El Cajon “Pill Mill” Doctor Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison for Causing the Illegal Distribution of Opioids
Assistant U. S. Attorneys Larry Casper (619) 546-6734 and Victor White (619) 546-8439
SAN DIEGO – Egisto Salerno, M.D., a San Diego resident, was sentenced to 18 months in custody by U.S. District Judge Cynthia Ann Bashant for causing the illegal distribution of an opioid pain medication commonly known as Norco or Vicodin.
Salerno, whose medical practice was located on El Cajon Boulevard, pleaded guilty in January, admitting that he signed prescriptions for 78,544 pills that lacked a legitimate medical purpose and were outside the usual course of professional medical practice.
“This defendant ignored and defied his medical obligation to his patients, his duty to the practice of medicine and his duty to the community,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Casper said during today’s hearing. “The defendant committed this federal crime in the midst of an opioid crisis in this country. And he admittedly abused his position of trust.”
“Corrupt doctors who blatantly ignore their medical oath and the best interests of their patients to illegally distribute opioids in the midst of a nationwide opioid crisis will face severe consequences” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “We will continue to battle this crisis on every front including zealously pursuing all who seek to profit from illegally distributing opioids whether or not they may have a medical degree.” Brewer praised prosecutors Larry Casper and Victor White and DEA agents for their efforts to achieve justice in this case.
“While the vast majority of doctors prescribe medications in compliance with federal laws, there will always be doctors like Egisto Salerno who seek profit over their patients’ best interests,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge John W. Callery. “DEA has a team dedicated to investigating those doctors who choose to violate their medical oath and illegally distribute opioids. DEA will bring these doctors to justice for their contribution to the growing opioid problem in our country.”
Through his plea agreement, Salerno also admitted that an undercover federal agent who visited Salerno’s office on six occasions received six hydrocodone prescriptions. In a separate instance, on a date when the undercover agent did not visit Salerno’s office and the doctor did not see him, Salerno acknowleged that a prescription was improperly issued by him in the name used by the undercover agent. After the prescription was issued, Salerno ginned up and signed a progress note in the “patient” chart for the purported visit that did not occur.
The prescription was then picked up by another as part of a larger scheme to divert these pills. That scheme involved two medical assistants in Salerno’s practice who falsified medical records and sold prescriptions that Salerno had pre-signed to a co-defendant though the “patients” identified on those prescriptions did not even see Salerno. In fact, as Salerno acknowledged, many of those in whose names these prescriptions were written were deceased or jailed at the time the prescriptions were written.
The pills were, in turn, diverted to the “capper” or patient recruiter, who also arranged to bring homeless and other individuals to Salerno’s office and paid them to secure these prescriptions from Salerno. Others assisted the patient recruiter by transporting the purported patients to Salerno’s office and then to pharmacies to pick up the pills. In turn, pills were sold in San Diego and delivered to a pharmacy in Mexico for cash.
As the plea documents show, the criminal activity occurred between November 2014 and February 2018. Seven other defendants have been convicted in this case including Salerno’s two medical assistants – April J. Cervantes and David D. Apple; the lead patient “recruiter” – Stephen Toney; and Toney’s associates – Shalina D. Latson, Lonnell Ligon, LaJuan D. Smith and Amber N. Grabau.
Defendant David D. Apple, one of Salerno’s medical assistants, will be sentenced on December 2, 2020.
DEFENDANT Case Number 18-cr-1405-BAS
Egisto Salerno, M.D. Age: 76 San Diego, California
SUMMARY OF CONVICTIONS
Egisto Salerno, M.D.
Distribution of Hydrocodone in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. Sec. 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C)
Maximum Penalties: Twenty years in prison and $1 million fine.
Prior Sentences Imposed
Stephen Toney, Sr.: Seventy four months in custody - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone in violation of 18 U.S.C.,Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
Amber Nicole Grabau: Twenty months in custody - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
Lonell J. Ligon: Twenty four months custody - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
Shalina D. Latson: Five years probation - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
LaJuan D. Smith: Thirty seven months custody - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
April J. Cervantes: Twenty four months custody - Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone, in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
Remaining to be Sentenced
David D. Apple Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute Hydrocodone in violation of Title 18, U.S.C., Sec. 841(a)(1) and 846.
Drug Enforcement Administration
Department of Justice
Office of the U.S. Attorney
Southern District of California