A former disgraced pharmacist who was sentenced to prison over 20 years ago for diluting drugs for a cheap profit—impacting over 4,000 patients and likely leading to the deaths of AIDS and cancer patients—will soon walk free.

The Kansas City Star reports that Missouri native Robert Ray Courtney, 71, was convicted of diluting patients’ medications to treat serious conditions such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and more over 20 years ago. While Courtney has not been charged with murder, a prosecuting attorney said the man is “one of the most prolific serial killers.”

He primarily mixed intravenous drugs regardless of how critical they were to patients living with serious conditions. All the while, Courtney was supposedly an upstanding member of a church community at Northland Cathedral, an Assemblies of God megachurch in Kansas City, Missouri. Courtney was also the main character in License To Kill: Deadly Pharmacist that streamed on Oxygen in 2020. He was also featured in a 2010 documentary series episode on American Greed that aired on CNBC.

Courtney began his crime spree in 1990, once he learned he could swap out expensive medications with generic drugs he could buy in the gray market, making a fortune. But that didn’t satisfy his greedy urges, so he started diluting chemotherapy drugs to multiply doses. By the late ‘90s, Courtney was diluting a swath of cancer and AIDS drugs that probably led to the deaths of patients who trusted him. (As if they didn’t already have enough to worry about.) Not only were his patients not improving, but chemo patients didn’t seem to exhibit the normal devastating side effects of the drug.

Keep in mind that throughout the investigation the FBI and FDA initially would not accept that a licensed pharmacist would do such a thing intentionally. But he did.

Courtney pleaded guilty on Feb. 27, 2002 to intentionally diluting over 98,000 prescriptions for multiple types of life-saving drugs. He was officially charged with tampering with drugs, adulteration or mislabeling of drugs, but given a hefty sentence due to the seriousness of his actions.

Police estimated that his pharmacy scheme could have impacted some 4,200 patients. Courtney was sentenced in federal court in December 2002 to a maximum of 30 years, plus a $25,000 fine and $10.4 million in restitution according to court records. And according to Bureau of Prisons records, Courtney is currently incarcerated at a federal prison in Littleton, Colorado.

Victims and their families said they received a letter indicating that Courtney will be released June 20 to a halfway house in Springfield, Missouri. He is expected to remain there until his release on May 2, 2026. 

Attorney Michael Ketchmark, who represented 275 families in wrongful death lawsuits against Courtney, said in a phone interview Monday that his phone “has been lit up all day with Robert Courtney’s victims.”

“The raw pain and emotion is overwhelming,” he said. “In my opinion, he is one of the most prolific serial killers,” Ketchmark said. “He diluted chemotherapy drugs that people need when they’re fighting for their life and he took away their hope and he took away the life of his victims.” 

Ketchmark called on the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office to bring charges. “It’s our hope that that will happen. There’s plenty of justice still to be delivered to this man. He should never walk free again.”

Courtney’s insurance company agreed to pay $35 million to victims, and two pharmaceutical makers paid $71 million in settlements.

High Times has reported on the pressure to prescribe painkillers in the pharmaceutical industry that has wreaked havoc on American society. Pain Hustlers, a recent film directed by BAFTA award winner David Yates, follows a mother who gets entangled with a failing pharmaceutical startup and the addiction it leads to. 

The CDC says there were 80,411 overdose deaths in 2021—75.4% of all drug overdose deaths involved opioids, with 88% of opioid overdoses being synthetic. So given these numbers, you should be more worried about pharmaceutical abuse than street heroin. That means opioids killed more Americans—during 2021 alone—than the Vietnam War.

The Pharmacist debuted in 2020 on Netflix, a docuseries that follows a Louisiana pharmacist who takes extreme measures to expose the “rampant corruption behind the opioid addiction crisis.”

There is a flood of other popular opioid-themed shows: Netflix’s 2023 drama series Painkiller starring Matthew Broderick, Uzo Aduba, Taylor Kitsch and West Duchovny briefly took the top spot on the platform. 

Netflix reported that Painkiller has two sources, the 2003 book Pain Killer by Barry Meier and the 2017 New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, which was later expanded into Keefe’s 2021 book Empire of Pain.

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