SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KTVU) - A Santa Rosa doctor has been charged in the deaths of five patients by way of prescribing lethal doses of opioids to them, according to the California Attorney General's Office.
Dr. Thomas Keller, 72, ran a pain management practice out of an office building on Farmers Lane.
State officials say the neurosurgeon over-prescribed the powerful opioids and narcotics used to ease pain — which included Vicodin, oxycodone, OxyContin, Percocet, and morphine.
Keller is charged with four counts of second-degree murder and a fifth charge of elder abuse.
His attorney John Cox, said his client is devastated by the allegations and claims the charges are unfounded.
"Dr. Keller believes he absolutely treated the patients in a proper manner," Cox said. "There's no basis for him to have been charged with any crime whatsoever."
Cox says three of the patients in the murder case committed suicide. One died of a methadone overdose and the fifth victim died of lung disease.
"He was trying to treat patients that came to him with an opioid addiction but still needed to be treated somehow," Cox said. "He had a medical obligation to treat these people for their severe pain."
Authorities allege that between October 2011 and July 2017, Keller prescribed highly addictive drugs and consistently increased the dosages.
They further allege that he increased patients' opioid dosage while also prescribing medications such as Soma, a muscle relaxant, and benzodiazepines, which are known to cause a dangerous drug interaction when taken with opioids.
“Doctors take an oath to protect patients and not engage in behavior that can risk their health and safety,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “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."
The attorney general said Keller often prescribed at maximum dosages and in quantities upwards of 180-300 pills per prescription, resulting in total daily opiate prescription dosages far above the standard set forth by the Centers for Disease Control.
KTVU legal analyst Michael Cardoza says it's rare for an attorney general to try criminal cases and that Becerra is sending a message.
"It's going to be second-degree murder if you overprescribe and one of your patients dies," said Cardoza.
Officials say despite numerous red flag warnings from pharmacies and insurance companies the doctor continued to prescribe the drugs.
Keller remains in custody and is due back in court on Tuesday. If convicted he faces life in prison.