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Rowland Heights doctor's pills found their way into many hands

Authorities suspect Lisa Tseng's patients included some who resold drugs with deadly results.

October 17, 2010|By Scott Glover and Lisa Girion, Los Angeles Times

Dr. Lisa Tseng was nowhere near the Taco Bell parking lot in Laguna Niguel where a drug dealer handed 19-year-old Zack Jones a pill that would later kill him.

Nor was she in the Irvine home where Grant Pieson injected himself with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

Yet authorities are investigating whether the Rowland Heights doctor indirectly played a role in both men's deaths, according to law enforcement records and interviews.

The alleged dealers suspected of providing drugs to Jones and Pieson were among an undetermined number of Tseng patients who authorities believe sold medications she prescribed —extending her reach beyond her patient base and complicating the task of determining how many deaths and overdoses might be linked to her practice.

Tseng is under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the state Board of Osteopathic Medicine for allegedly prescribing potent painkillers to patients who had no legitimate medical need. Since 2007, at least eight of her patients have died from overdoses of the same type of drugs she prescribed to them, according to coroner's files and interviews.

Tseng, 40, has said she has done nothing wrong and should not be held accountable for patients who do not following dosing instructions.

Mark Mermelstein, one of several lawyers representing the physician, said "Dr. Tseng cares deeply about all her patients and looks forward to her opportunity to vindicate herself in court."

Among her patients are at least three people who have been charged with dealing drugs and a fourth who is suspected by police of doing so. In interviews with The Times, two others admitted dealing drugs prescribed by Tseng, and the family members of several deceased patients said they suspected their loved ones sold some of their prescription pills to finance their habits.

A heavy prescription drug habit can cost $400 a day at drugstore prices, which users can finance by selling a handful of their pills at up to $80 each on the black market.

"It's an expensive addiction," said Kham Vang, a Fountain Valley police narcotics detective who is not involved in the Tseng case.

***

Grant Pieson had been vomiting blood all night before he finally passed out. His friends hauled him into the shower around 5 a.m. in an effort to revive him, according to coroner's records. He died of an overdose — caused by a mix of prescription and illicit drugs — in the emergency room of an Irvine hospital on April 12, 2009.

Police questioned two young men who were with Pieson the night before he died, according to an affidavit filed in support of the warrant used to search Tseng's office. One of the men, Ryan Carry, acknowledged being a patient of Tseng's, according to the records.

Asked where the drugs came from, Carry pointed to his backpack, according to the search warrant affidavit. Inside, police found vials of oxycodone, hydromorphone and alprazolam — all prescribed by Tseng — along with syringes and the type of small colored balloons that are used to hold drugs.

Carry, 29, has not been charged in Pieson's death. However, he was charged with felony possession for sale of oxycodone — stemming from the drugs in his backpack the day Pieson died. Carry has pleaded not guilty and his case is pending in Orange County Superior Court, records show.

In a statement provided by his attorney, Carry said, in part, "Prescription drugs took me and people around me into an ugly world of addiction that destroyed many of our lives and, in some cases, took lives. Stopping doctors who illegally prescribe drugs will save lives and stop the destruction many go through in their addiction. However, prescription drugs prescribed by Lisa Tseng were not a part of Grant's death."

The attorney, Lloyd Freeberg, declined to answer questions about Carry's statement or case, citing ongoing settlement talks with the district attorney.

Carry's father, Rich Carry, said that Pieson was already intoxicated before arriving at his son's home and that any suggestion that Ryan provided Pieson with drugs is "completely erroneous." Carry added that his son has completed a drug rehab program and has been clean and sober for nearly a year.

***

Zack Jones was not a drug addict, his mother, Julia, said. But he was a risk-taker, one of those "yeah, I'll try it" kind of kids.

On Oct. 21, 2008, Jones tried a drug called oxymorphone, a potent painkiller sold as Opana and popular among young prescription drug abusers.

That night, Jones had been painting his new apartment with some friends and decided to go score some drugs with a man he'd met in an alcohol education class after a drunk driving conviction a year earlier, according to Julia Jones.

The friend from the class led Jones and several other friends to a Taco Bell parking lot where they met another young man who sold Jones two and a half pills of oxymorphone for about $100, according to Julia Jones, who has been briefed on the case by police.

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