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TRF nurses say doctor got them hooked on painkillers

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn.

Beier, left, and Sabol, right

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- Two former nurses who pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining prescription drugs told police that a doctor they worked for got them hooked and then ensnared them in a scheme to obtain thousands of pills to share with the doctor.

The doctor, an obstetrician/gynecologist who used to work at the now-MeritCare clinic, used to give them painkillers out of her pocket and from a jar on her desk, Melissa Beier, 33, and Sarah Sabol, 31, told police in transcripts obtained by the Herald.

Later, the doctor would give them prescriptions to fill, which they would share with her, they said.

That doctor has been part of a wider investigation involving prescription drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration but she has not been charged.

Kristin Hanson, the assistant Pennington County attorney prosecuting the nurses, said she believes they told police the truth but allegations of co-conspiracy alone are not enough to charge someone with a drug crime.

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Not enough other evidence came to light of the doctor's role, Hanson said.

When the doctor stopped working at the clinic, the nurses said they began posing as Dr. Eloise-Marie Clark to get prescriptions because Beier worked for Clark.

The case came to light June 30 when a Wal-Mart pharmacist called police. The two nurses had been getting too many prescriptions, and he suspected they had been posing over the phone as doctors.

Sabol and Beier pleaded guilty to a fifth-degree felony in the twin cases.

Beier was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in jail, with all but 14 days postponed, and up to five years supervised probation. Sabol is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 29 in state district court in Thief River Falls.

The day after the pharmacist called police, Craig Mattson, the police department's chief deputy, interviewed both nurses separately, more than once.

Waiving their Miranda rights, they admitted that they had fraudulently obtained painkillers from three pharmacies in town over a period of at least 18 months, from Jan. 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008.

It all started as early as 2006, when Dr. Denise

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McSherry, who also performed plastic surgery, gave Sabol painkillers as part of the preparation for liposuction on Sabol, the nurse said.

The painkiller was Vicodin, a common brand-name form of the painkiller hydrocodone, the narcotic named in the nurses' felony charges.

McSherry made the pills easily available during work, the nurses said.

Beier said when she began working in a hallway near McSherry's office, the doctor "just always had them in her pocket. I mean, she was eating them when we were eating them."

The doctor would give them "handfuls" of pills from bottles in her office, Beier said.

Early on, McSherry also obtained Ativan, a sedative often used to treat anxiety, from Sabol, Beier said. "She wanted some of that, too, for some flying that she was doing and it just started from there."

The nurses said they never sold or gave away any of the painkillers, except for the share that went back to McSherry.

"She would call in prescriptions and expect us to give her half of them," Beier said.

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Sometimes, McSherry called in fraudulent prescriptions to pharmacists, Sabol said. Sometimes, Sabol said, "she would have Missy call, sometimes she would just tell Missy to write it and fax it over."

McSherry also used other nurses to obtain the prescription weight-loss drug, Phentermine, because McSherry "couldn't get a prescription for them because she has a heart condition," Sabol said.

Sabol gave Mattson the name of another nurse who Sabol said McSherry also used to illegally obtain prescription drugs.

The nurses said they realized McSherry was into something beyond what they were wrapped up in.

In 2006 and 2007, McSherry "had a lot of (prescriptions) that she was bringing in from the Internet business stuff," Sabol said.

Sabol and Beier both told Mattson they got so addicted to the painkillers they were willing to violate their professional ethics and the law.

"It just escalated from there, you know," Sabol said. "It's like once you start you can't quit."

She knew the scheme was wrong, Sabol said, and told Mattson that McSherry told the nurses not to tell anyone about it.

Beier told Mattson that in a six-month period, she and Sabol illegally obtained and used 4,000 painkiller pills.

Sabol said she took the pills at night, after work, and that her husband never knew about it.

Beier said she ended up using up to 14 pills a day, even while working.

Mattson expressed disbelief, telling her a pharmacist told him that was too much to allow most people to function at all.

But Beier said her tolerance for the drug had built up so much. "It was at the point where you couldn't function without them."

At one point, Beier used her daughter to obtain more prescription drugs.

During Beier's sentencing hearing on Monday, a court official, Mary Gerardy, described prescription painkillers as more addictive than even methamphetamine.

McSherry denied to the Herald that she had any involvement with Sabol's and Beier's crimes.

She has been interviewed by DEA agents, as recently as several weeks ago. But, as far as she knows, the investigation is over, she said, and there have been no charges filed.

Dan Moren, assistant special agent in charge of the Minneapolis-St. Paul DEA office, said Wednesday he can't comment on any ongoing investigation and can't comment on whether the investigation of McSherry is ongoing.

But he said McSherry in October voluntarily surrendered her DEA identification, so she no longer can prescribe drugs as a physician.

McSherry is licensed to practice medicine in Florida, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Last month, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice reprimanded her because of sanctions taken against her by a Florida medical board for her alleged part in a scheme to offer painkiller prescriptions over the Internet without properly examining patients.

In the Florida case, she paid about $11,500 in fines and fees as part of the medical board sanction.

McSherry told the Herald she paid the sanction not because she was guilty but to get it behind her. She blamed others who were penalized by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in that case for using her DEA identification without her knowledge.

At least one other physician in that case had his DEA identification taken away by the DEA as a result of the investigation.

Thief River Falls Police Chief Kim Murphy and county prosecutors confirm the DEA has been working a wider investigation in town involving the illegal procurement and abuse of prescription drug.

During his interviews, Mattson told the nurses not to have any contact with McSherry because "(she) is part of this investigation now."

Moren said prescription drug crimes have become a big part of the DEA's work.

"That category of drug abuse has increased faster than any other drug in the last couple of years," Moren said. It's now the No. 2 drug of abuse, behind only marijuana, nationwide, he said.

"So we are spending a lot of resources on it at a national level, to try and combat that."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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