California doctor charged with murder in several opioid-related deaths

PHOTO: Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display in Norwich, Conn., March 23, 2016. PlayJohn Moore/Getty Images, FILE
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A California doctor was charged with murder in the deaths of four patients, authorities said, accusing him of over-prescribing opioids and narcotics.

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Thomas McNeese Keller, a neurologist and pain management doctor in Santa Rosa, California, was charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of four patients and felony elderly abuse in the case of a fifth patient who also died, the state's attorney general announced Wednesday.

Keller, 72, was taken into custody on Monday and was being held without bail. Further arraignment proceedings and bail review are scheduled for next week. Keller faces up to life in prison, if convicted.

PHOTO: Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display in Norwich, Conn., March 23, 2016. John Moore/Getty Images, FILE
Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display in Norwich, Conn., March 23, 2016.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the doctor prescribed addictive drugs -- including Vicodin, oxycodone, OxyContin, Percocet and morphine -- at "dangerously high levels," contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis nationwide.

"Doctors take an oath to protect patients and not engage in behavior that can risk their health and safety," Becerra said in a statement on Wednesday. "When we see evidence of a crime and patient harm, we must act. The opioid epidemic is destroying our communities and taking our loved ones."

Keller "consistently and drastically increased his patients’ opioid prescriptions" and continued to over-prescribe even after learning that patients had died from drug overdoses, Becerra added.

The charges stemmed from an investigation of the attorney general office's Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse, which investigates cases of abuse, neglect and fraud against elderly and dependent adults in care facilities.

Investigators said Keller often prescribed at the maximum dosage and in quantities as high 300 pills per prescription, despite receiving red flag warnings from insurance companies and pharmacies.

Keller’s attorney, John Cox, said the charges were without grounds and accused the state attorney's office of trying to make an example out an innocent doctor "who has done everything in his ability to take care of his patients."

He said the deaths in question were the result of suicides and an accidental drug overdose involving drugs that Keller did not prescribe.

"I just don't understand how you can show that a doctor should be guilty of murder where patients commit suicide," Cox told ABC News on Thursday. "There's no evidence to support a murder charge here. It's outrageous."