Prescription for disaster: Methadone, misery and one man’s mission

Methadone killed at least 151 people in Georgia outside of metro Atlanta in 2010. David Currie’s son was one of them.

lfabian@macon.comFebruary 5, 2012 

  • Opioid treatment clinics in the South

    Georgia - 54
    North Carolina - 46
    Florida - 42
    Virginia - 21
    Alabama - 20
    South Carolina - 15
    Tennessee - 12
    Kentucky - 11
    Louisiana - 8
    Mississippi - 1
    Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The ring on David Currie’s right hand helps him feel connected to his late son.

“I probably touch that thing a million times a day,” Currie said recently.

He regularly sweeps his finger across the ridges that form Drew Currie’s fingerprint.

Before Drew’s burial, a print was saved to be etched in white gold on his father’s band and in a necklace for his mother. Kay Currie’s fingerprint joins her son’s to form a heart.

The Laurens County couple lost their only child at age 24 to a lethal dose of methadone on May 1, 2010.

More than a year and a half later, Drew’s death still haunts them. He never should have died. The tale of what happened takes numerous twists and turns, compounding the Curries’ grief and provoking their outrage. It’s a story of repeated misdiagnosis of Drew’s medical condition and a methadone clinic allowed to operate despite multiple violations.

“I just never dreamed there was no bottom to it,” said David Currie, who has spent the better part of two years investigating what happened to his son. “The deeper you dig, the murkier it gets -- drug diversion, cover-up, corruption.”

Drew Currie’s parents say their son died at the hands of a drug dealer.

David Currie realizes those who didn’t know his son might suspect he was looking to get high from the methadone.

But those who love him say they realize Drew wasn’t in his right mind. They think he tried one dose of methadone to try to stop the excruciating pain in his head.

After Drew died, his father pieced together text messages and phone records and quickly learned where his son got the drug. Then David Currie set out to find the evidence to prove it.

The marriage and family therapist launched an extensive probe of a Garden City opioid treatment program outside Savannah that dispenses methadone, and one of its patients who had been contacting Drew. The elder Currie filed open records requests, combed through hundreds of documents, hired a private investigator and even wore a hidden camera to record interviews.

He uncovered disturbing correspondence between state regulators unsure of how to proceed after serious violations were reported at the clinic.

Currie also sought guidance from his friend, Maj. Keith Golden of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office.

“David is the best private investigator I’ve ever seen. His work is just phenomenal,” said Golden, a retired GBI agent. “It’s awful stuff he’s uncovered. It’s just shocking.”

Dead-wrong diagnosis

In May 2009, Drew began suffering terrible headaches after an airplane flight to New York City.

On Jan. 2, 2010, after another airplane trip, he was driving and suddenly couldn’t see. He pulled to the side of Abercorn Street in Savannah, got out of the car and collapsed. His blood pressure in the ambulance was 209/147.

Drew saw nearly a dozen doctors, his father said. He had a CAT scan, an MRI and an MRA, which scans blood vessels.

The diagnoses ranged from a brain tumor to a sinus infection, from thickening of the skull, to migraines, to a low pain tolerance.

David Currie said the doctors agreed on just one thing: Drew should be taking 325 milligrams of aspirin a day.

The autopsy revealed what was really going on inside Drew’s head.

He was suffering from subarachnoid hemorrhages, a type of brain bleed.

The aspirin was likely only making the undiagnosed bleeding worse.

In hindsight, Drew’s mother can now see the subtle differences in her son as she looks at photographs.

“I just saw the bright face, lit up, beginning to change in his photos because he was becoming a very sick man,” Kay Currie said.

David Currie has no doubt the changes in his son’s brain altered his mood and his thinking when he succumbed to repeated offers to buy drugs.

“What Drew was going through medically gave this person the opportunity to take advantage of his brain impairment,” Currie said.

Through cell phone records, David Currie said he has documentation that identifies Nicholas Anthony Hall, a patient at the Georgia Therapy Associates clinic in Garden City, as someone who contacted Drew and tried to sell him drugs at least 16 times.

Currie sewed a miniature camera into his shirt button, and he and his wife talked to Hall face-to-face and recorded the conversation.

The petite Kay Currie forcefully questioned Hall, who admitted to arranging for her son’s methadone, they said.

“Here Drew’s gone and it’s a mom thing,” she said of her tenacity. “I’m still trying to protect him and stick up for him and tell the world what a fine young man he was.”

Hall, a childhood friend of a cousin of the Curries, had recently become angry when Drew became a confidant of Hall’s girlfriend, Drew’s father said.

“He preyed upon my son like an animal,” Currie said of Hall, the only man charged in the case.

From son to statistic

The year Drew Currie died, 150 other people died in Georgia after taking methadone, according to 2010 figures compiled by the GBI. That total doesn’t include methadone deaths from Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Henry, Hall or Rockdale counties which employ their own medical examiners.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said even if death statistics from those counties were added, it still wouldn’t provide an accurate picture. Under current reporting methods, it is impossible to know exactly how many methadone deaths there were and in how many deaths the drug was a contributing factor.

“A lot of them don’t keep up with that,” Bankhead said, because there is no standardized reporting.

