A renowned medical examiner was the “central figure” in a massive sex-for-prescriptions ring that put some 108,000 pills — Oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone — on the streets, according to federal authorities.
An 11-count indictment unsealed Thursday against Dr. Joe Burton, who has been the medical examiner for several metro Atlanta counties, expanded on charges filed last fall that he illegally wrote two prescriptions in Cherokee County for Oxycodone. The new indictment charges Burton with conspiracy and drug distribution. The indictment also names seven other people, including three women who allegedly exchanged sex for prescriptions.
On Thursday a total of 44 people were arrested on either state or federal charges, according to U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. Arrests were made in Atlanta and in nine counties that stretched from Floyd County to Fayette County, from Gwinnett County to Paulding County. And Pak said there could be more.
“Dr. Burton chose to sell his medical license, his reputation and his premier position as a medical examiner for sex,” Pak said.
Burton’s attorney, Wilmer “Buddy” Parker, did not deny Burton wrote prescriptions for opioids but questioned why he did it, considering his decades in law enforcement.
“A number of events have happened to Joe Burton in the past five years, including strokes, a massive car accident — events that cause him to be who he is not. Joe Burton is 72 years old,” Parker said.
Parker said Burton eventually would be examined by a forensic psychiatrist.
“This isn’t mental defense in the sense that he didn’t know right from wrong,” Parker said. “It’s ‘what’s happened to his man? What caused him to do it?’ That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be held accountable.”
The federal investigation, which eventually involved 16 police department and sheriff’s offices as well as four district attorneys’ offices and three state agencies, found Burton had signed more than 1,100 opioid prescriptions, often without examining the individual and sometimes without even meeting them, Pak said. Of the 108,000 pills dispensed over two years, 66,000 were 30 mg tablets of Oxycodone, he said.
Burton is accused of conspiring with Jennifer Hunter, Tiffany Willis, Michelle Danner, Rhonda Haugland Cheryl Truelove, Jerry Stephens and Rodney Kennedy. The indictment said Burton would write prescriptions for painkillers for inappropriate amounts and combinations without an examination first. In some instances, those getting the prescriptions would use the drugs themselves, while in others the pain-killers were sold.
Federal officials did not accused Burton of taking money for writing the subscriptions; they said he wrote them in exchange for sex and “romantic relationships.”
But, they said, the results, in at least one case, were deadly.
Pak said investigators found a prescription pill bottle with Burton’s name on the body of a woman who died of a drug overdose on Dec. 10, 2016, just three days after she bought the pain-killer medication.
In another instance, Pak said, a woman a traded sex with her daughter for prescriptions.
“One bad, corrupt individual with a pen and prescription pad can turn that into a weapon of mass destruction,” said Robert Murphy, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta field office.
Until the allegations became public last October, Burton had an untarnished national reputation as a forensic pathologist.
Burton served as medical examiner for Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Douglas, Paulding and Rockdale counties. For decades, Burton served as a critical witness in thousands of court cases, some of them high-profile.
He worked with the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on the Atlanta missing and murdered children cases and was involved in the Sara Tokars murder investigation.
Burton once estimated he had performed more than 10,000 autopsies over his career.
He went on to a private consultant in high demand.
Why would Burton ruin that reputation now, Parker asked.
“We’re going to prove how he got to where he got and why he got to where he got,” Parker said.