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Kansas City Pharmacist Who Diluted Cancer Meds Is Getting Out Of Prison Early

Robert Courtney's pharmacy was located on the ground floor of Research Medical Center on East Meyer Boulevard.
Dan Margolies
Robert Courtney's pharmacy was located on the ground floor of Research Medical Center on East Meyer Boulevard.

Robert Courtney, the Kansas City pharmacist whose drug dilution scheme drew national headlines 19 years ago, is being released from prison seven years early.

In a letter last week, the U.S. Justice Department informed some of Courtney’s victims and members of their families that Courtney will be moved to a halfway house this week and then to home confinement in Trimble, Missouri.

The letter said that Courtney, 67, had been found eligible for home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorney General William Barr instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release inmates who are “at a minimal risk of recidivating.”

Courtney, whose pharmacy was located in Research Hospital in Kansas City, was sentenced in 2002 after pleading guilty to diluting medications for cancer patients and other seriously ill people and pocketing the resulting profits. He had been serving a 30-year prison sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado, a low-security prison for male inmates. He was due to be released in 2027.

People who learned of his imminent release said they were appalled.

Kelly Ann Allen, whose grandmother was treated with cancer drugs mixed by Courtney and died in 2000, said she had people whose parents were victims of Courtney’s scheme reach out to her this week.

“I lost my grandma when I was a teenager and that, of course, was difficult,” Allen said. “It’s hard to go from thinking an illness took your family member to thinking that greed and murder took your family member.”

Michael Ketchmark, a Leawood, Kansas, attorney who helped negotiate legal settlements on behalf of Courtney’s victims, said he couldn’t imagine the pain they were feeling.

“My heart goes out to all of Robert Courtney’s victims, the thousands of lives that he impacted. The pain that they must be feeling on hearing this is unimaginable.”

Gene Porter, a now-retired assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Courtney, said he disagreed with the decision to release him from prison.

"I can no longer speak on behalf of the WDMO USAO [U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri] and can only speak as a private citizen," Porter said in an email. "In that capacity I can say this was an unfortunate and misguided decision. Robert Courtney should not have been released early and should have served the full 30 year sentence justly imposed by the district court."

FBI and Food and Drug Administration agents began an investigation in the summer of 2001 after Kansas City oncologist Verda Hunter notified them that a salesman from drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. had told her Courtney was dispensing far more of the cancer medication Gemzar than he was purchasing.

Agents set up a sting operation to buy drugs from Courtney, who mixed cancer drugs for Hunter, and discovered that the drugs were far less potent than Hunter had ordered. One sample contained less than 1 percent of the prescribed amount.

Authorities said the scheme lasted for a decade and affected as many as 4,200 patients and 98,000 prescriptions for cancer medications and a variety of other drugs.

Hundred of his victims and their families sued Courtney and the makers of two of the cancer drugs Courtney diluted, claiming the companies knew or should have known of Courtney’s scheme through their detailed sales records.

The drug companies, Eli Lilly and Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., eventually entered into a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs, later revealed to total about $71 million. The company that insured Courtney and his two pharmacies agreed to pay an additional $35 million.

The settlements came after a Jackson County jury in October 2002 ordered Courtney to pay Georgia Hayes, an ovarian cancer patient, $225 million in compensatory damages and $2 billion in punitive damages. The judge later reduced the amounts to $30.1 million and $300 million, respectively.

The Hayes case was the only one to go to trial. The judgment was largely symbolic because Courtney had already agreed to forfeit his assets to the government. But the bellwether case was a major factor in persuading the drug company defendants to settle.

In handing down a maximum 30-year sentence in December 2002, U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith told Courtney: “Your crimes are a shock to the conscience of a nation, the conscience of a community and the conscience of this court.”

In a statement before his sentencing, Courtney apologized to his victims and his family: “From this moment, and for a long time to come, I will be agonizing over what I have done,” he said. “My hope is that ... everyone knows that I apologize. And I'm sorry. For the rest of my life, any good that I can do, any kindness that I can show, I'll do.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.