Crime & Courts

OD victims' families blast Schneiders at hearing

Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, both of Haysville, leave the federal courthouse in Wichita.
Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, both of Haysville, leave the federal courthouse in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

A woman whose mother died in 2006 of a drug overdose took the stand Tuesday and told a Haysville doctor and his wife at their sentencing that she had more hatred for them than anyone.

Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, were found guilty in June of unlawfully writing prescriptions, health care fraud and money laundering following a nearly eight-week trial. Jurors convicted them of a moneymaking conspiracy that prosecutors linked to 68 overdose deaths.

Julie Wilburn said that her 53-year-old mother was not ready for her death, and that there are 68 families who will never see their relatives again.

She turned to face the Schneiders and told them, "You are responsible for that. You are to blame. You are a coward for not taking any responsibility."

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot said he would announce the couple's sentence this afternoon. Prosecutors have argued for life sentences or the equivalent, saying the harm the couple caused will reverberate through families and communities for years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway said the case was the tip of the iceberg because the number of deaths do not account for those who died without autopsies or in other counties.

"The defendants have not even begun to pay the price for what they have done to the victims," Treadway said.

Neither of the Schneiders spoke in court, deferring to their lawyers.

Defense attorney Lawrence Williamson asked for the mandatory minimum 20-year imprisonment, saying that Stephen Schneider was not trying to deal drugs and that most of the patients who went to the clinic were helped. He asked for the court's mercy and understanding.

"This is not a case of a serial murderer," Williamson said. "This is not a case where someone intentionally acted to harm people and hurt people."

Defense attorney Kevin Byers, who represents Linda Schneider, told the court there was no reason to go beyond the 20 years to deter other medical providers from similar conduct.

Among those in the gallery was juror Jim Hancock. Outside the courtroom, he said he came Tuesday because he wanted to put a finish to the case after spending so much time at the trial.

In the first public comments by any juror, Hancock told the Associated Press that it was the number of notifications of deaths and overdoses that Stephen Schneider received — and his responses to them — that convinced jurors the case went beyond negligence to a crime.

"The biggest losers are pain patients and doctors trying to treat them," Hancock said. "Something like this makes it more difficult down the road for legitimate practices and legitimate patients to be treated."

In seeking the life sentences, prosecutors told the court that jurors found that the Schneiders' conduct resulted in the deaths of 10 patients. Prosecutors argued that if this had been a serial murder case instead of a drug and health care fraud case, there would be no question that life sentences should be imposed.

The indictment described the Schneiders' clinic in Haysville as a "pill mill" that was open 11 hours a day and scheduled patients 10 minutes apart. The clinic wrote prescriptions 76 times for patients after they went to hospital emergency rooms for overdoses — sometimes involving the same drug, prosecutors said during the trial.

Stephen Schneider testified during the trial that he was trying to help and had been duped by some painkiller addicts but never meant to hurt anyone. His wife did not take the stand.

Wilburn told the court that the hardest thing she had to do in her life was go to her grandparents and tell them that her mother, Debra White, had died. Her grandfather took the news so hard that he died 38 days later, she said.

"How do you forgive someone who shows no remorse?" she asked.

Relatives of other victims also testified. Gwen Hunt spoke about her daughter, Kandace Bible, who died at age 43 in 2003, leaving behind three sons.

"She went to the clinic three months before she died," Hunt said. "She took a prescribed dose, and it killed her."

Stephanie Farris, a former medical assistant at the clinic, spoke on the Schneiders' behalf. She said the clinic referred patients for additional treatment, did X-rays and did blood work. Those who abused drugs were "fired" from the pain management program, she said.