NEW YORK, N.Y. – Two mom-and-pop pharmacies in residential neighbourhoods were fronts for a scheme that flooded the black market for highly addictive prescription painkillers with 500,000 pills, giving a couple who owned the businesses an illicit windfall that bought them a $2 million home, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
The oxycodone pills — distributed over a five-year period with and without fake prescriptions — had a street value of up to $15 million, authorities said at a news conference. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it one of the largest pill mills ever uncovered in the city and another reminder of the painkiller addiction epidemic.
Underground sale of the medications to street dealers “is not only a federal crime, but really a national health crisis,” Bharara said.
Pharmacist Lilian Wieckowski, 49, and her husband Marcin Jakacki, 36, owners of the Chopin Chemists stores in Queens and Brooklyn, and Robert Cybulski, 30, accused of being their largest customer, were arrested Wednesday night on conspiracy and other charges. At a hearing Thursday in federal court in Manhattan, a magistrate judge set bail at $1 million each for the couple and $100,000 for the third defendant. Defence lawyers said their clients would fight the charges.
The pharmacies first caught the attention of investigators when, for three years starting in 2010, the Brooklyn store had far larger supplies of oxycodone pills than any other outlet in its neighbourhood, said James Hunt, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office.
“It’s certainly out of the ordinary when a small pharmacy would sell more than a CVS or Rite Aid in the same area,” Hunt said.
A DEA investigation found that hundreds of prescriptions that accounted for tens of thousands of pills were falsified, authorities said. Many of the forms had been stolen from doctors’ offices around the city, they added.
An indictment alleges that Cybulski regularly visited the Brooklyn pharmacy and used prescriptions filled out with other people’s names to obtain up to 500 pills each time. It says he paid Wieckowski $2 in cash for each painkiller, which can have a street value of $30 or more.
Earlier this year, the DEA used an undercover agent wearing a wire to infiltrate the ring by posing as a crooked doctor’s office employee seeking to fill fake prescriptions, the court papers say. The agents arranged to buy 700 pills from Jakacki, who referred to the tablets as “candies,” they say.
The couple laundered proceeds by depositing them with fake notations like “wedding gifts” and “loan repayments,” then routing them through various bank accounts, the indictment says. About $1 million ended up in an escrow account so it could be used as a down payment on the couple’s house in Greenwich, Connecticut, it says. Prosecutors say the couple also drove a Porsche and a Land Rover.
If convicted of the most serious charges, Wieckowski, Jakacki and Cybulski, of Staten Island, face up to 20 years in prison.