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“Pharmacy Murders” and the Insidious Effects of Opioid Abuse

by Elaine Meyer

On Father’s Day of 2011, 33-year-old David Laffer, a gaunt, unemployed Army veteran wearing a disguise, shot up a Long Island pharmacy, murdering the pharmacist, the pharmacist’s 17-year old assistant, and two customers who came in as he was loading his backpack with prescription bottles. It was later discovered that the pharmacy was missing 11,000 pills of hydrocodone, the main ingredient for the prescription painkiller Vicodin.

Around the same time, the office of New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor was conducting an investigation into Stan Xuhui Li, a then-57-year-old anesthesiologist from New Jersey who operated a weekend pain clinic in Flushing, Queens. Investigators suspected that Li’s clinic was actually a “pill mill” that churned out prescriptions for painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin for addicts and drug dealers, after discovering that he was allegedly seeing as many as 120 patients a day and had written as many as 17,000 prescriptions over the course of 2 ½ years.

“When we saw that [the pharmacy homicides] occurred, we had not yet indicted [Li], but we knew many of his patients were desperate addicts,” says Bridget Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor.

Brennan’s office reviewed its information and then looked at the surveillance photos from the pharmacy crime scene. Sure enough, Laffer had not only been a patient of Li’s but had been prescribed 2,500 pills by the doctor over the course of 20 months, according to Brennan’s office. That information led to Laffer’s arrest. Five months after Laffer’s shooting spree, Brennan’s office indicted Li—who is currently awaiting trial—for selling prescription drugs illegally, for manslaughter in connection with two overdose deaths of his patients, and for illegal sales of prescriptions to 20 patients, one of whom was David Laffer. (Li’s lawyer, Aaron Wallenstein, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Homicide, robbery, drug dealing, and addiction are not typically associated with medicine prescribed by a doctor. But prescription painkillers, also known as opioid analgesics, like Vicodin—the drug Laffer allegedly stole in bulk—OxyContin, and Percocet have proven in recent years to have a serious dark side.

The “pharmacy murders,” as they became known, shed a light on a drug epidemic that has remained under the radar compared with the cocaine and heroin epidemics of the recent past, even though opioid analgesics can be as addictive as heroin.

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