To hear police talk, it was the lines outside Dr. Pravin V. Mehta’s Niagara Falls office, the ones that extended down the street and around the corner, that first caught their eye.
The people waiting to get in were patients eager for prescription pain medication, they say, many of them users and dealers looking for an easy way to score some pills from the doctor.
“It was like a McDonald’s drive-thru,” said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto.
Mehta, one of the first doctors charged in the recent rash of prescription pill cases, admitted Thursday to handing out illegal pain medication from late 2007 to early 2011 when he was arrested.
Now 77, he will face nearly six years in prison when he is sentenced in September by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, the former Niagara Falls physician – he surrendered his license after his arrest – admitted handing out prescriptions without a proper medical reason.
And sometimes without doing even a basic exam.
“The patients were calling the shots,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski. “What we found out is that the patients would quite often dictate what the doctor prescribed.”
Mehta, who police claim was known as “Dr. Feel Good” on the streets, also admitted signing blank prescription forms and directing a staff member, in his absence, to fill out the rest of the forms.
Prosecutors say some of those blank, signed prescription forms were stolen by staff members and sold for cash on the streets. Four of those employees and nine others have been convicted in connection with the case.
“You could call him a wholesaler,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said of Mehta. “I think it equates more to being the head of a criminal enterprise.”
Mehta was charged in a 28-count federal indictment in 2011 but ended up pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and other controlled substances.
Defense attorney Joel A. Daniels declined to comment on his client’s decision to plead guilty.
The indictment against Mehta, police said at the time, targeted a doctor who had turned into a street-level drug dealer, providing powerful and addictive drugs to addicts and dealers across the region.
DalPorto said it wasn’t unusual for Niagara Falls police to pull over a drug user and discover he had a prescription from Mehta, or to see lines of people waiting to get into Mehta’s office on Main Street.
“Mehta created a culture of drug abuse that the City of Niagara Falls has never seen before,” he said.
Prosecutors said the lines outside his downtown office raised a red flag and prompted police to look into his history as a doctor. They soon discovered that, despite his relatively small practice, he was one of the highest prescribers of opiods in the state.
“Dr. Mehta was undeniably responsible for a great deal of pain and misery,” Hochul said.
Mehta, an internationally trained internist and endocrinologist, is one of four local doctors who have been charged over the last four years with doling out illegal drugs.
Shortly after Mehta’s arrest, Dr. Matthew A. Bennett of North Tonawanda was charged as well. He pleaded guilty last month.
Two other doctors – Daniel C. Gillick of Youngstown and Albert R. Cowie of Amherst – also have been charged in similar cases.
Cowie, who was arrested in April, is accused of writing illegal prescriptions for oxycodone, Percocet and hydrocodone and, with the help of others, keeping some of the pills for himself.
Gillick, who was arrested in 2012, was an emergency room doctor who later pleaded guilty to health care fraud and illegally obtaining a controlled substance. He was sentenced to six months of home confinement and two years’ probation.
Gillick’s case also gained attention because of his relationship with Christine Guilfoyle, the woman who allegedly received drugs from him. She and Aaron Morgan, a boyfriend and fellow addict, were found dead of an overdose early last year.