Former medical examiner, 7 others indicted in accused opioid distribution ring

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Federal prosecutors announced the indictment of eight people Thursday, including a well-known former medical examiner in several metro Atlanta counties, as part of an alleged opioid ring.

At a news conference, prosecutors said Dr. Joe Burton was at the center of the opioid ring by writing prescriptions for powerful pain pills in exchange for sexual favors and nude photos.

The indictment against Burton and the seven others accuses them of illegally distributing opioid painkillers and other drugs as part of Operation SCOPE (Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement).

“Burton traded away his responsibility as a licensed doctor and respected pathologist by allegedly writing unnecessary prescriptions in exchange for sex and romantic companionship,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “His associates sought to profit by having those prescriptions filled, and then selling those drugs which included opioid painkillers like oxycodone. The DEA and local law enforcement have halted this unlawful distribution of opioids into our community, and we are committed to prosecuting those who sought to profit.”

“When powerful and addictive opioids are illegally prescribed or distributed, they can become weapons of mass destruction,” said Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division. Many of these dangerous substances are the catalyst behind the current opiate crises that this country is now experiencing. DEA, its many law enforcement partners and the U.S. Attorney’s office are firmly committed to extricating such criminals like Dr. Burton from perpetuating the vicious cycle of opioid addiction.”

Pak said nearly four dozen other people have been arrested in connection with the opioid ring and many face state charges.

According to the indictment, and other information presented in court: Burton, who is a licensed physician, operated as a consulting pathologist, meaning that he determined the medical causes of diseases and death.

Federal agents began investigating him after the Georgia Drug and Narcotics Agency visited Burton in early 2017 and discovered that he was prescribing painkillers to a large number of patients despite not operating a medical clinic or regularly seeing patients.

Over a roughly two-year period beginning in July 2015, Dr. Burton allegedly issued over 1,100 opioid prescriptions, which amounted to more than 108,000 individual doses, including over 66,000 30mg oxycodone pills. The indictment alleges that Burton prescribed opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, irrespective of any legitimate medical purpose and outside the normal course of professional practice, in exchange for sexual favors and romantic affection. 

According to a news release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Burton prescribed opioids to individuals without thoroughly examining them, and on occasion, without ever meeting them at all.  Codefendants Jennifer Hunter, Rhonda Haugland, and Tiffany Willis each engaged in a romantic relationship with Burton in exchange for prescriptions in their names as well as the names of others.  As part of the conspiracy, Hunter, Haugland, and Willis would fill their prescriptions and sell the pills, and then obtain more prescriptions from Burton for other people, who paid them for getting the prescriptions.

Burton was previously indicted in October, but the new indictment adds charges and co-defendants.

Defense attorney Buddy Parker said Burton plans to plead not guilty to the new charges.

The federal indictment charges Burton and the seven other individuals with conspiring to distribute and dispense controlled substances—outside of the normal course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose—from July 2015 to February 2018. Burton is also charged with ten individual counts of illegal drug distribution for specific prescriptions.  Six of Burton’s alleged conspirators were also charged in several of these counts. Burton was previously arrested on October 11, 2017, on a federal criminal complaint and indicted on a narrower set of charges.

The following individuals are charged in this superseding indictment:

  • Joseph Lawson Burton, 76, of Milton
  • Jennifer Hunter, 29, of Acworth
  • Tiffany Willis, 26, of Cartersville
  • Rhonda Haugland, 59, of Flowery Branch
  • Michelle Danner, 45, of Acworth
  • Cheryl Truelove, 50, of Hiram
  • Jerry Stephens, Jr., 29, of Cartersville
  • Rodney Kennedy, 63, of Cartersville

This case is being investigated by the DEA. The case is part of a coordinated effort with the Acworth Police Department, Barrow County Sheriff’s Office, Bartow County District Attorney’s Office, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Cartersville Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office, Clayton County Police Department, Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, Cobb County Police Department, Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Floyd County District Attorney’s Office, Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Department of Community Supervision, Georgia Composite Medical Board, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Jonesboro Police Department, Oakwood Police Department, Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, and the Rome Police Department.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys John T. DeGenova and C. Brock Brockington will prosecute the case.

The news release reminds the public that the indictment only contains charges.  The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendants’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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