Three years ago, Dr. Everett Echols II thought he was on the cutting edge of medicine. Now he's facing prison time.
The North Carolina doctor, who lost his medical license after two people committed suicide with drugs he prescribed over the Internet, was indicted last month on federal drug trafficking charges.
Echols, whom Creative Loafing wrote about in July, was one of 14 people and seven companies that a West Palm Beach, Fla., grand jury indicted in February for illegally trafficking in prescription drugs through online pharmacies.
Echols faces one charge of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances -- a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of five years as well as up to $250,000 in fines. Another four counts of distributing controlled substances could each earn him three years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
The indictment comes more than three years after a California mother and son killed themselves using drugs they obtained through an illegal Internet-based pharmacy. "This was the best news we could've heard," says Candy Kelly, whose daughter and grandson fatally overdosed with the prescription antidepressant amitriptyline.
Echols lost his medical license in fall 2004 after the North Carolina Medical Board found that he had been operating an online pharmacy through his home in Rockingham, about 70 miles east of Charlotte. Customers would fill out a questionnaire about their concerns and medical history, supply their credit card information, and Echols would authorize a prescription for someone he'd never met. In eight months, Echols told the board, he'd authorized 244,000 prescriptions -- an average of more than 1,000 each day.
One of those customers was 17-year-old Ryan Kelly, who purchased the pills he and his mother, 46-year-old Leisa Kelly, used to kill themselves in their San Andreas, Calif., home.
Medical boards and societies have condemned such "pill mills," deeming them irresponsible, bad medicine. "That's drug-dealing," Bob Martin, director of substance abuse services at Behavioral Health Center of Carolinas Medical Center -- Mercy Horizons, said last summer.
But Echols last week says he felt the operation was an innovative way to deliver medical services at reduced fees. "It was a really cutting-edge experiment to see if quality healthcare services could be provided in a Yahoo-type environment to patients," Echols says in a phone interview. "For what it's worth, if you look at the statistics, it worked. But the first time we had a problem they shut us down. In the back of my mind, I said, 'Lord, if they had done that to the Wright brothers, you know, would we have ever had airplanes?'"
Echols says he and his partner, Tom Chapman of Rockingham (who was not charged), sought approval for their business from lawyers and an agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He could not remember their names. He says he only prescribed drugs that were relatively safe and non-addictive.
"It was really not that we were evil people," says Echols. "We worked hard. I threw my heart and soul into it."
Echols says he'd looked at online prescribing as a way to get back into medicine. He'd already been in trouble with medical boards in Tennessee and North Carolina. In the early 1990s, Tennessee authorities pulled his license after they found Echols and his medical partner were telling HIV-positive patients that they had a cure for AIDS. Today, Echols believes he and partner Dr. Therial L. Bynum, did possess a three-pronged cure that would "flush" the virus from the body.
Echols says he still believes online pharmacies are valuable. "It was a very brilliant system," he says. "It may work overseas in some countries that have a different philosophy."
After losing his license to practice medicine, Echols became a truck driver. He says the indictment cost him that job, too. Now he lives in Greensboro with his elderly father.
Meanwhile, Candy Kelly is continuing her wrongful death suit against Echols and the drug suppliers she says are culpable in the death of her grandson and daughter. She plans to fly from California to Florida in hopes that she will see a jury put the North Carolina doctor in prison. "These people are living their life like they always did," Kelly says. "And they belong in jail."