FLUSHING, Queens (WABC) -- A New York City doctor was sentenced to seven years in prison Tuesday after he was convicted of manslaughter for writing illegal prescriptions.
Dr. Lawrence Choy, 65, prescribed addictive painkillers and other controlled substances in potentially lethal dosages and combinations for no legitimate medical purpose to patients of his medical practice in Queens.
His indictment had contained a total of 231 counts, including two counts of second-degree manslaughter, nine counts of second-degree reckless endangerment and 220 counts of criminal sale of a prescription for a controlled substance.
He ultimately pleaded guilty to 34 felony counts, including manslaughter.
Agents from the DEA's Milwaukee District Office arrested Choy on March 29, 2018, at his residence in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where he moved in 2017 after he was visited by investigators at his Flushing office. He was extradited back to New York earlier this week.
"Dr. Choy's blatant disregard to the practice of medicine became a parent's worst nightmare and an opioid addict's dream," DEA Special Agent in Charge James Hunt said. "Similar investigations into the diversion of prescription medication have put doctors at the same level as drug kingpins. Both types of traffickers push millions of doses of opioids into our communities, leaving grieving families in their wakes."
Authorities say the charges relate to 14 patients who Choy allegedly issued prescriptions in the course of his professional practice. Three of these patients ultimately died of prescription drug overdoses between 2013 and 2016.
Choy was convicted in the overdose deaths of 35-year-old Eliot Castillo and 30-year-old Michael Ries, who each fatally overdosed within three days of receiving prescriptions from Choy. At their final visits with the doctor, both victims received high-dosage prescriptions for oxycodone and the anti-anxiety medication alprazolam (commonly known by the trade name Xanax). Both drugs have the effect of suppressing respiration and when taken together are known to heighten the risk of overdose.
A licensed physician since 1981, Choy specialized in internal medicine and nephrology (the treatment of diseased kidneys) and operated a full-time medical office at 142-20 Franklin Avenue in Flushing. Beginning in 2012, authorities say his prescribing practices changed dramatically, and he began issuing a high number of prescriptions for oxycodone and multiple prescriptions for controlled substances simultaneously to individual patients. They say this shift coincided with the filing of tax warrants against Choy for more than $1 million in taxes owed.
In addition to prescribing to primarily New York City residents, Choy allegedly began to draw patients from a wider geographic area, including Long Island, Upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The criminal investigation was triggered when the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office became aware that suspicious prescriptions issued in Choy's name were being filled at pharmacies in that state and then contacted law enforcement partners in New York.
In March of 2016, investigators obtained court authorization to search Choy's medical office, seizing records and computer equipment. Choy left his practice suddenly in June of 2017, leaving the Flushing office in a state of disarray and moving to Wisconsin.
The indictment charges prescribing that allegedly rose to the level of criminality when Choy prescribed drugs carrying substantial risks of addiction, physical harm or death, based upon inadequate examinations and unverified patient complaints. In addition, Choy allegedly prescribed addictive medications in inappropriately high dosages and pill counts and in potentially lethal combinations.
For example, the investigation revealed that Choy simultaneously prescribed individual patients a trio of drugs including one or more opioids, a benzodiazepine and a muscle relaxant. Medical literature explains that this combination, dubbed "the holy trinity," is known to be favored by individuals suffering from substance abuse and by those seeking to resell pills on the black market. Because all three drug types have the effect of suppressing respiration, the risk of overdose is heightened when they are taken together.
The investigation further revealed that Choy received reports about patients' involvement in accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, participation in substance abuse treatment programs, and receipt of prescriptions from other prescribers and continued to prescribe addictive medications to these patients.
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New York City doctor sentenced to 7 years in prison for overdose deaths