An undercover agent walked into Dr. Henri Wetselaar’s office in 2010 and, after complaining of shin splints and other ailments, left with prescriptions for Percocet, Xanax and Viagra.
The details of that visit, as well as several others to the same office, were disclosed this week during testimony in the federal trial against the 92-year-old doctor, his medical assistant and a pharmacist — who together are accused of funneling large quantities of pills onto the streets of Las Vegas through an illegal prescription drug ring.
Wetselaar, assistant David Litwin and pharmacist Jason Smith are the focus of the trial, which has provided a window into the scope of the federal government’s crackdown on prescription drug abuse in Southern Nevada.
“We had an epidemic,” Metropolitan Police Sgt. Steve Armbruster, the undercover agent who also posed as a pill seeker in a number of other investigations, testified.
In a two-year span, federal prosecutors brought charges against scores of people they said were running pill mills.
The tapes played in court this week revealed that when Armbruster went into Wetselaar’s office complaining of shin pain, the doctor asked the patient’s opinion about what medicine was best for him. When Armbruster suggested oxycodone and Percocet, Wetselaar told him he could not prescribe oxycodone on the first visit, but he agreed to write a prescription for Percocet.
Litwin then asked Armbruster if he had taken medication for anxiety, and Armbruster replied that he had taken Xanax. The agent also requested prescriptions for several more drugs. Wetselaar agreed to prescribe Xanax and Viagara, and at subsequent visits prescribed oxycodone in gradually increasing quantities.
The defense strategy in the case has involved pointing to the prescription history associated with Armbruster’s undercover persona — medical records that resulted from prior investigations — to suggest that Wetselaar’s prescriptions were justified.
Wetselaar’s attorney Jeffrey Setness described the prescription history of the undercover agent as “part of an elaborate ruse by the agent to try to lull this doctor into believing that this patient had seen other doctors” and received similar prescriptions.
Authorities, meanwhile, maintain that a law-abiding doctor would have recognized the patient as a drug seeker trying to doctor-shop and would have rejected him.
Recordings revealed the gruff, sometimes cantankerous demeanor of Wetselaar, who walks with a cane and comes to court each day sporting a navy blue garrison hat with gold trim atop his balding head of white hair. He sits hunched over the defense table next to his lawyer and listens to proceedings with the help of a hearing device. U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson has approved a trial schedule with only half days of testimony to accommodate Wetselaar’s ailing health.
Prosecutors portray Wetselaar as a crooked doctor who, before his indictment on federal drug charges, made at least $260,000 by charging clients $300 a visit for oxycodone prescriptions — which, testimony has suggested, he sometimes granted without administering a physical examination.
One of the government’s star witnesses is a drug dealer who testified this week about an arrangement she had with Wetselaar and Litwin, who saw clients out of her home twice a week. Carolyn Allen said she would refer clients to Wetselaar, instruct them to complain about back pain, and provide them with the cash to pay for the prescription. Clients would return to her with the prescriptions, and in return receive a cash kickback and sometimes a few pills, Allen said.
Then, she testified, she would take the prescriptions to Lam’s Pharmacy, where Smith was the manager. She said Lam’s Pharmacy maintained an entire book dedicated only to her clients. Allen said her clients were prescribed — among other drugs — oxycodone, hydrocodone, Soma and Xanax.