Perhaps one day law enforcement officials will acknowledge that Las Vegas has emerged as a national crossroads for oxycodone abuse and trafficking.
Until then, a growing stack of anecdotal evidence will suffice.
Hospital administrators, fire department paramedics and Metro cops see the problem of oxycodone abuse up close every day. Local emergency rooms regularly receive oxycodone overdose patients. Narcotics detectives continue to notice an increase in heroin use from addicts whose gateway drug was not picked up in some back alley but prescribed by a physician.
Oxycodone has legitimate uses as a reliever of acute pain, especially following surgery. But the synthetic opioid is also highly addictive. Evidence suggests that prescriptions have been too easy to obtain and too little monitored.
It has also given rise to a new generation of drug dealers. Not the usual gents you might find on a street corner in a poor neighborhood but the sort who study at the university for years before breaking into the lucrative racket.
Take Dr. Victor Bruce, for instance. He’s the latest in an increasing line of local physicians to ruin their careers by getting caught dealing substantial amounts of oxycodone. Bruce, 49, pleaded guilty this past week in U.S. District Court to a federal drug conspiracy charge for writing stacks of prescriptions for people he had never seen or treated.
Although Bruce faces up to 20 years and a $1 million fine upon sentencing, which is scheduled for Oct. 9 in U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon’s courtroom, he caught a break no street dealer would have received when he was allowed to plead to a single count. Gordon didn’t deal out of the ghetto but from the sparkling offices of the Swan Lake Medical at 3330 S. Hualapai Way.
Bruce’s case is instructive not only because he abused his professional position but also because of the upscale location of his office. Oxy sales, abuse, and overdose aren’t limited to a specific neighborhood or socioeconomic class.
Bruce helped create false medical records on behalf of Robert Wolfe, who is suspected of being the oxycodone ringleader, and his associates. Some of the physician’s office assistants were enlisted in the conspiracy. The case was investigated by the multi-agency Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Pharm-Net Task Force and prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office. The investigation holds the promise of nailing several other crooked physicians. Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said at least four other medical professionals are targeted.
The Bruce case is only the latest in a steady series of oxy trafficking investigations that have led law enforcement to unethical doctors and pharmacists in Las Vegas. But they represent only one end of the immensely lucrative pipeline.
The network includes not only characters such as Wolfe, known as the “Old Man,” but also a young man named Kingsley Osemwengie, a 27-year-old Las Vegan who stood at the center of a national oxycodone trafficking ring based in Portland, Ore. Osemwengie lived in high Vegas style and owned four Bentleys before his organization was busted. By the time he serves his 17-year, 6-month sentence, Bentleys will probably be flying.
In the massive painkiller trafficking investigation, the names of several Las Vegans stand out. Among the lesser players: Shaun Wesley Tyler, who was sentenced to 37 months; Marcus Charles Albert, sentenced to 63 months; Melvin Allotey, hit with 48 months; and Reina Nakachi, sentence unavailable.
By my unofficial count, federal authorities have filed illegal distribution charges involving painkillers against approximately 100 Southern Nevadans since 2010. The arrests are likely to continue apace.
So are the overdose deaths.
As for Bruce and other dealer docs like him, Bogden said in a statement, “We will continue to identify and prosecute these bad doctors who are using their medical licenses to illegally deal drugs,” Bogden said. “... This was simply a money-making sham, and none of the prescriptions were being issued for a legitimate medical purpose or in the usual course of professional practice.”
It won’t be the last time he gets a chance to say that.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.