Take Two Bottles of These. Call Me When You're Dead

Geraldine Dodson's body was found in a seated position on the living-room floor, near a bowl of uneaten cereal.

On that morning--July 25, 1990--family members discovered several empty bottles of prescription medication tucked away in various corners of Dodson's west Phoenix mobile home.

Later that day, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner classified the 53-year-old grandmother's death as accidental, the result of a drug overdose. Her blood was laced with high levels of chemicals found in sleeping pills, painkillers and muscle relaxants.

The drugs had been prescribed by Dr. Willard Hunter, a Phoenix orthopedic surgeon whom Dodson visited every three weeks for what she said was terrible back and neck pain.

Dodson also apparently had consumed some Valium; Hunter had prescribed that drug, along with painkillers, for Dodson's alcoholic husband, Bill, who claimed that he, too, suffered from excruciating back problems.

When Glendale police contacted Hunter by telephone, the doctor said he'd just seen Geraldine Dodson on July 17, and she appeared fine. He had refilled her prescriptions and sent her on her way.

Seeing no need for further investigation, police closed the case.
About two years later, Jeff Sykes, a 32-year-old drug addict, also died of a drug overdose. He died the day after he refilled a round of potent prescriptions from Dr. Hunter.

Sykes' corpse was found on the front lawn of his downtown apartment, dressed in a black-and-white cowboy shirt, jeans, gym shoes. At first, neighbors who discovered the body thought Sykes had simply passed out, again, from those pills he took all the time.

After a cursory investigation, Phoenix police did not refer the Sykes case to prosecutors for review for possible criminal prosecution. Instead, they forwarded the matter to the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, colloquially known as Bomex.

At the time, the state board that regulates medical doctors already had information on the death of Geraldine Dodson, as well as results of its own investigation of Hunter's office records--an investigation that revealed a pattern of misprescribing addictive drugs.

But the board did not revoke Hunter's license.
In fact, he is still practicing medicine in Phoenix.

Family members of Sykes and Dodson feel let down by Bomex, which had knowledge of Hunter's misprescribing of drugs for years, yet failed to act swiftly enough to prevent the doctor from writing prescriptions that led to two deaths.

The families also live with what they see as another fundamental injustice. Bomex did not refer either case to federal or state authorities for possible criminal prosecution--even though doctors in similar situations have been prosecuted in other states, and even though Bomex would eventually determine that Hunter's "unprofessional conduct" violated state law and was, indeed, negligent.

Criminal cases against doctors are difficult to prosecute, but Arizona prosecutors say they would still like the opportunity to know about suspicious deaths. "If someone dies, and there is a question about how he dies, wewould hope that would be advanced to a prosecutorial office for review," says Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

But there is no law or Bomex policy mandating referral of cases involving patient deaths for possible criminal prosecution, and the state board does not consider turning over such cases as part of its mission.

If the families want redress beyond the discipline Bomex might mete out, says Richard Zonis, the board chairman, then it's up to them to get it.

"I think it is assumed in a high-profile case such as this, where someone dies as the result of a doctor's action, that the family has already obtained legal advice and has probably pursued all avenues available," he says.

In the state of Georgia, however, the Composite State Board of Medical Examiners takes an entirely different view of potentially criminal conduct by doctors. That board routinely refers "egregiously" misprescribing physicians to either state or federal prosecutors, who have sought and obtained criminal convictions, says Andrew Watry, executive director of the Georgia board. And prosecutors in other states have also charged doctors with manslaughter or reckless endangerment when deaths seemed to flow directly from medical negligence.

Such prosecutions also prevent doctors from practicing medicine. The Sykes and Dodson families are perplexed and insulted that, despite two deaths and the state board's own ruling that Hunter was negligent, the doctor still has his medical license. Hunter maintains that license under a plea bargain approved by the very board that said he was negligent in the first place.

Hunter did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Files at Bomex and other public records, however, show that the board has had more than adequate reason totake strong action against the doctor.

For at least a decade, Bomex has used what it calls "progressive discipline" on doctors accused of wrongdoing. Under that policy, Bomex first issues nondisciplinary warning letters to errant doctors, then follows up with more serious actions.

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Terry Greene