Murder charges filed in meningitis outbreak

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Fourteen owners or employees of a Massachusetts pharmacy were charged Wednesday in connection with a 2012 meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people, including 19 in Michigan, the hardest-hit state.

The outbreak was traced to tainted drug injections manufactured by the now-closed New England Compounding Center of Framingham.

Barry Cadden, a co-founder of the business, and Glenn Adam Chin, a supervisory pharmacist, face the most serious charges, accused in the racketeering indictment of second-degree murder by causing the deaths of 25 patients in seven states — eight of them in Michigan — by acting with “wanton and willful disregard” of the risks.

The other defendants were charged with such crimes as fraud and interstate sale of adulterated drugs.

The indictment alleges they acted “in wanton and willful disregard of the likelihood” that their actions would cause death or great bodily harm.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz called it the biggest criminal case ever brought in the U.S. over contaminated medicine.

Ortiz said NECC was “filthy” and failed to comply with even basic health standards, and employees knew it. “Production and profit were prioritized over safety,” she said.

“It’s a significant day for victims of the meningitis tragedy in our state. We’re in the epicenter of this whole sad, tragic and horrific issue,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said Wednesday in a conference call.

“The allegations show a reckless disregard for the health and lives of others. That’s why there are murder charges included. I was not surprised and I think they were fitting.”

Tainted steroids manufactured by the pharmacy were blamed for the outbreak, which sickened more than 265 people in Michigan.

Nationwide, the outbreak sickened more than 750 people in 20 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Last year, Michigan and federal officials announced a joint criminal investigation into the outbreak.

Schuette said he could not comment on the ongoing state-level investigation but it would be “exhaustive.” He also said he could not comment on civil cases related to the outbreak.

The 131-page indictment unsealed Wednesday revealed Cadden and Chin have been charged with causing the deaths of patients in several states, including Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana.

The others charged in the indictment face charges ranging from mail fraud to the introduction of adulterated and misbranded drugs into interstate commerce.

Cadden’s lawyer, Bruce Singal, charged that prosecutors are trying to turn a “tragic accident” into a federal crime.

“Not every accident, and not every tragedy, are caused by criminal conduct,” Singal said in a statement.

Chin’s lawyer, Stephen Weymouth, said he was stunned that prosecutors charged his client with second-degree murder under the racketeering law.

“He feels hugely remorseful for everything that’s happened — for the injuries and the deaths — but he never intended to cause harm to anybody,” Weymouth said. “It seems to be a bit of an overreach.”

Lawyers for the other defendants did not immediately return calls from the Associated Press.

Bill Wertz, a Howell man who was infected while receiving treatment for thigh pain at a Brighton clinic, said the filing of charges was proper, not just for the disease’s impact on the victims but on their families as well.

“It was a greed issue: How much profit can we make?” he said. “Let justice prevail.”

Wertz, 70, said he learned six months ago he was disease-free but continues to suffer from symptoms like headaches and sensitivity to light, and is likely to for the rest of his life.

John Nedroscik, 64, also of Howell, received the tainted steroids while getting treatment for damaged discs in his back. He contracted a fungal infection that caused an abscess on his spine.

He spent nearly a month in the hospital for surgery to remove the abscess. He said he still takes pain pills and has trouble sleeping. “I still struggle with some stuff,” he said. But “it could have been a lot worse.”

Among the accusations are that Cadden, Chin and others used expired ingredients in drugs, failed to properly sterilize drugs and failed to test drugs to make sure they were sterile.

The contaminated medication was discovered in the fall of 2012. Regulators found a host of potential contaminants at the company’s Framingham plant, including standing water, mold, water droplets and dirty equipment.

Detroit News Staff Writer Francis X. Donnelly and the Associated Press contributed.