Pubdate: Sun, 23 May 2004
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2004 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Sam Stanton, Bee Staff Writer


EL CERRITO - With his mild manner and coifed white hair, Frank Fisher 
doesn't seem like a guy who killed as many as nine people, as the state 
once claimed.

As it turns out, the doctor wasn't really part of what investigators once 
pronounced "a highly sophisticated drug-dealing operation."

He's just a 50-year-old doctor, Harvard-trained, who has lost his practice 
and his assets, a man who's resorted to living in his parents' cramped home 
as the result of a five-year battle to prove he is not a killer, not a drug 
dealer, not guilty of Medi-Cal fraud.

One of the final volleys in that battle came last week, when a jury in 
Redding acquitted Fisher on eight misdemeanor counts of Medi-Cal fraud.

The verdict marked the prosecution's latest failure to make any of its 
allegations stick, and the apparent end of state efforts to prosecute 
Fisher on criminal charges stemming from his once-booming medical practice 
in the Redding area.

"After the trial was over, I got online and saw all the stuff he's been 
through and I couldn't believe it," said juror Marty Glassett, a Burney 
electrician. "It just felt like they were on a witch hunt to me."

"They" would be prosecutors for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose 
office last week had no comment on the case.

In February 1999, Lockyer charged Fisher and the owners of a Redding- area 
pharmacy with murder, drug dealing and fraud. The case began as a 
blockbuster that drew national attention and earned Fisher the sobriquet 
"Redding pain doctor" anytime he was mentioned on television, radio and in 

Lockyer, who at the time had been attorney general for just a month, called 
a press conference to announce the arrests, saying authorities were saving 
Redding from saturation with highly addictive pain medications.

Investigators believed Fisher was indiscriminately prescribing massive 
amounts of painkillers to patients at his Westwood Walk-in Clinic in 
Anderson, south of Redding, then sending them to fill their prescriptions 
at the Shasta Pharmacy, owned by Stephen and Madeline Miller.

Authorities filed three murder counts with the original charges because 
three of the patients were said to have died of overdoses of the powerful 
painkiller OxyContin. Eventually, prosecutors would say they believed as 
many as nine people in Fisher's care had died, although they ended up 
filing five murder charges.

Fisher was arrested and handcuffed at his Anderson clinic. The clinic was 
shut down, his assets were seized, and he and the Millers ended up in jail 
for five months.

"My bail was set at $15 million," Fisher said. "I thought they set bail on 
Colombian drug lords at $7 million or $8 million."

And then the case began to fall apart.

By July 1999, a Shasta County judge threw out the murder charges for lack 
of evidence and allowed Fisher to be released on a $50,000 bond.

The case dragged on until January 2003, when a judge dismissed manslaughter 
and fraud charges against Fisher and the Millers. He was left facing the 
misdemeanor charges decided Tuesday.

"They made an enormous blunder, and they didn't want to admit it," Fisher 
said in an interview last week.

The prosecutor in the final case was tight-lipped after the verdict. "The 
jury has spoken," Deputy Attorney General John Dower told the Redding 
Record Searchlight.

 From the start, the case was controversial, in part because of the 
national debate over how to treat patients suffering from chronic pain. 
Some believe powerful drugs such as OxyContin are so addictive that 
prescribing too much is inherently dangerous.

Fisher contends he treated his patients diligently while providing them 
relief from pain.

Early on, holes in the state's case seemed readily apparent to Fisher and 
his supporters, many of whom rallied outside the Shasta County Courthouse.

One of the alleged murder victims died when the car she was in smashed into 
a tree. Prosecutors said she had massive amounts of oxycodone, the active 
ingredient in OxyContin, in her blood. But court testimony later indicated 
the toxicology reading had been a "false reading."

Another alleged murder victim was Tamara Lorette Stevens, who was being 
treated for pain from a perforated stomach ulcer. Stevens died in September 
1998, and authorities charged that Fisher's OxyContin prescriptions led to 
her death.

But her husband, Robert, also a Fisher patient, disputed that in a recent 
interview, saying Fisher had helped both of them immeasurably and that he 
believes his wife died of heart failure.

"They didn't care," Stevens said. "He was helping people and I guess they 
didn't think that the people deserved help because they were on Medi-Cal."

Stevens is a former farm laborer who blames years of field work for his 
back pain. After Fisher's arrest, Stevens said, he could not find other 
doctors in the area willing to risk dispensing medicine for chronic pain, 
and ended up traveling to Fresno for help.

Now, he says, he has another Redding-area doctor who has prescribed more 
OxyContin to him than Fisher ever did.

The huge amount of painkilling medicine Fisher was prescribing is what led 
to the case in the first place. Medi-Cal officials noted there had been an 
enormous jump in such prescriptions in 1998, with Fisher dispensing more of 
the medicine than any of the other 50,000 OxyContin prescribers in the state.

At the same time, the Millers' pharmacy became one of the largest 
dispensers of such medication in the nation.

Fisher says he simply was serving his patients, under state law, by 
providing them with pain relief, and that he took extreme precautions to 
avoid overprescribing.

At the time, his practice consisted of 3,000 patients, most of them 
families and children seeking routine care. About 5 percent to 10 percent 
of his patient load consisted of people seeking help for chronic pain, he said.

Fisher estimates that state undercover agents visited him at least seven 
times trying to obtain prescriptions using bogus ailments, and that he 
refused to provide them with medicine. So, investigators began looking for 

"The attorney general's office looked at the amount of medication I had 
prescribed and what it cost the medical program and developed a theory that 
said that must have killed people," Fisher said. "Well, that's not the way 
a murder case starts.

"It usually starts with a body, then they look for a perpetrator. In this 
case they developed a theory of a murder case and started looking for bodies."

The judge never bought into the theory, tossing out the murder charges and 
most of the other counts.

Eventually, Fisher faced eight misdemeanor counts of Medi-Cal fraud 
accusing him of filing incorrect reimbursement forms. His attorney 
estimated he was charged with exceeding legal limits by $150, Fisher said.

That case ended Tuesday, giving Fisher hope that his legal troubles - at 
least the criminal ones - are over.

He still faces three wrongful death suits filed in the wake of the original 
charges, cases he says his attorneys are confident can be defeated now that 
he has beaten the criminal charges.

And the Medical Board of California still intends to pursue action against 
him. The board filed an accusation, mirroring the criminal charges, that 
has been on hold while Fisher fought it out in the courts. Now, the board 
says, it will move forward to take Fisher's license.

For their part, the Millers say that even after the charges against them 
were dropped, the state continued to make things difficult. They received a 
court order allowing return of their assets, but claim Lockyer's office 
still is holding $400,000 in cash; and the state Board of Pharmacy is 
trying to revoke Stephen Miller's license.

The couple say they have lost one home fighting the case, and that they 
have been living off money from life insurance policies and friends.

"I feel like I've been raped, like we've been violated," Madeline Miller said.

Fisher's own parents have used more than $100,000 in retirement savings to 
help their son, who has not worked since the case began. At this point, 
he's lost everything but a 1988 Mercedes sedan with 300,000 miles on it, 
and his medical license.

And he wants to keep that license.

"I'll go back into some form of medical practice," he said when asked about 
his plans. "Maybe I'll get a job. I don't know what I'm going to do next."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart