NEW YORK - A doctor targeted in an investigation of New York City medical clinics that authorities say dispensed millions of prescription painkillers to addicts and drug dealers was found dead of a suspected overdose on the very day state and federal agents fanned out to shut down the operation, police confirmed Friday.
Officers responding to a 911 call on the night of Feb. 4 found Dr. Tomasito Virey's body in a bedroom in the home of a relative in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, N.Y., said Capt. Enzio Villalta of the Amherst Police Department.
Authorities were awaiting the results of toxicology tests before ruling on whether the death of the doctor, who lived on Long Island, was an accident or a suicide. Prescription drugs were found in the upstate home, Villalta told The Associated Press.
The timing of Virey's death was an odd twist to an investigation that exposed the illegal distribution of more than 5 million highly addictive oxycodone pills with a street value of at least $170 million, resulting in charges against Virey's former boss, another doctor and about 20 alleged drug traffickers. Authorities in New York City didn't disclose the death when they announced the takedown of Astramed Physicians in the Bronx in press releases on Feb. 5.
According to two law enforcement officials, Virey had been a target of the probe and was in contact with law enforcement before his death, though there were no plans to arrest him on Feb. 4. The officials declined to discuss whether he was cooperating in the investigation and therefore might have known the raids were occurring.
The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss Virey's status in the case.
Virey, 59, of Manhasset, N.Y., was the subject of an NBC affiliate's news report in 2012 that alleged that the Astramed pain management clinic he was running had become a "pill mill." The report cited state Department of Health records showing that he wrote 3,208 prescriptions for the painkiller oxycodone in 2011 — more than any other doctor in New York.
Virey told the television station that he examined every patient and legitimately prescribed the pain medications, adding, "Once I see the patient is addicted, I refer them for detoxification, like rehab."
After the bad publicity, Virey scaled back on the prescriptions and eventually turned the operation over to another doctor he knew in 2012, authorities said. That doctor was arrested on charges alleging he wrote 18,700 prescriptions for more than three million painkiller pills in less than two years.
Authorities allege the other doctor conspired with drug crew leaders who recruited runners to pose as patients paying $300 for each visit but who were never examined. Once the prescriptions were filled, the pills were sold on the street for up to $30 each.