By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The county medical examiner determined that Jeff had died of heart failure brought on by an accidental drug overdose. His blood contained toxic amounts of methadone, a small amount of cocaine, plus Placidyl and Xanax, two drugs prescribed by Hunter that do not mix with methadone.
Pippett was heartbroken, furious.
She informed her family doctor that she wanted to sue Hunter for medical negligence. The family doctor, who had recommended Hunter in the first place, persuaded her to forget a lawsuit.
At the time of his death, Jeff Sykes was being investigated by Phoenix police, who suspected him of selling the large quantities of prescription drugs he was getting from Hunter.
Upon learning of Sykes' death, police performed a cursory investigation. After the medical examiner ruled the death was accidental, police closed the case and sent the file over to Bomex "for adjudication" one month after Sykes died.
But Bomex did not tackle the Sykes death case until October 1995, three years after he died. And even then, the board had a strange way of taking care of a doctor whose misprescribing had helped end the lives of two patients.
After Sykes died, but before Bomex heard his case, the board agreed to end Hunter's three-year probation a year early because Hunter said he was facing terrible financial problems and had, after all, already completed his 80 hours of required classes on the proper way to prescribe drugs and control pain.
One Bomex board member, William Holsey, said Hunter's punishment had been "in keeping with the crime."
Then he went on to sympathize with Hunter. "Unfortunately," he said, "we have to deal with insurance companies, HMOs and whatnot. Since they all act upon what this board determines, one can be devastated by their actions, which apparently is what occurred in your case.
"I gather you have very little to fall back on other than the various [insurance] plans that you were in, which have now been taken away from you as a result of this action."
When Bomex finally reviewed the Sykes drug-overdose death, the board reinstated Hunter's probation. Hunter signed an agreement with the board rather than undergo a hearing during which his license might be revoked.
The plea bargain allowed Hunter to keep his state license to practice medicine, although he surrendered his federal license to prescribe addictive drugs. He also agreed not to assist in or perform surgeries unless he took a yearlong course in orthopedic surgery and met with the board for further approval.
Citing the Sykes and Dodson cases and others, the board determined that Hunter violated state law by failing to maintain adequate patient records, by practicing in a way that "is or might be harmful or dangerous to human health of the patient or the public" and by engaging in "conduct that the board determines is gross negligence, repeated negligence or negligence resulting in harm to or the death of a patient."
These days, Hunter lives in a bleak, east Mesa "gated community" of mobile homes. He practices solo, sharing an office with a Tempe chiropractor two days a week. Other days, he sees patients at a shabby-looking office at 1415 North Seventh Avenue.
Willard Hunter has said his habit of working hard has taken a toll on his personal life.
Hunter had five children by his first wife, Dora, who filed for divorce in 1974.
Dora said back then that Hunter threatened to split open her head with an ax. She said her husband could be violently, explosively angry.
Yet she lived with him for 22 years. She was married to Hunter when he was a medical student at the University of Tennessee, moved with him to Phoenix in 1956 for an internship at St. Joseph's Hospital. She celebrated with Hunter when the state gave him a license to practice medicine in 1957.
After Dora filed for divorce, the two fought over property for nearly two years before the divorce was finalized.
Dora got the family home, a 65-acre nut farm in Gilbert, which she promptly sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. Hunter then sued Dora in a futile attempt to halt the sale of the farm. He wanted his exwife to sell the farm to his parents so he could gain control of it. She refused.
Then Dora seemed to disappear from Hunter's life.
His second wife, Debbie, 25 years younger than he, could not be found for comment. Last year, in a rambling interview with Bomex, Hunter indicated his second marriage, too, was headed for divorce.
He has often said he is a sick man, a serious diabetic who has endured almost as many surgeries as some of his patients.
He has claimed his financial ruin was brought on by Bomex. "Because of the restrictions placed on me, I lost all of my insurance referrals, and now I'm down to the point where I'm having some private patients, a few, and Medicare, and that's about it," Hunter said in 1994. "My income is such that I have lost about everything I had in 30 years. ... I can't even pay my malpractice insurance if I don't get more income. ... I don't have retirement; it's gone. I don't have a house. That's gone."