Judge: Schneider case 'an avoidable tragedy motivated by greed'
10/20/2010 12:00 AM
10/21/2010 5:32 AM
WICHITA — Linda Schneider should carry most of the responsibility for her husband's patients who overdosed and died.
But Stephen Schneider, a former physician, could have stopped it.
That's what a federal judge decided Wednesday before sentencing Linda Schneider to 33 years and Stephen Schneider to 30 years for their practices of prescribing pain killers at their Haysville clinic.
Stephen Schneider is 57 years old. Linda Schneider is 52. There is no parole from federal prison.
U.S. District Judge Monti Belot called the case "an avoidable tragedy motivated by greed."
Belot said Linda Schneider, as a licensed practical nurse who managed the clinic, set up an operation to make money off the quantity of patients who came there, not the quality of care.
"I have the distinct belief that had she not been involved in the operation of the clinic, or had she approached her role there in a professional and responsible way, none of us would be here," Belot said, explaining her higher sentence.
But she didn't, he said.
"I believe the evidence has shown that Linda Schneider is a scheming, manipulative, uncaring criminal who believed, erroneously, that she was smart enough to 'get away with it,' " Belot said. "A big mistake on her part."
Stephen Schneider, who had been described as a competent doctor, could have prevented the 68 overdose deaths prosecutors say are linked to the clinic.
"Stephen Schneider, as a doctor, had both legal and moral responsibilities to his patients to do no harm," the judge said.
But Stephen Schneider continued to freely write prescriptions for strong narcotics to patients who asked for them — many who became addicted and eventually died of overdoses.
"Stephen Schneider earned the nickname 'Schneider the Writer,' " Belot said.
The Schneiders' defense team continued to insist their clients are not criminals.
"We truly believe in their innocence," said Lawrence Williamson, who represented Stephen Schneider. "We don't believe justice has fully been served, and we hope there is a shot on appeal."
Belot's comments reflected a verdict by a jury after an eight-week trial.
In June, jurors convicted Stephen Schneider of 19 counts of illegally prescribing narcotics, health care fraud and money laundering.
They found Linda Schneider guilty on 32 criminal counts — nearly half dealing with financial gains from the practice.
Prosecutors said at least 68 patients died of accidental drug overdoses as a result of the Schneiders' prescription practices. The jury found the couple directly contributed to the deaths of 10 patients.
"The Schneiders put money before medicine," U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said. "They illegally dispensed prescription pain killers without a medical purpose and without regard to the fact their patients were suffering from physical and mental conditions that made them vulnerable to the risks of addiction, overdose and death."
Yvonne Hess did not go to court but followed the sentencing online, via Twitter. Hess said she had six family members who sought medical care from the Schneider Medical Clinic, who ended up addicted to prescription narcotics.
Her sister died of an overdose at age 58 and her 49-year-old brother committed suicide while struggling with his addictions, Hess said.
"I felt like I had one sitting at each shoulder with me today, along with 68 others who died," she said following the sentencing.
Her family members, like many others, weren't part of the indictment against the Schneiders.
"There were so many other families effected," said Hess, who has become a caretaker for her parents and siblings. "That doctor made my life hell."
More legal troubles
The one aspect where Belot said the Schneiders appeared to succeed was in raising two adopted teenage daughters.
Pat Hatcher, Linda's sister, said the girls were now staying with family members.
"We're all devastated," Hatcher said.
Belot sharply criticized the Pain Relief Network — an organization that supported the Schneiders throughout the trial.
"There is one aspect of deterrence I hope this case achieves and that is to curtail or stop the activities of the Bozo the Clown outfit known as the Pain Control Network, a ship of fools if there ever was one," Belot said.
Siobhan Reynolds, director of the Pain Relief Network, is currently being investigated by federal prosecutors, stemming from her support of the Schneiders. The group tried to sue on behalf of Schneiders' former patients in Wichita, but Judge Wesley Brown dismissed the suit.
Reynolds had said the prosecution of the Schneiders hurts patients who suffer from chronic pain and keeps other doctors from treating them.
Belot said the group does just the opposite.
"When persons leading or involved in an organization such as the Pain Control Network are so stupid that they support what occurred in this case, they demean the efforts of legitimate medical providers to help persons suffering from chronic pain," Belot said.
Reynolds had been present during the trial but did not attend the sentencing.
The Schneiders have further legal battles ahead of them.
Earlier Wednesday, Belot ordered U.S. Marshals to make the couple available for depositions in four malpractice lawsuits still pending in Sedgwick County District Court.
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