Joey Rovero of San Ramon, a California High School graduate, was just a few months from graduating Arizona State University in winter of 2009 when the 21-year-old took his last road trip. His mother, April, said Joey went with two college fraternity friends from Arizona to Orange County in California to visit a doctor notorious for easily giving out prescription drugs.
Nine days later, Joey was dead.
April Rovero said her son was a sweet and charismatic young man who was never known to take medicine or drugs, but the coroner found a cocktail of Oxycontin, Xanax and alcohol in Joey’s system.
“The medicine she gave him was a disaster waiting to happen. A loaded weapon, as far as I’m concerned,” Rovero said from her San Ramon home. “And he should have never had the meds prescribed to him.”
Prosecutors say Lisa Tseng, who surrendered her medical license before she was arrested ten months ago, gave Joey multiple prescriptions without due diligence of a proper examination.
Tseng’s attorney, Tracy Green, told NBC Bay Area her client, a UC Berkeley graduate and Chinese immigrant, may not have been “street smart” and should have kept better records, but is innocent of the second-degree murder charges facing her for the deaths of three patients, including Joey. Tseng has been behind bars in the Los Angeles County jail since her arrest in lieu of $3 million bail.
“I just want her out of the business completely. Forever. I don’t want her prescribing to children again or anyone again,” Rovero said.
Behind marijuana, prescribed pills are now the second most popular drug choice today.
The most common labels include Oxycontin, Vicodin and Xanax. And it’s not so much mom and dad’s medicine cabinet anymore. Bay Area law enforcement experts say it’s time to go after the so-called "Dr. Feelgoods," or those accused of overprescribing painkillers and sedatives on purpose.
Tina Boales, a 27-year-veteran San Jose police officer who retired at the end of 2012, said she was the only cop focused on prescription drug abuse in the entire department.
She took a modified duty role in the Covert Response Unit after suffering an injury on the job. Boales estimates the number of cases surrounding prescription drug abuse and “pill mills,” or illegitimate pain clinics, has shot up more than 90 percent in the last two years.
“It’s going to run wild, and as each day goes by, these cases pile up,” Boales said. “Usually a doctor sends them to a shady pharmacist that will go ahead and fill a prescription, take their money or overcharge them because at that point the person’s become dependent on that drug.”
She added that sometimes these doctors are benefitting from kickbacks, from cash to sex.
Why now? Boales believes street drugs are harder to get and prescription drugs have a high resale value, especially pills like Oxycontin, which she and Dana Veazey, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney, agreed can go for a dollar a milligram – easy.
“So if they have a 35-milligram pill they get $35. If they get an 80-milligram, some pharmacists would charge over $100 for one pill.”
Veazey said two recent big cases highlight what her office views as a growing problem.
Police arrested Dr. Marvin Bonham, 61 from Los Gatos, and Jasna Mrdjen, 69 of Mountain View, in 2012, accused of running pill mills. Dr. Mrdjen is facing involuntary manslaughter charges after one of her patients died.
“When there’s not a medically legitimate reason for giving either that amount or type of prescription, when they’re excessively prescribing. All those things can make that illegal.”
But the attorneys for both doctors tell us evidence is on their clients’ side that will prove their innocence.
For Boales, the scene among teenagers is enough reason to step up law enforcement efforts against pill mills. “In the last three years, there’s been a 300 percent increase with treating them for addidctions with these hard drugs.”
On top of a struggle for resources, Boales said investigators are having a more difficult time tracking pill mills with operators switching from “seedy” locations guarded by security personnel to places like Los Gatos and Campbell. Boales said the Los Angeles area has been a breeding ground for pill mills for years, but with more raids down there, the criminal activity has been funneled up to the Bay Area.
“Northern California is still pretty fertile grounds. It’s skyrocketing out of control.”
For April Rovero, it’s never been about waiting for the court process to take action.
She founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse after her son died to raise and spread awareness about how to fight what the Centers for Disease Control calls an “epidemic.”
The trial against Tseng, the doctor who prescribed the medication to Joey, isn’t likely to start for another few months. Green told NBC Bay Area the medical community is paying extra attention to the outcome of the case because it’s the first time in the county a doctor has been charged with murder for overprescribing – a rare occurrence even nationwide.
April Rovero said no matter the outcome, she lives with the kind of pain no pill could ever take away. Now she’s trying to ensure no pill will ever take away another life.
“Joey was Joseph John Rovero the 3rd, and he was supposed to continue,” said April Rovero, tears spilling out. “It’s unconscionable that he’s gone. He should be here with us.”