- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A former Phenix City doctor has pleaded guilty to his role in operating a large-scale “pill mill.”

The operation was believed responsible for unlawfully distributing about 1,800 pounds of opioids in the past decade, the Montgomery Advertiser reported (https://on.mgmadv.com/2karti5).

Fifty-four-year-old Robert Ritchea pleaded guilty Monday. He was arrested in May on money laundering and drug distribution charges.

Authorities said Ritchea wrote prescriptions for drugs - such as hydrocodone and methadone - for patients that he knew didn’t have a medical need for them.

He used the profits from his pill mill to buy pain medications directly from a drug manufacturer, and used the drugs to keep the pill mill in business without going through a pharmacy.

“He was probably one of the two or three most significant pill mill doctors in Alabama history,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ross. Ross said the volume of opioids that came from Ritchea’s operation set his case apart from other distribution cases prosecuted in the area.

A sentencing date has not yet been set for Ritchea. He could face up to 20 years in prison, but federal prosecutors have recommended he serve five years and 10 months.

Alabama ranks as the state with the highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country. According to a joint report by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, in 2015 1.2 prescriptions were written per person, compared to a national average of 0.71. The rate of death from drug overdose also grew nearly 20 percent between 2013 and 2014.

In June, five men connected to Ritchea were arrested on charges of dealing oxycodone around Auburn University.

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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