addictive painkillers are nothing more than drug pushers in white coats," Attorney General Christopher Porrino said. "And they are even more dangerous than a street dealer, because we trust that our doctors will protect our health and not hurt or kill us. Rather than preserving health and protecting life, this doctor allegedly profited by prescribing addiction and death in one of the counties hardest hit by the epidemic of opiate addiction in New Jersey."

The investigation began in December 2016, after a pharmacist in Atlantic County reported that Patterson and other local residents were using Dr. Gialanella, a general practitioner whose office is more than 100 miles away, to obtain large quantities of opiates. The pharmacist noted that Patterson used multiple dates of birth on oxycodone prescriptions to avoid detection by the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) and limits on permitted quantities of such narcotics.

The New Jersey PMP revealed that from Jan. 1, 2016 to Dec. 7, 2016, Dr. Gialanella issued 413 prescriptions for approximately 50,000 oxycodone 30 milligram tablets in the names of 30 individuals from the Atlantic County area, including prescriptions for the alleged leaders and members of the drug ring. The prescriptions were frequently issued in the same name with a different date of birth, and Patterson also allegedly altered his name to avoid detection.

Dr. Gialanella allegedly charged the purported patients $50 to $100 for an "office visit," which typically lasted just a few minutes and did not involve any type of exam, testing or treatment. Gialanella would write prescriptions for 90 or 180 tablets of oxycodone 30 milligram tablets and 90 alprazolam (Xanax) 2 milligram tablets. It is alleged that Gialanella would write from two to as many as five prescriptions for each drug for a single patient every 30 days, frequently leaving the date of birth blank.

A total of 1,587 people died from drug overdoses in New Jersey in 2015, including 918 deaths involving heroin, 417 involving fentanyl, and 302 involving oxycodone.
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