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Pharmacist reaches plea agreement with government in drug dilutions case


KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Pharmacist Robert R. Courtney has reached a plea agreement with the government on charges that he diluted chemotherapy drugs given to cancer patients, his attorney says.

Courtney attorney Jean Paul Bradshaw would not say what type of plea Courtney would enter, but said that in ``a case like this, it would be unusual for the government to agree to anything less than to a straight-out guilty plea.''

Bradshaw, a former U.S. Attorney, said Courtney's plea agreement addresses sentencing, although Courtney's sentence is up to Judge Ortrie Smith. Bradshaw declined to specify the sentencing agreement with prosecutors.

Courtney had pleaded innocent to all 20 charges in the case, but a change of plea hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday in U.S. District Court, where Smith has already set aside overflow seating. If convicted on all 20 charges, Courtney faced up to 196 years in prison.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Chris Whitley declined to confirm a plea agreement. ``We never talk about plea negotiations in any case,'' he said.

Earlier this month, prosecutors indicated in a letter to a judge that new charges were possible. And U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Larsen had told the attorneys that a new indictment could be issued when a grand jury meets Tuesday.

Courtney's attorneys have lost one battle after another at the federal courthouse. Larsen had denied Courtney's attempts to throw out his confession, to move the trial, and to have the charges thrown out as unconstitutional. The attorneys also failed in numerous attempts to have Courtney released on bond. He has been jailed since he turned himself in to the FBI on Aug. 15.

The plea agreement comes two weeks before Courtney's trial was scheduled to begin March 11 on 20 counts of misbranding, adulterating and mislabeling the chemotherapy drugs Taxol and Gemzar.

The 20-count indictment, handed down in August, included eight charges of drug tampering and six each of adulterating and misbranding drugs.

The government claims Courtney confessed that he diluted the chemotherapy drugs so he could pocket the difference in price. Courtney owed more than $600,000 in taxes and $330,000 on a pledge to his church, according to court papers. Prosecutors estimated his net worth at about $10 million before the case broke.

The indictment involved the chemotherapy drugs Gemzar and Taxol. But in court papers, prosecutors have said they have also found suspicious or watered-down doses of Paraplatin, Platinol, Procrit, Neupogen, Roferon and Zofran. Investigators also found watered-down Progesterone that had come from Courtney's pharmacy in the Kansas City suburb of Merriam, Kan.

``Numerous drugs are still at the FDA lab with results pending,'' said FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza. ``Right now we're going to continue with that investigation because we want to determine which people were victimized.''

More than 3,000 calls have come in to an FBI hot line set up in August to handle the case, Lanza said.

The allegations outraged cancer patients, many of whom had turned to Gemzar and Taxol after other cancer treatments failed. Some families watched relatives die, only to learn that the drugs they had been counting on may have been mostly salt water. At least 250 people have sued Courtney and drug makers Eli Lilly Co. and Bristol-Meyers-Squibb.

Kenny Atwood is one of those who sued. His wife, Dee, died in February 2001 after being treated with chemotherapy solutions from Courtney's pharmacy. Atwood had planned to attend the pharmacist's trial. Now he has his eye on Courtney's sentencing.

``He probably won't get enough,'' Atwood said. ``That's one of those things, they ought to go away for ever and ever.''
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