Midwest City doctor charged in overdose deaths of five patients

A Midwest City doctor was charged Friday in the overdose deaths of five patients, accused in a murder case of unlawfully prescribing excessive amounts of prescription drugs to the victims.

Regan Ganoung Nichols, 57, is charged in Oklahoma County District Court with five counts of second-degree murder. Nichols, an osteopathic physician, is accused of prescribing controlled dangerous substances to patients without a legitimate medical need and in quantities and circumstances that disregarded human life.

She has been banned from prescribing drugs since 2015.

“I appreciate the effort from everyone who worked as a team and put this case together,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said Friday. “The dangers associated with opioid drugs have been well documented and most doctors follow strict guidelines when prescribing opioids to their patients.

“Nichols prescribed patients, who entrusted their well-being to her, a horrifyingly excessive amount of opioid medications. Nichols’ blatant disregard for the lives of her patients is unconscionable.”

If convicted, Nichols faces at least 10 years in prison on each of the five counts.

The charge is the latest example of prosecutors around the country working to deal with the opioid epidemic.

A former Oklahoma City doctor pleaded guilty in 2014 to eight counts of second-degree murder. Oklahoma County prosecutors alleged the doctor overprescribed pain and anti-anxiety medications to eight patients.

In 2015, a California doctor was convicted in a second-degree murder case in the overdose deaths of three patients, according to news reports. Last year, a former pain doctor in Florida pleaded guilty in a manslaughter case over two overdose deaths, according to news reports.

Opioids, the main driver of drug overdose deaths, were involved in more than 33,000 deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some states, including Ohio and Missouri, have recently sued pharmaceutical companies over their role in the opioid epidemic.

Last month, the state Legislature voted to create a new Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse. Hunter will chair the commission.

“I’ve got an opportunity as chief law officer of the state to bring focus to what I think is a nightmarish social and health issue and public safety issue in the state,” Hunter told The Oklahoman. “When there are cases in which there is clear culpability in which the evidence supports criminal charges that relate to opioid abuse, we’re going to work those cases.”

Hundreds of pills

According to investigators, Nichols prescribed hundreds of pills to each victim.

“Nichols prescribed extremely large quantities of controlled substances in suspect combinations, including the most abused and sought after prescription drugs on the street, to numerous patients with very little medical examination,” an agent with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control reported in a court affidavit.

The state medical examiner reported all five deaths were the result of multi-drug toxicity. The five deaths she is charged in occurred between 2010 and 2013.

Three of the five individuals were prescribed a deadly three drug combination of a narcotic opioid pain reliever, an anti-anxiety drug and a muscle relaxer. Investigators called the combination “the holy trinity” for addicts.

One victim, Debra Messner, went to Nichols’ clinic, Sunshine Medical, on March 24, 2010. Messner was prescribed “the holy trinity” by Nichols for a total of 450 pills, according to the affidavit. Six days later, Messner died. She was 47.

Two victims who died in 2012 also were prescribed “the holy trinity,” according to the affidavit. Lynette Nelson was prescribed 240 pills in February 2012 and died the following month at 46. Sheila Bartels was prescribed 510 pills Nov. 21, 2012, and died the same day at 55.

The two other victims, Chealsy Dockery and Deborah Hutcheson, died in 2013. Dockery, 21, was prescribed possibly fatal medication because she had diabetes, according to the affidavit. Prescriptions written by Nichols for Hutcheson, 52, were considered “way out of line,” according to the affidavit.

Nichols was placed on five years probation by the Oklahoma State Board of Osteopathic Examiners following a hearing in September 2015 related to complaints of six patient deaths, according to the affidavit. While on probation she cannot prescribe, administer or dispense controlled dangerous substances.

As many as 10 of her patients have died from overdoses, the agent reported in the affidavit. It’s not yet known whether Nichols will be charged with any additional counts, Hunter said.

Authorities began looking into Nichols in May 2014 after a concerned former patient notified law enforcement, according to the affidavit. During a March 2015 interview with investigators, Nichols admitted to writing prescriptions since 2005 for highly abused drugs before seeing patients, according to the affidavit.

Nichols was jailed Friday and was being held on $50,000 bail.

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