Late wrestler's doctor pleads guilty in drug case

January 29, 2009 12:44:56 PM PST
The personal doctor to a professional wrestler who killed himself, his wife and their 7-year-old son in 2007 pleaded guilty Thursday to illegally distributing prescription drugs to patients, one of whom died. Dr. Phil Astin, 54, pleaded guilty to a 175-count federal indictment charging him with illegally distributing prescription drugs and conspiring to distribute prescription drugs.

Astin also admitted that prescriptions he issued resulted in the overdose death of a female patient in 2007, though attorneys did not specifically name any patient or link the physician to World Wrestling Entertainment's Chris Benoit.

More than 50 of the counts carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The others carry a lesser sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, said Patrick Crosby, spokesman for U.S. Attorney David Nahmias.

Astin did not comment Thursday after the hearing. His sentencing is scheduled for May 12.

In June, Astin pleaded not guilty to the charges. Thursday's change was part of a 12-page plea bargain negotiated by defense attorney Natasha Perdew Silas, who acknowledged her own investigation indicated some of Astin's clients were illegally prescribed medication.

She told U.S. District Court Judge Jack T. Camp that Astin wasn't guilty of prescribing medicine in exchange for personal gain, but rather was a "country doctor" who treated many patients suffering from chronic pain.

"In chronic pain cases, Dr. Astin, more often than not, would simply accede to the patient's request that they needed strong or stronger medicine to handle their pain," Silas said in a written statement. "As the years went by, Dr. Astin became more and more willing to bend the rules."

The indictment against Astin involves hundreds of prescriptions written for 19 patients between May 2002 and July 2007.

A federal investigation found Astin wrote prescriptions without conducting physical exams and sometimes gave patients as many as four simultaneous prescriptions for Percocet. He also prescribed "cocktails" of drugs like Percocet, Oxycontin, Vicodin and Adderall.

Investigators cited one case in which an unidentified female patient began receiving a combination of drugs that included Xanax from Astin in 2002. She died in June 2007, the same month authorities discovered the bodies of Benoit, his wife and son in their suburban Atlanta home.

Benoit strangled his wife and son, then hanged himself in their home in June 2007. A medical examiner couldn't say whether the steroids Astin prescribed for Benoit played a role in the deaths. Silas would not confirm that Astin played any role in Benoit killing his family and then himself.

In court Thursday, Astin told the judge he suffered from depression and anxiety since his arrest in 2007. Silas described a man who inherited many patients from his father's medical practice after the elder Astin committed suicide in 2005 as a result of depression over his own chronic pain.

In a written statement, Silas described Astin as "sorry for the cases in which he did not provide appropriate care," but added they were a fraction of his overall practice.

"A larger portion of Dr. Astin's patients were treated commendably," she said.

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