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Queens doctor overprescribed opioid painkillers, officials say

Dr. Lawrence Choy, 65, who authorities said overprescribed

Dr. Lawrence Choy, 65, who authorities said overprescribed opioids resulting in the death of three victims, two of them from Long Island, pleaded guilty to 34 felony counts Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court, New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan said in a news release. Credit: DEA

A Queens doctor faces homicide and other charges related to what officials said Thursday was a reckless history of overprescribing opioid painkillers and other drugs to patients, some of whom became addicted and died.

Dr. Lawrence Choy, 65, who at one time worked from an office in Flushing, appeared Thursday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on a 231-count indictment, which included two charges of manslaughter, nine counts of reckless endangerment and more than 200 counts of criminal sale of a prescription for a controlled substance.

Judge Neil Ross ordered Choy held without bail but indicated he could be released later on Thursday if a bail package was arranged, officials said.

Defense attorney John Martin couldn’t be reached for comment.

The two manslaughter charges against Choy involved Michael Ries, 30, of Hauppauge, who died March 23, 2014, and Eliot Castillo, 35, of Jamaica, Queens, who died Feb. 23, 2013. A third overdose death, that of Suffolk County chef Dan Barry, who died Jan. 15, 2016, is being charged as an act of reckless endangerment, officials said.

At a news conference with federal and state officials, city special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan said Choy, a licensed internal medicine doctor since 1981, began a change in his practice in 2012, around the time he was hit with a $1 million back-tax bill. Brennan said Choy then shifted into pain management and began issuing large numbers of prescriptions to patients, some of whom had genuine pain issues.

“As word got around that he was pretty easy to give prescriptions, people came to seek prescriptions in exchange for cash,” said Brennan, who estimated that Choy pulled in several hundred thousand dollars from the scheme. Some patients turned around and sold the pills, which can fetch $30 a pill on the street and may lead to other drug abuse, investigators said.

“The whole heroin craze right now is because, partly because, of guys like this,” said James J. Hunt, special agent in charge of the New York office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, other patients — including the three who died — had legitimate pain management issues and apparently became addicted to their medications, Brennan said.

Choy would sometimes prescribe three drugs simultaneously to patients, such as one or more opioids, the anti-anxiety drug benzodiazepine and the muscle relaxant known under the trade name Soma, Brennan said. Those three drugs together are known to doctors as the “Holy Trinity,” she said.

“All three drugs have the effect of suppressing respiration and heartbeat, when taken together, the risk of overdose death is much higher,” Brennan said.

Aware he was under investigation, Choy left his practice suddenly in June 2017, going to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, according to Hunt.

Officials said the five-year investigation into Choy began when authorities in Pennsylvania began noticing suspicious prescriptions written by Choy being filled there. Eventually, police in New York City and state, Queens, Suffolk and Nassau counties became involved.

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