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4/8/2002

Federal Investigation Uncovers Path of Stolen Drugs

Donna Young

Within days after Robert R. Courtney's arrest last August for purposely weakening doses of cancer-fighting drugs, the pharmacist admitted in a statement that, for 10 years, he had purchased some drug products on what he called "the gray market," according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri.

Courtney's gray market, federal investigators later determined, was not legal at all. It dealt with prescription drug products that had been stolen from a hospital. And Courtney knew it.

An FBI undercover operation led to the April 4 confession by Steuart William Smith, 51, a former University of Colorado Hospital pharmacy storeroom employee, that he had been stealing prescription drugs from the hospital and selling them.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said Smith was not a pharmacy technician and, to her knowledge, did not have anything to do with the process of filling prescriptions.

University of Colorado Hospital, a 373-bed facility, terminated Smith’s employment last November, said hospital spokeswoman Sarah Ellis.

Smith’s confession is the latest admission stemming from the Courtney case that, so far, has also involved two retired pharmaceutical salesmen and another pharmacist.

In his August statement, Courtney had identified Walter J. Accurso, 69, a retired pharmaceutical salesman of Kansas City, Mo., and a man named only as "Uzzie" as the "gray market" suppliers, said Don Ledford, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Todd P. Graves.

After being approached by federal investigators, Accurso, according to Ledford, admitted to knowingly having obtained stolen drugs from Aram "Uzzie" Paraghamian, 73, also a retired pharmaceutical salesman, of Westminister, Colo.

Paraghamian confessed to dealing in stolen drug products and agreed to cooperate with the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in their investigation.

According to Graves’s office, Paraghamian introduced Accurso to Smith as part of a joint FBI-FDA operation. Accurso then arranged for Smith to send two shipments of stolen drugs directly to Accurso in Kansas City.

Federal investigators confronted Smith in Denver, and he confessed to stealing the drugs and selling them.

Courtney confessed in February, as part of a plea agreement, that he knew the drugs he had been buying from Accurso and Paraghamian were stolen and not, as he had previously claimed, as part of gray-market transactions.

Accurso was not charged with any criminal violations and settled a federal civil suit by paying $33,650 after admitting that he knowingly acquired and then sold stolen prescription drug products.

Another Kansas City-area pharmacist, Gary S. Ravis, 58, surrendered his pharmacy license after confessing that he knowingly had purchased stolen drugs from Accurso.

Ravis was sentenced in April to five years of probation, 2,500 hours of community service, and a $250,000 fine. He must spend the first six months of his probation under electronic monitoring at his home.

The U.S. attorney’s office has requested that the cases for Courtney, Smith, and Paraghamian be consolidated into one and assigned to District Court Judge Ortrie D. Smith, who sentenced Ravis and heard Courtney's guilty plea in February. At present, separate judges are handling the Courtney, Smith, and Paraghamian cases because the charges were not initially made at the same time.

"It just makes it more efficient and better for justice if defendants are brought before one judge who is educated and knows the background of the case and the offenses of each of the defendants," Ledford said. "That way, someone involved in the case who has committed a minor offense doesn’t get a penalty that outweighs someone who had a larger role in the offense.

Ledford said the Courtney investigation is ongoing.