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Pleasant Hills doctor brazen in slide to drug dealer

| Saturday, May 26, 2012, 7:50 p.m.
Dr. Oliver Herndon, his face smeared with what appears to be blood, poses with a dead giraffe during a big-game hunting trip last year in Africa. 
Dr. Oliver Herndon, his face smeared with what appears to be blood, poses with a dead giraffe during a big-game hunting trip last year in Africa. Submitted

Barbara Heronsky noticed the change in January in Dr. Oliver Herndon, a specialist in pain management.

Heronsky saw him monthly for more than two years for a thyroid problem and back and neck pain. She called Herndon a "good doctor."

But on that January visit she found his waiting room in a Pleasant Hills health center overflowing with patients.

"I couldn't believe there was that many there at the same time as me," said Heronsky, 56, of Brownsville in Fayette County.

Others noticed the changes earlier, including pharmacists who refused to fill Herndon's prescriptions when the number exploded last summer. An unidentified former employee told federal investigators that when reports surfaced that two patients had died from overdoses, Herndon responded: "Load up the Jesus bus."

Herndon, 40, pleaded guilty on Monday in U.S. District Court to defrauding insurers and drug trafficking. Investigators described him as the largest source of illegally obtained oxycodone and oxymorphone in Western Pennsylvania and said his March arrest cut supplies so much that the street value of oxycodone doubled to $40 a pill.

Herndon declined comment on Friday at his sprawling home in Peters.

"There are two sides to every story, but we're going to handle this in the courts, not in the media," said his attorney, Roger Cox.

Nobody can explain how a healer became a dealer.

Herndon earned his undergraduate degree from the University at California, San Diego, graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1996 and completed his residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. By 1999, he and his wife, Linda, had moved to Western Pennsylvania, where he began practicing medicine.

Patients, colleagues and employees for years considered him a good doctor with a friendly bedside manner.

Something changed last year, they said.

A former employee who cooperated with investigators described Herndon as "reclusive and shy in prior years, (but) now he is quick-tempered and abrasive," according to a federal affidavit investigators filed.

He began issuing prescriptions to a stream of younger patients, many of whom appeared able-bodied and traveled more than 100 miles to see him, the affidavit stated. By May 2011, his patient load had expanded from 200 to more than 1,000.

Herndon spent two to three minutes with a patient and would quickly write them prescriptions for powerful opiates, even though he rarely checked them medically, the employee told investigators. Patients without insurance coverage paid $200 in cash for a first visit and $100 for monthly followups. Herndon sometimes saw 150 patients a day. Though he spent little time with insured patients, he billed insurers for full visits, investigators said.

He called the system a "cash cow," the employee said. During one six-day period in December, the employee said staff collected $60,000 in cash from patients.

Letter to pharmacists

Pharmacists grew leery at the huge increase in prescriptions and many stopped filling his orders, authorities said.

This irritated Herndon. He took the unusual step of writing a letter and giving it to patients in case they encountered difficulties in filling their prescriptions.

The Sept. 10, 2011, letter explained that Herndon's practice grew "tremendously" and as a result, his staff was experiencing "technical problems." He assured pharmacists that "I am NOT under investigation by the DEA." Pharmacists told federal agents that they had never seen anything like it.

Less than two weeks later, undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent Thomas Dunlevy visited Herndon to get a prescription. Herndon told him that he was having problems with pharmacists and that "the last time he checked, Dr. Herndon was the one with the 'MD' after his name," the affidavit stated. He told Dunlevy the farther away he went, the easier it would be to fill the prescription.

It is not clear whether money problems sparked the changes in Herndon, but around the time his prescriptions exploded, he picked up the expensive hobby of big-game hunting in Africa. Last year, Herndon posted 133 photographs from one such trip to South Africa on his Facebook page. In posed pictures, he smiled next to dead zebras, alligators and primates. In one photo, his face is smeared with what appears to be blood and a dead giraffe's neck is draped over him.

At home, according to his Facebook posts, Herndon liked to watch "SpongeBob SquarePants" on TV with his five kids.

Behavior draws attention

Herndon owns expensive property and has several loans. Washington County property records list him as owner of two Peters houses, including one on Bradford Cove that he bought in 2002 for $415,000. He bought land on Braeburn Drive for $170,000 in 2011 and opened a $861,000 construction mortgage for the property. He has three other open mortgages totaling $656,000, court records show.

The two-story, red-brick Bradford Cove home has a "For Sale" in the front lawn, with a "Sold" plaque hanging from the bottom. The two-story Braeburn Drive home is surrounded by empty lots and other mansions under construction. It has a semi-circular driveway in the front, a large deck in the back and newly planted landscaping. A spruce shrub by the front door still bears the price tag.

Whatever drove him, Herndon's behavior and that of his patients attracted attention.

West Mifflin Giant Eagle pharmacist Ella Platek told investigators that she watched "individuals with Dr. Herndon's prescriptions limp to the counter area, appearing to be in pain, but when told that the drug was not in stock, run out the door of the pharmacy," the affidavit stated.

Other pharmacists questioned the strength of drugs he prescribed. Adam Rice, owner and pharmacist at Spartan Pharmacy on Brownsville Road, told investigators "that he had experience with the treatment of terminal cancer patients with end-stage bone cancer. He said that those patients were not prescribed the type and amount of pain medication being prescribed by Dr. Herndon on a regular basis."

When agents visited Troy Pharmacy in Troy Hill, they found a sign on the front door reading: "We will no longer be filling prescribed medication ordered by Dr. Oliver Herndon until further notice! Sorry for the inconvenience!"

Evicted from office

At his Pleasant Hills office, patients often fought and left trash in the waiting room. Some vomited, and on one occasion, a patient urinated on the wall, Herndon's employee said.

Pleasant Hills police responded to five calls for unruly patients at that office on Lewis Run Road between May 2011 and January, Chief Ed Cunningham said.

Complaints mounted until the building owner, Dr. Philip P. Ripepi, evicted Herndon, his one-time friend and travel companion.

"I did what I had to do," said Ripepi, who declined further comment.

On Feb. 6, about a week after Herndon moved into an office on Waterdam Plaza Drive in Peters, a masked man entered and held an employee at gunpoint. Police made no arrest, Peters police Capt. Mike Yanchak said.

In January, federal agents arrested Carol Combs, 54, of McKees Rocks on drug charges. She told investigators that every adult member of her family visited Herndon to get prescriptions, and that she sold 700 oxycodone pills and 120 opana pills per month for more than a year. She got nearly every pill from Herndon, she said.

'Just a normal guy'

A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted Combs on one count of drug conspiracy and five counts of distributing oxycodone and oxymorphone.

Despite the doctor's brazen behavior, not everyone saw this coming.

Dr. Brandon Koretz, a UCLA Health System doctor who did his residency with Herndon, described him as "just a normal guy."

"The fact that he's now into big-game hunting and the over-prescribing of drugs -- it's not something I'd have imagined," he said.

Longtime patient Samuel Distefano said he respected Herndon and admired his professionalism. He sent Herndon a Facebook message offering support, he said.

"I don't know if what the police are saying is true or not," he said. "I just know I lost a doctor that was helping me."

U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab will sentence Herndon on Sept. 24. Under a plea deal, he could receive a prison sentence of 11 years and 3 months. He remains free on $50,000 bond.

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