A 70-year-old Baldwin doctor avoided a possible sentence of life in prison when he pleaded guilty Thursday to a reduced charge of conspiring to illegally distribute oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller.
Dr. William Conway had originally been charged with causing the death of two patients who died of drug overdoses. He now faces up to 20 years in prison, with no minimum. He could be fined up to $1 million, and state regulators could revoke his license to practice medicine. A sentencing date was not set.
After Conway entered the plea before Judge Leonard Wexler in federal court in Central Islip, Cynthia Russo, sitting in the front row with her 8-month-old son, said in a loud voice: "You killed my brother. He's dead." And she uttered an expletive.
Russo, 36, of Mount Sinai, is the sister of Christopher Basmas, 29, of Hicksville, who prosecutors said overdosed Oct. 27, 2011, two days after Conway wrote him a prescription for 180 oxycodone pills.
Outside court, defense attorney Richard Langone of Garden City said Conway had been duped into writing prescriptions by desperate drug addicts. "He never had an evil purpose, but motive does not matter under the law," Langone said.
"These are doctor shoppers, these are people, even the decedents, that are going to five, six, seven doctors at the same time . . . and they had duped all these other doctors, too," Langone said.
Conway's guilty plea came more than six months after his assistant of 20 years, Robert Hachemeister, 67, of Baldwin, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and agreed to testify against his former boss. Hachemeister also faces up to 20 years in prison.
Conway wrote 5,554 oxycodone prescriptions for a total of 782,032 pills from January 2009 and November 2011 -- some for people he had never treated or even met, prosecutors said.
The charges against the pair were part of a crackdown by federal officials on the illegal distribution of painkillers on Long Island in the wake of a drugstore robbery in Medford in June 2011 in which four people were killed by drug addict David Laffer.
Conway was among 98 people arrested in June 2012 as prosecutors focused on health workers suspected of knowingly prescribing large amounts of painkillers to patients they should have known were addicted.
An indictment charged that Conway prescribed 450 oxycodone pills to Giovanni Manzella, 34, of Long Beach, less than 48 hours before his overdose death on April 23, 2011. The indictment also cited Basmas' overdose.
Manzella's parents, Lucy and John of Long Beach, said outside court Thursday that they felt justice had been done, but were still angry over the loss of their son.
"I know I lost my son at 34 1/2 years old, at a young age, due to this doctor's negligence in writing out prescription drugs . . . It's horrible. It's terrible, and it is what it is, and what can I say?" John Manzella said.
"I think the doctor wasn't in his right mind. Anything and everything was available to all his patients so I think the doctor was insane," the father added.
Lucy Manzella she was "devastated" by the loss of her son. "We're not looking for revenge or anything like that, we're just looking for justice," she said.