A bill before Congress indicates there is no comprehensive database of drug-related deaths in the United States. Each state also has different guidelines for overseeing clinics.

Two-thirds of known methadone deaths involve the use of multiple drugs, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Clinic patients who continue to abuse drugs or take other prescribed medications while taking methadone could be ingesting a lethal cocktail.

Drew Currie wasn’t taking other drugs. An analysis of his blood following an autopsy showed 0.30 milligrams of methadone per liter and some of the drug’s by-product in his system. Tests for other narcotics were negative. He wasn’t a patient at a clinic and didn’t have a methadone prescription.

His parents now realize how much their child was suffering and yet somehow managed to stay focused on his job.

Drew was living in Savannah and working as a regional director for a home nurse staffing service covering 37 counties. He worked his way through college, placing health professionals in homes to care for the elderly. He planned to go to law school and specialize in elder law.

“He had a tremendous passion for old people, the developmentally disabled and children,” his father said.

Reminders of his son are everywhere on the tract of Laurens County land that has been in the Currie family since the late 1800s.

There’s the fence the father and son built together years ago.

In the corral, Drew worked out his adolescent anxieties on the back of a horse and at age 14 became the youngest horse specialist certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

He inspired his father to open a therapeutic equine program. Troubled souls and others looking for comfort are still soothed there by the horses, dogs and cats Drew loved and, in some cases, rescued. Two of his favorite horses have since followed him in death -- Stardust and Ginger, plus his beloved Dalmation, Heidi.

His parents say he had a knack for naming his pets. His mom can picture them all together again.

The last time David Currie saw his son, they dedicated on Feb. 16, 2010, the new arena and family life center his son designed on their property.

Currie now refers to the covered horse ring as the Andrew Glenn Currie Memorial Arena. It’s where his father spends hours on end researching what happened to his son and pushing for tougher regulations to make sure no other family suffers what the Curries are going through.

Warning signs

More than two months before Drew Currie died, a former clinic worker alerted the federal Drug Enforcement Administration about serious violations at Georgia Therapy Associates just outside of Savannah.

Although an inspection report from the Georgia Department of Human Resources, Office of Regulatory Services showed no deficiencies in November 2010, a DEA audit showed otherwise.

Cassandra Price, executive director of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the state’s responsibility lies with making sure clinics comply with regulations set by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to receive federal funding.

The DEA oversees the dispensing of medication, diversion issues and legal matters, Price said.

In the federal probe, investigators learned patients routinely failed drug screenings but were still given take-home doses of methadone.

Staff members were not making follow-up calls to make sure the patients weren’t diverting methadone to others, and 9,000 milligrams of the drug was not accounted for, the investigation concluded.

A Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities investigative report summarized the allegations the DEA uncovered against Georgia Therapy Associates. The report states the former employee reported to the DEA in February 2010 that Nicholas Hall routinely had dirty urine screens but was given take-home medicine he allegedly sold.

The ex-staff member reported clients selling methadone in the clinic parking lot.

In follow-up investigations, the clinic’s record-keeping came into question as staff actually reported they had a surplus of medication, not a shortage.

In January 2011, David Currie gave the DEA what he believes is evidence of methadone diversion at the clinic.

He had enlisted the help of an undercover photographer who captured images in the clinic parking lot that he said show clients putting their medication into the trunk of one car. In another snapshot, a small child is carrying what appears to be a take-home box of the drug.

After Currie’s tip last year, another review from the Georgia Office of Regulatory Services showed clinic staff only made one follow-up call in all of 2010 to check on a patient with a take-home dose of methadone.

The center’s accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities expired in March 2011, and a survey in August determined Georgia Therapy Associates was not complying with regulations governing narcotics treatment programs, according to August 2011 inspection results from DHR’s Office of Regulatory Services.

E-mails Currie acquired through open records requests show state regulators volleying questions last spring over how to proceed: “Is there a protocol to follow when a provider fails accreditation?” “We need to figure out what to do with this provider.”

And in response to allegations David Currie raised in November: “Lets (sic) take a look so we are all on the same page.”

The clinic remained open but was not allowed to take new patients.

Price said the state can’t shutter a clinic program but can only recommend the cancellation of the contract that reimburses clinics for patients who can’t afford to pay for services.

But Georgia law governing narcotics treatment programs states the Department of Human Resources can take “emergency actions against any program when it determines that the public health, safety, or welfare requires such action.”

Clarification is needed, Price said, and she thinks a memorandum of understanding should be developed among the federal and state agencies overseeing methadone distribution.

“This issue has pointed out it’s muddy about who does what,” she said. “I think it would be great for us to have a clear understanding for us and the public so people know what the procedure is.”

Georgia Therapy Associate’s administrators submitted a corrective action plan last April and dropped out of the state program that had provided them with referrals.

David Currie has scoured every report and continually looks for inspection summaries online.

The violations he’s discovered makes him wonder: “What do you have to do in the state of Georgia to be shut down as a methadone clinic?”

Possible prosecution

As David Currie plans legal action against those he holds responsible for his son’s death, criminal investigations remain open.

