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A 73-year-old San Diego doctor is accused of writing fraudulent prescriptions for highly addictive opioid pain medications to dead patients, fake patients and inmates who never visited him as part of a “pill mill” operation that diverted legitimate narcotics for illicit purposes.

Dr. Egisto Salerno and seven other people from San Diego, Chula Vista and El Cajon were charged Monday in U.S. District Court on a single count each of a drug conspiracy charge.

The accused ring-leader of the group was 57-year-old San Diego resident Stephen Toney, who along with others allegedly began in late 2014 to recruit homeless people and others of “limited means” to pose as patients at Salerno’s office on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Casper said. During the visits, Salerno would perform a very brief physical examination, or none at all, before prescribing the fake patient hydrocodone, a semi-synthetic opioid.

Toney and his crew would then allegedly take these fake patients to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions, after which they would pay the fake patients to turn over the hydrocodone pills, Casper said.

“The defendant recruiters arranged transportation of these `patients’ to Salerno’s office, to a pharmacy to pick up the hydrocodone, and then returned them to or near homeless shelters or their residences,” Casper said. “Toney and other co-conspirators intended to further distribute these hydrocodone tablets.”

According to the criminal complaint, Salerno received a fee for each of the fake patients Toney and others brought to his office. He also allegedly wrote prescriptions for people who were dead or in jail at the time of their supposed visit.

“For example, one patient died in October 2015 and Salerno allegedly saw that patient and prescribed hydrocodone in that patient’s name five times after death, including two prescriptions written more than a year after the death,” Casper said.

The doctor and two of his medical assistants also allegedly falsified records to justify the fraudulent hydrocodone prescriptions.

“Patients trust their doctors to give them the best care possible,” DEA San Diego Acting Special Agent in Charge Steve Woodland said. “It’s DEA’s responsibility to ensure that DEA registrants are worthy of that trust. (We) will keep conducting these investigations to ensure that registrants are following all the rules when prescribing these potentially deadly drugs.”

Adam Braverman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, said the opioid crisis is a national epidemic that’s “ravaging families” in San Diego and Imperial counties and that his office will “continue to zealously prosecute and bring to justice those doctors, pharmacies, medical providers and others who are furthering this epidemic to line their own pockets.”

The other six people charged Monday were April Cervantes, 27, of San Diego; David Apple, 25, of Chula Vista; Amber Horne, 28, of El Cajon; Lonnell Ligon, 55, of San Diego; Shalina Latson, 47, of San Diego; and LaJuan Smith, 38, of San Diego.

All eight defendants face up to 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release and up to a $1 million fine if convicted.

—City News Service