Last Updated Sep 4, 2014 2:13 PM EDT
BOSTON -- A pharmacist who oversaw the sterile clean rooms at a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy responsible for a deadly meningitis outbreak was arrested Thursday as he was about to board a flight for Hong Kong, federal officials said.
A law enforcement source told CBS News that FBI and FDA agents arrested Glenn Adam Chin in the boarding area of Logan International Airport just prior to his boarding the plane. He was arrested without incident.
Chin, a former supervisory pharmacist at the New England Compounding Center, didn't properly sterilize or test equipment and concealed the unsafe practices, federal investigators said.
The pharmacy, which custom-mixed medications in bulk, has been blamed for a 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis that killed 64 people. About 750 people in 20 states developed meningitis - an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord - or other infections. Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana were hit the hardest.
Chin, 46, of Canton, was charged with one count of mail fraud, but federal prosecutors said it is part of a larger criminal investigation of Chin and others. He is the first person to be charged in the inquiry.
A law enforcement source told CBS News that authorities arrested Chin out of concern that he may have been fleeing possible prosecution in connection with the investigation.
But Chin's attorney, Paul Shaw, said his client was at the airport with his family because he planned to attend a wedding in his wife's native Hong Kong, not to flee the country. He said Chin would plead not guilty.
"This was a publicity stunt," Shaw said of the arrest.
Prosecutors said Chin supervised the clean rooms and was involved in compounding the contaminated methylprednisolone acetate, or MPA, that caused the outbreak.
An affidavit filed in U.S. District Court alleges that Chin participated in a scheme to fraudulently cause one lot of MPA to be labeled as injectable, meaning that it was sterile and fit for human use. The lot was shipped to Michigan Pain Specialists in Brighton, Michigan.
After receiving the drug, Michigan Pain Specialists doctors injected it into patients, believing it to be safe. As a result, 217 patients contracted fungal meningitis, and 15 of them died, according to the affidavit.
In the affidavit, a special agent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Chin used numerous unsafe practices while producing the medication, including improper sterilization and improper testing. Agent Benedict Celso said that Chin, in order to conceal the unsafe practices, "instructed pharmacy technicians to mislabel medication to indicate it was properly sterilized and tested."
Celso also said the compounding center failed to properly sterilize and maintain its clean rooms. He said Chin instructed pharmacy technicians to "fraudulently complete cleaning logs" at the end of the month "purporting to show the rooms were properly cleaned and maintained when in fact they had not been."
He said the pharmacy's own testing showed the repeated presence of bacteria and mold within its clean rooms on a weekly basis throughout 2012.
A woman whose husband contracted meningitis after getting a tainted injection at the Michigan clinic welcomed the criminal charge.
"They should take every one of them and put the same contaminated injection in their back," said Iona "Nell" Rye, of Maybee, Michigan.
She said her 74-year-old husband, Alfred, had been in excellent health before he received the injection in August 2012. He has recovered but still has some residual effects, she said.
"He doesn't have the same strength. He's off balance," she said.
The New England Compounding Center, based in Framingham, just west of Boston, gave up its license and filed for bankruptcy protection after it was flooded with hundreds of lawsuits from people who received tainted steroid injections. Attorneys for its creditors late last year announced a preliminary settlement with a victim compensation fund worth more than $100 million.
The contaminated medication was discovered in the fall of 2012. Regulators later found a host of potential contaminants at the company's Framingham plant, including standing water, mold, water droplets and dirty equipment.
"The medicine is just unbearable," one patient told CBS News last year.
Asked to describe the effects of the anti-fungal medications, another patient said, "The horrible hallucinations -- I would see people's faces and their shapes would change, and the next thing I would see would be, like, legs and feet flying around."
NECC was exempt from FDA oversight because it was a so-called compounding pharmacy, limited by law to making specialty drugs for individuals -- one prescription at a time.
A salesman for NECC told CBS News that the company sent drugs nationwide to 3,000 hospitals and clinics. The necessary prescriptions, he said, were often fraudulent. Clinics provided pages of names -- any names.
"Bart Simpson, Homer Simpson, that we -- those ones did raise red flags, and we told to call our client back and say, 'Hey, give us different names,'" the salesman said. "The follow-up names would be like a John Doe, Jane Doe, Bill Doe, you know, Jane Smith, Bill Smith, et cetera."