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Nurse at pill mill in Little Rock sentenced to nearly 6 years

Just before she was sentenced to nearly six years in prison, a Little Rock nurse practitioner continued to insist that she didn't know a clinic she worked for in 2014 and 2015 was a "pill mill."

Kristen Raines, 40, was convicted by a federal jury in August of conspiring to distribute hydrocodone and Xanax, both controlled substances, without an effective prescription. The jury acquitted her of two charges of distributing the same drugs -- a painkiller and an anti-anxiety medication that are commonly abused and sold at high prices on the illicit market.

Raines of Russellville worked as an advanced practice registered nurse at the Artex Medical Clinic at 11215 Hermitage Road in Little Rock from early July 2014, about a month after the clinic opened, until mid-September 2014. She was authorized to write prescriptions under the authority of a physician who lived in Memphis, but she quit after the doctor, Felicie Wyatt, discovered that one of the clinic owners was a convicted felon and resigned. Wyatt was also charged in the case, but the jury acquitted her of all charges.

The Artex clinic closed when Wyatt and Raines resigned, but one of the owners soon reopened it in the same location under a different name, the KJ Medical Clinic, and Raines returned in November 2014.

Hydrocodone had been reclassified on Oct. 6, 2014, from a Schedule III controlled substance to a more serious Schedule II controlled substance, preventing Raines from writing prescriptions for it. But prosecutors said she still handed out hydrocodone and Xanax prescriptions that had been pre-signed by doctors to about 30 patients a day.

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Raines resigned in January 2015 to care for an ailing family member, and the clinic was shut down in May 2015 after it was raided by DEA agents.

One of the physicians who had signed the prescriptions given out by Raines later died, but another one, Dr. Shawn Michael Brooks, was indicted and eventually pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, or knowing about a crime but failing to report it. Brooks later surrendered his medical license and was sentenced March 31 to five years' probation.

In a sentencing hearing Wednesday that lasted about three hours, and extended into the evening, arguments focused on the number of pills that Raines should be held responsible for improperly prescribing, both directly and indirectly. Raines was ultimately held responsible for supplying 125,940 hydrocodone pills and 151,075 Xanax pills without a legitimate need. The pills were routinely prescribed at the highest dose, according to testimony at the trial.

Because of the number of pills attributed to her and an enhancement approved by U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. for using her nursing degree to further a crime, Raines faced 63 to 78 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines suggest a penalty range, based on individual circumstances, that falls within the statutory penalty, which in Raines' case was up to 20 years.

In an effort to persuade Moody to sentence Raines below the recommended range, preferably to a strictly probationary sentence, defense attorney Deborah Linton Ferguson presented testimony from Raines' mother and father, both of whom live in Russellville, as well as a minister and a woman who is a friend and former co-worker of Raines.

Raines' mother described her as a lifelong nurturer who is "honest to a fault" and wouldn't have kept working at the clinics if she had known they were pill mills -- clinics that appear legitimate on the outside but whose sole purpose is to churn out illegal prescriptions in exchange for lots of cash.

Testimony at the trial indicated that "recruiters" often took loads of people, many of them homeless, to the clinic and paid them to stand in line and pretend to have painful ailments and anxiety. Once the recruited people were given prescriptions for the controlled substances, they had to fill the prescriptions at a pharmacy and turn the pills over to the recruiters to sell at higher prices on the street.

Sometimes, witnesses said, the "patients" would camp out overnight in the parking lot of the clinic to be first in line when it opened at 6 a.m. The clinic hired armed guards to keep the patients from getting unruly while waiting to see a nurse or physician's assistant who, witnesses said, were told to routinely prescribe the maximum dose and maximum number of pills possible and to sometimes prescribe an unrelated drug along with the two controlled substances to make the prescription appear more legitimate.

Teddy Raines testified that her daughter, Kristen, has had multiple bladder surgeries, a broken vertebrae and repeated hip surgery, and that her husband, Jim Sawyer, was divorcing her as a result of the criminal case.

"She's just a broken person," Raines' mother told the judge, breaking into tears and expressing fear that any prison sentence could be a death sentence because of her daughter's fragile health and need for treatment with name-brand drugs, which often aren't available in prison.

Ferguson said Raines "was a victim," not a criminal.

"There was a circle of people, and Kristin was not in it," Ferguson said, referring to other workers at the clinic. "They didn't tell her what was going on."

As a result of her conviction, Raines has lost her nursing license and her license to prescribe drugs, Ferguson reminded the judge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Gardner asked Moody to impose a prison sentence within the guideline range. Moody imposed a sentence of five years and eight months, in the middle of the range, and ordered Raines to begin serving her sentence May 19.

Metro on 04/21/2017

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