Gowder, Heaton, and Gowder sentenced to federal time

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GAINESVILLE, Ga – U.S. District Judge Richard Story issued sentencing for John Michael “Mike” Gowder and James Heaton on June 24, 2020. He previously sentenced David Gowder on June 10, 2020. All received time in federal prison or confinement.

Mike Gowder was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison for charges two through 102, and the time will run concurrently. He also received two years of supervised release and will have to pay a special assessment of $10,200, and a fine of $2,000.

James Heaton received 72 months, or six years, for charges two through 76 and 104 through 130, as well as 48 months for charges 77 through 103. The time will run concurrently, so Heaton would only serve a maximum of six years. He also was sentenced to two years of supervised release for charges two through 76 and 104 through 130 and another year for 77 through 103. However, this time will also run concurrently, so the maximum time of supervised release is two years. Heaton will also have to pay a special assessment of $12,900.

David Gowder was sentenced to 18 months of federal confinement, $5,000 fine, and two years of supervised release after pleading guilty to a single count of prescribing medications without medical intentions. He initially pled guilty on March 15, 2019.

Mike Gowder and Heaton were found after a two-week trial by a federal jury in late October 2019. They were convicted on “102 counts related to illegally prescribing and obtaining more than 15,000 doses of prescription pain medications outside the usual course of professional practice and for no legitimate medical purpose.”

Former physician James Heaton

Heaton was also found guilty of an additional 27 counts of “issuing prescriptions to two female patients outside the usual course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate medical purpose.”

According to U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, Mike Gowder, former Union General Hospital CEO, and former Blairsville physician James Heaton operated and illegal prescription from 2011 to 2016. It operated across three states – Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

“During that time, Dr. Heaton illegally prescribed increasing quantities of hydrocodone and oxycodone to Mike Gowder, knowing that the prescriptions were issued outside the usual course of professional practice and that the pills obtained with the prescriptions had no legitimate medical purpose. Dr. Heaton violated numerous standards of medical practice by prescribing the pills to Mike Gowder without adequately documenting the medical need for the prescriptions in his patient file and without monitoring patient abuse of the pills he obtained.  During the three and half years in which Dr. Heaton prescribed more than 15,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to Mike Gowder, Dr. Heaton only six of the prescriptions were recorded in his patient file for Mike Gowder.

Starting in 2012, Mike Gowder obtained oxycodone by fraud, subterfuge, and deception by filling the illegal prescriptions that Dr. Heaton issued for oxycodone at different pharmacies in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in an effort to conceal the large numbers of pills that Dr. Heaton was prescribing to him.” – from U.S. Depart of Defense Statement

From January 2012 to June 2015, Heaton wrote 95 prescriptions for hydrocodone and oxycodone for Mike Gowder. On some occasions, Heaton would write two prescriptions for Gowder on the same day and Gowder would travel across state lines to fill the scripts.

Former Union General Hospital CEO Mike Gowder

In addition, Dr. James Heaton issued prescriptions hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone to two female patients outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose.

“When doctors prescribe opioids outside of the applicable rules, they are nothing but drug traffickers with a medical degree,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.  “Therefore, we will accordingly treat them as such.”

Oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone are listed as controlled substances under federal law with high potential for psychological and physical abuse and dependence.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys William McKinnon and Laurel R. Boatright prosecuted the case. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the Union County Georgia Sheriff’s Office, Cherokee County North Carolina Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, and Zell Miller Mountain Parkway Drug Task Force investigated the case.

“This is a very substantial victory in the battle against opioid use in our communities.  It goes to show what can be accomplished when the DEA and local law enforcement work together. Drugs know no boundaries including state lines.  I am very grateful for our relationship with Union County and the DEA,” said Derrick Palmer, Sheriff, Cherokee County, North Carolina.

Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Division stated, “Pharmaceutical products that are distributed for non-medical reasons can be just as deadly as illicit drugs.  The defendants in this case distributed vast quantities of pharmaceutical products and had ill-will and total disregard for human life. This conviction should serve as a reminder to all drug traffickers, including those with medical degrees, that DEA and its law enforcement partners will expend the necessary resources to disrupt and destroy those who distribute poison throughout our communities. This is a perfect example of the success that can be accomplished when federal, state and local resources are combined.”

Former ER doctor David Gowder

The case was brought as part of Operation Scope (Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement), which combines civil, criminal, and educational with law enforcement to fight the opioid/ heroin epidemic.

To help explain the dangers of drugs to children or learn more about the effects of drugs, visit https://www.justthinktwice.gov/.

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