J. D. Heyes
A wheelchair-bound man who suffered from partial paralysis, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis was raided by masked, gun-wielding SWAT officers and ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison for possessing a one-month supply of painkillers that he was legitimately prescribed by his physician.
The man, Richard Paey, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, was paralyzed by a severe automobile accident in 1985 near Philadephia, according to a report by CBS 60 Minutes program. The report said Paey's condition worsened after a botched surgery left him with metal screws in his spine and unrelenting pain.
"I felt like my legs were being dipped into a furnace," Paey explained. "They were burning, and I couldn't move them. It's an intense pain that, over time, will literally drive you to suicide."
Paey knows this because he tried to kill himself -- twice. "And for me, death would have been a form of relief," he said. Add to that his MS and he was in a condition that made it nearly impossible for him to do anything except lie in bed all day, ingesting a steady dose of prescription opiates.
According to the 60 Minutes report, his pharmaceutical regimen included Percocet, Vicodin, acetaminophen and codeine. And due to his agonizing condition, his doses were substantial; Paey would take two-dozen pills per day. Over time, he became tolerant to the drugs, and required larger doses to feel relief, which landed him in the dangerous position of attracting police attention -- something that doctors themselves were wary of.
At one point, Paey moved with his family from New Jersey to Florida, but Florida doctors were reluctant to prescribe the powerful painkillers.
The doctor lied to save himself
"One [doctor] was quite frank and said that I was, in a word, he said, 'screwed,'" Paey recalled. "And I was in that medical nightmare zone where you've gone through all the treatments, and nothing works. And what does work, what does help, no one wants to prescribe because it attracts attention, and no one wants that attention."
So what happened?
"My doctor in New Jersey, who had been with me for almost seven years, agreed to continue the care," says Paey.
His long-time physician in New Jersey, Stephen Nurkiewicz, agreed to continue prescribing the large doses of painkillers, delivering pills through the mail. And to make sure that Paey never ran out of painkillers, which was an agonizing prospect, Nurkiewicz left some of the prescriptions undated.
However, Paey's frequent refills eventually drew attention from law enforcement personnel. Florida, CBS reported, has seen a large rise in the sale of black-market painkillers. And convinced that Paey may have been reselling his drugs, local cops put him under surveillance. Two months later, they arrested him.
"They had guns and ski masks and, like, five, six people ran into the house and half of them took the kids and my mother in law. And the other one grabbed me," said Richard's wife, Linda Paey. "And Rich kept on saying, 'Please, call my doctor. Can you call my doctor?' You know? 'Everything's fine. Call my doctor.' And they said they already have."
Indeed they had. The doctor was originally a suspect. 60 Minutes reported:
In interviews with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Nurkiewicz at first supported Paey and admitted mailing him undated prescriptions and, when pharmacists called, he verified the prescriptions. But when he was later shown evidence that Paey had filled 200 prescriptions over a two year period for 18,000 pills, he then stated that all of the prescriptions were forgeries, including some he had originally verified to pharmacists. He was no longer a suspect, instead becoming a witness for the prosecution.
Florida state prosecutor Scott Andringa said that police found "raw materials to make prescriptions" "all over his room," which they accused Paey of doing. Andringa also accused Paey of forging prescriptions to get enough medications to sell -- despite the fact that prosecutors have no evidence whatsoever that he sold a single pill.
Paey says he needed every pill he got to soothe his pain.
"In the end, while there was no evidence Paey was selling drugs, under Florida law, the possession of just one bottle of illegally obtained painkillers -- just 28 grams -- is considered drug trafficking, which carries a higher penalty than trafficking in much larger amounts of cocaine," said the 60 Minutes report.
Watch the original 2006 report here.
Editor's note: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist pardoned Paey Sept. 20, 2007.
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