By Tony Leys, Des Moines Register
Des Moines physician Daniel Baldi was charged Wednesday with eight counts of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly prescribing large amounts of narcotic painkillers to patients who later died of overdoses.
One of the eight patients was identified in court papers as Paul Gray, an internationally known musician who helped found the band Slipknot. Gray was found dead of a drug overdose at an Urbandale hotel in May 2010.
Baldi's lawyer, Guy Cook, said no such charges had ever been filed against an Iowa physician in such circumstances. "It is unprecedented to turn unfortunate deaths or medical results into a crime against a doctor," Cook said. If convicted of all the aggravated misdemeanor counts, Baldi, 50, could face up to 16 years in prison. Cook said he would battle to prevent a conviction.
National experts said serious criminal charges are very unusual in such cases.
Deana McGillen of Des Moines, whose daughter, Brandy Stoutenberg, was one of the patients who died, said the criminal charges against Baldi were justified. "I hope he does jail time," she said. "I hope he does a lot of time."
The case comes amid increasing national concern about abuse of narcotic painkillers and other prescription drugs.
Baldi helped run an Iowa Health System pain clinic near Iowa Lutheran Hospital, which the company closed without explanation in June. The doctor has faced four medical malpractice lawsuits, including three wrongful death suits. The three deaths in those lawsuits, including Stoutenberg's, were among the eight cited in the criminal charges unveiled Wednesday. Baldi also faces administrative charges from the Iowa Board of Medicine, which could lead to suspension of his medical license.
Gray, whose Des Moines-based metal band is known around the world, was found dead after he struggled for years with addiction issues. The charging documents released Wednesday said Baldi "did unintentionally cause the death of Paul Gray by the commission of an act likely to cause death or serious injury, to-wit, continually wrote high-dose prescription narcotics to a known drug addict from 12/27/2005 until his death."
Judge enters plea for Baldi of not guilty
At Wednesday's criminal court proceedings, Judge Odell McGhee entered a not-guilty plea on Baldi's behalf. After the 10-minute hearing, the doctor was handcuffed and led away by a Polk County sheriff's deputy as Baldi's wife, Deb, wiped away tears. Baldi was released later Wednesday after posting $16,000 bail.
Iowa Health officials have said they suspended Baldi from his job earlier this year. They said recently that they no longer would comment about him. The clinic served about 1,800 chronic-pain patients, many of whom have struggled to find new doctors willing to take on their complicated cases.
Cook, the defense lawyer, said five of the charges involved patients who were acknowledged drug addicts. He said the doctor saw two of them just once each.
"Unexpected deaths can occur in severe, chronic pain patients, unrelated to medical treatment," Cook said. "This is especially true with patients who are drug addicts or drug abusers."
Six of the seven other patients were identified in court papers. They were listed as Chad Martin, who died Sept. 16, 2011; Frederick Pritchard, who died May 29, 2011; Carla Davis, who died on Feb. 25, 2011; Jason Spong, who died Sept. 16, 2010; Stoutenberg, who died Sept. 11, 2010; and Jeff Lilly, who died Aug. 21, 2009. Their ages and hometowns were not listed.
The eighth patient isn't named in the new court papers, but the description of the case fits the death of Kathleen Cronkwright, 63, of Forest City, who died in October 2010. In a lawsuit, her family accused Baldi of accidentally prescribing a massive overdose of narcotics, which were delivered into her body by an automatic medication pump.
Baldi recently reached an undisclosed settlement with the Cronkwright family. The families of Stoutenberg and Pritchard filed wrongful-death lawsuits in the past week.
Relatives voice mixed views about Baldi
The mother of one of the patients who died said the doctor helped her son.
"It's possible Dr. Baldi may have been too free in what he handed out," said Mary Spoerl, whose son was Jason Spong, 31 of West Des Moines. "But I know Jason liked him and thought he was very compassionate. Jason had two crushed discs in his back and was trying to avoid a second surgery."
Thomas Slater, a Des Moines lawyer representing Pritchard's widow, Andrea, said criminal charges are appropriate. Slater said it's hard to imagine that the physician could have been unaware of the long struggle with drug addiction and psychological problems suffered by Fred Pritchard, 50, of Des Moines.
"It was just so beneath the standard of practice to prescribe hydrocodone, given his history," Slater said.
The documents describe Stoutenberg, 24, as a "patient/addict." Stoutenberg's mother doubts the description is correct.
Stoutenberg was a registered nurse who worked for Iowa Health System. Her mother said her daughter, who also was an aspiring model, knew Baldi from work. McGillen was skeptical of the defense lawyer's claim that Baldi treated Stoutenberg just once. McGillen said she accompanied her daughter to Baldi's office several times. Her daughter, who had been an energetic, outgoing young woman, lost weight, seemed sickly and complained of general pain in the months before her death, her mother said.
Drug overdose deaths are up sharply in Iowa
The criminal charges were brought by the Polk County Attorney's office.
Jaki Livingston, an assistant Polk County attorney prosecuting the case, said involuntary manslaughter charges generally involve an unintentional act that likely would cause a death. Charges of voluntary manslaughter, which are more serious, generally involve an intentional act, often done in a fit of rage, she said.
The state medical examiner's office said last year that drug overdose deaths had jumped by more than 12 times over a decade. The office has been seeing more than 100 deaths per year, including many involving prescription medications. Some of the deaths are suicides, but most are accidents, officials said.
The Iowa medical board filed administrative charges against 19 physicians from 2008 through 2011 for inappropriate prescribing of pain medication. Several of those doctors surrendered their licenses.
Copyright Register & Tribune, Co. (2012)