The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department was called when Drew Currie was found dead at a friend’s house.

Police confiscated Drew’s cell phone and kept it for five days.

Six months later, violent crimes detective Kelvin Frazier asked David Currie to return his son’s cell phone.

Knowing how important the phone was to his own investigation, Currie backed up the data on an identical phone and sent it back to the police along with his son’s GPS device. Currie put the original phone away to protect the evidence.

Currie repeatedly begged to have the GBI extract messages and call records, but Frazier insisted his department could handle it with new equipment they ordered, Currie said.

After Frazier was promoted, a new detective took the case and told Currie he was having difficulty locating a message from Nicholas Hall offering methadone to Drew the week before he died.

Also missing from the police printout was a call that Currie’s phone records show came in near the time of death from Hall’s girlfriend.

In June, Frazier resigned from the force before pleading guilty the next month for his role in extorting drugs and other items from a drug informant at a Savannah nightclub.

Last month when Frazier was sentenced to nine months in federal prison, the Savannah Morning News reported First Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durham told the judge, “Mr. Frazier did some incredibly bad things in a badge. ... If this had been just one isolated instance, it would be different. But it is not an isolated instance.”

Currie has not been able to prove Frazier did anything wrong in his son’s case.

Julian Miller, the pubic affairs director of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, said he is unaware of any internal investigation into concerns David Currie raised about Frazier.

Miller said his department was only looking into the younger Currie’s death.

Investigation of the sale of the methadone that killed Drew Currie falls to the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team, he said.

In October 2010, Hall was cited by Pooler police after he was caught with muscle relaxers during a traffic stop.

Later that same month, a warrant was signed for Hall’s arrest for unlawful distribution of controlled substances and party to a crime of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance.

The warrant states methadone was unlawfully distributed to Andrew Currie.

Hall was arranged on the charges in November 2010, but he has not been indicted.

In a conversation with the Curries, Hall pointed to another man, who Hall says actually handed over the methadone to Drew Currie.

That man has since moved out of state, David Currie said.

Hall referred The Telegraph’s inquiry about his involvement to his attorney but did say: “Drew was a really good friend of mine. We were just being a bunch of stupid kids.”

Hall’s lawyer, Brian Daly, said it was not unusual for a case to drag on without an indictment in that judicial circuit.

Daly declined to comment further.

The Chatham County District Attorney’s Office would only say that the case is still active.

“By law, we are not allowed to comment on an active or pending prosecutions,” said Alicia Johnson, the public information officer for the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office.

Possible solutions

David Currie wants Hall prosecuted for felony murder.

A felony murder charge could be levied in a death that occurs in the commission of a felony, such as a drug deal, but legal experts say it’s rare in overdoses.

Involuntary manslaughter could also be applied, as was the case for Michael Jackson’s physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, who was found guilty in November.

In the meantime, Currie is pursuing a lawsuit against several parties involved in the case as he fights to bring attention to the clinic oversight problems he’s uncovered.

“I’m at a place were I really don’t have anything else to lose,” he said. “My father’s lineage has come to an end.”

He has met with the FBI and has contacted all the agencies involved in investigating the clinic and Hall.

In January, he visited state Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, at the state Capitol to discuss his findings.

Currie shared an hourlong video he narrated and produced with the help of friends with Dublin’s television station.

Pending legislation in Congress would tighten oversight of the drug and its distribution.

“Current Federal oversight of methadone and other opioids is inadequate to address the growing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths,” the bill states.

It points out that people dispensing methadone and other controlled substances must register with the DEA but are not currently required to receive any education about the drugs or their hazards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics states initial dosing of methadone is particularly difficult and many doctors are not familiar enough with how it differs from other painkillers.

The bill under consideration would establish a controlled substances clinical standards commission to determine safe guidelines for methadone doses and set guidelines to reduce abuse.

Under the proposed law, patients would be screened for conditions that could cause adverse reactions. And if a state receives federal funding for controlled substance monitoring programs, it must report opioid deaths.

Georgia now has 54 clinics, more than any other state in the South.

A new clinic treating opiate dependency in the Curries’ hometown of Dublin recently advertised: “Call for weekly specials.”

David Currie thinks Georgia is becoming a hub of pill mills.

“Our state has a huge responsibility,” he said. “And tragically, it looks as though there were a lot of places where we could have done better.”

Price, of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said she empathizes with the Curries.

“I really hate that this happened,” she said. “Anytime anyone dies and it could have been prevented it’s a tragedy, but I think we did everything in our purview.”

As Drew’s memory faded in his final months, his mother offered to keep up with things for him.

Now, all Kay Currie has are memories of her son.

She remembers how he touched his teachers, friends and patients.

One elderly woman, who was too weak to speak, would call just to hear his voice, Kay Currie said. Drew would carry on one-sided conversations to ease the lady’s loneliness.

Anytime his parents told Drew they loved him, he would respond, “I love you more.”

They plan to establish a foundation in his memory to help crime victims and other families who have lost loved ones to methadone.

They find some solace that even in death, Drew could be helping others.

“Drew was an advocate,” his mother said. “He was always for the underdog.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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