Prosecutors rested their case Thursday against a Casper doctor accused of heading up a prescription pill drug ring that extended across the country and contributed to a woman’s death.
That doctor, Shakeel Kahn, is expected to take the stand Friday in his own defense. Kahn had been prepared to testify Thursday, but his brother and co-defendant, Nabeel, was taken from the courtroom with an apparent stomach illness, which concluded the day’s proceedings early.
The brief delay came three weeks into the trial of the two brothers. They face a total of 23 felonies in federal court. Prosecutors allege the doctor’s Arizona and Casper pain clinics were the backbone of a criminal enterprise that illegally distributed drugs as far as Massachusetts and caused the overdose death of an Arizona woman.
The doctor faces the overwhelming majority of charges in the case. Among the 21 counts he is accused of is a single count of conspiracy to distribute drugs resulting in death and a single count of operating a continuing criminal enterprise. A conviction on either of those crimes is punishable by between 20 years and life in prison. Nabeel Kahn is standing trial on two felonies.
An attorney for the doctor said during opening statements on April 29 that Kahn was misled by his patients and never intended to break the law. He is expected to testify in his own defense Friday morning. Nabeel Kahn’s attorneys requested the reservation of their time to make opening statements. When they do so, they will have an opportunity to present their outline of the evidence and foreshadow arguments they plan to present at the conclusion of the case.
On Thursday morning, attorneys continued their questioning of Robert Churchwell, a DEA investigator who has testified throughout the trial. When Churchwell stepped down from the stand shortly before 9:30 a.m., it marked the conclusion of more than 12 days testimony given by 31 witnesses. Prosecutors formally concluded their case shortly after 11 a.m.
Last week, prosecutors Stephanie Sprecher and Stephanie Hambrick called a series of former patients who said the doctor wrote them prescriptions for hundreds of pain pills intended to be used in a matter of weeks.
Among them was Paul Beland, of Massachusetts, who appeared in court wearing stripes, handcuffs and shackles. He testified that he flew to Denver and drove north to Kahn’s Casper office, where the doctor wrote him prescriptions for oxycodone, a potent opioid painkiller. He said he tried to fill his prescription in Casper but was rebuffed at a pharmacy because it did not have enough opioids on hand.
He flew back to the East Coast empty-handed, Beland told jurors. He said he called the doctor, who later arranged to have the drugs sent to him.
Beland was one of four people charged alongside Shakeel Kahn in federal court. He, Shawnna Thacker and the doctor’s wife, Lyn, all struck deals with prosecutors and testified as part of the state’s case.
During questioning by defense attorney Beau Brindley on Tuesday afternoon, Lyn Kahn told jurors that the doctor’s agreement to mail pills to Beland stood in contrast to the rest of his conduct. In response to Brindley’s questions, Lyn Kahn frequently provided only one sentence. Sometimes she limited her answer to a single word.
She told jurors that after losing a request to keep recordings of wiretaps out of the trial, she started thinking more about the risk a trial would cause to her young son. However, when Brindley asked whether she had taken the plea agreement to protect her son, she said she had not.
“(It was) the desire to tell the truth,” she said.
In response to further questioning from Sprecher, Lyn Kahn said the doctor had told her that patients lie and are not to be trusted. She also said she had never seen another doctor write a prescription for a patient and then have the pills re-routed to another person — a reference to her guilty plea to involvement in helping the doctor fill prescriptions written for her daughter, but then supplied to his brother, Nabeel.
Later the same day, Anthony Vargas, of Arizona, testified. Vargas’s girlfriend, Jessica Burch, died after taking a mix of prescription medications, and prosecutors have charged the defendants with responsibility for her death.
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Vargas said both he and Burch were regular patients of Kahn. They sold some of the pills the doctor prescribed and used the others. By his second or third visit to the doctor, Vargas was addicted, he said.
“How did that happen?” Sprecher asked.
“By taking them,” Vargas replied, flatly.
Vargas spent time incarcerated, while Burch still picked up prescriptions the doctor had written for him. She’d sell the pills and put money on his books. When he got out, she had changed.
“She lost a lot of weight,” he told jurors. “And she just wasn’t there, you know? I couldn’t even have a conversation with her.”
The night before Burch’s death, Vargas told jurors, he found his girlfriend passed out in a yard near their house. He carried her inside and put her on the living room floor. She was unresponsive, but breathing, he said.
When he woke the next morning, his girlfriend was dead.
Prosecutors also played a series of recorded phone conversations this week. In one, between Lyn and Shakeel Kahn, she told the doctor that she had heard one of his patients had been arrested for selling her prescriptions.
“Wow, better be careful then, huh?” the doctor replied.
When Lyn Kahn went on to describe suspicions that another patient was under criminal investigation, the doctor did not voice concern.
“I ain’t worried here because we have all our ducks in a row,” he said.
During Churchwell’s time on the stand, prosecutors presented copies of prescriptions the doctor wrote, including one that called for a patient to take 720 Oxycodone 30mg pills over the course of a month. The investigator’s examination of prescription drug management databases indicated Kahn wrote at least 14,800 prescriptions for controlled substances between 2011 and his Nov. 30, 2016 arrest.
Those scripts summed to nearly 2.2 million pills, Churchwell’s numbers indicated. Nearly half of them were oxycodone.
On Thursday morning, following Churchwell’s testimony, defense attorneys for the two men requested acquittal of their clients, stating the government had not presented enough evidence to convict them. Following a brief response by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Sprecher, Judge Alan Johnson said he would rule on the requests at a later point.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations next week.