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January 31, 2006 - Press Of Atlantic City (NJ)

Ex-Hammonton Man Takes Drug Arrest Story To '60 Minutes'

By Meggan Clark, Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A former Hammonton man serving a 25-year sentence in Florida for possessing prescription narcotics has taken his case to CBS's "60 Minutes." Richard Paey, 47, was convicted last year of drug trafficking for possessing a large quantity of prescription narcotics. He says he needed the medicine to alleviate the excruciating pain caused by a car crash and subsequent botched back surgery.

But Florida officials say he was buying too much of the drug for personal use. In an interview Monday, Paey's wife, Linda, said three months of police surveillance revealed no evidence that Paey was selling drugs, but police were able to charge him with drug trafficking anyway, under Florida laws that don't require evidence of actual sale.

"We just couldn't believe that this could happen," Linda Paey said from her Florida optometrist's office. "It's so mind-boggling." Her husband's story was detailed Sunday on "60 Minutes." Paey's troubles began in 1985, when a car crash during his last year of law school left his body and future shattered. The crash, and an operation that to put metal screws in his spine, left him using a wheel chair and in excruciating pain. Paey finished law school but didn't take the bar exam, his wife said. He focused on the battle with pain that came to rule his life.

When the Paeys moved to Florida in 1994 because Richard's father was dying of cancer there, Linda Paey said her husband found it increasingly difficult to get the medicine he needed. Doctors feared being charged with a crime if they prescribed enough to alleviate his suffering, she said.

A Hammonton doctor, Stephen Nurkiewicz, agreed to send Paey prescriptions for Percoset, 60 Minutes reported. Some of them, the TV show said, were undated so Paey could fill them as needed. Linda Paey said Nurkiewicz and her husband were friends and trusted each other. What the couple didn't know was that the pharmacies where Paey's prescriptions were filled were keeping tabs on him. They reported him to local and federal investigators. After three months of surveillance, authorities raided the Paey home and arrested Richard -- despite the fact that surveillance had yielded no evidence that he was selling drugs, Linda Paey said.

"They assumed that ... he was taking too many medicines for one person to take," Linda Paey said. "They thought that he had to be selling." Investigators, she said, told Nurkiewicz that Paey was selling his medication to get Nurkiewicz to cooperate with the investigation. She said she believes Nurkiewicz was frightened of losing his license. He cooperated, she said, and testified against her husband.

Nurkiewicz did not return a telephone call to his office seeking comment Monday. According to state regulators, he holds a valid medical license and has never been cited for any violations.

Paey was arrested in 1997. Linda Paey said it took three trials and seven years to convict her husband of drug trafficking. The first trial ended in a mistrial; the second resulted in a conviction that was thrown out on a legal technicality, and a third produced guilty verdicts on 15 charges of drug trafficking, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud, and possession of a controlled substance. Paey was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison in 2004. He is appealing his conviction.

"You don't go all the way to this point without totally losing faith in the system, and I've lost all faith in the system," Linda Paey said. Today, Richard Paey gets intravenous morphine to control his pain and lives behind barbed wire at Tomoka Hills maximum security prison just outside of Daytona Beach.

Nora Callahan, the executive director of the November Coalition, said Paey's case highlights how the war on drugs in Florida puts many people who live with chronic pain at risk. The November Coalition is a nonprofit grassroots organization, founded in 1997 to combat "destructive, unnecessary incarceration due to the U.S. drug war."

"The drug war has gotten so fierce that doctors are afraid (to prescribe properly) and then they drive patients to do crazy things," she said. "How do we, as taxpayers and citizens, justify police around things that should be a public health issue, not a criminal issue?"

She said the November Coalition has gotten numerous e-mails from people who saw the "60 Minutes" episode and fear that they, too, will end up behind bars.

The November Coalition is pushing to revamp drug laws that call for mandatory minimum sentences, saying there's a double standard for people such as Paey and people such as Rush Limbaugh and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's daughter Noelle, whose addictions to prescription drugs have been highly publicized but have not earned them lengthy prison terms.

Paey's brother Jim, who lives in Nazareth, Pa., said his brother rejected plea agreement offers because he believed he could win at trial -- and because he didn't want his family to live with the stigma of a drug trafficking conviction. Also, Jim Paey said, his brother feared that a conviction would make it harder to get the medication he needed. "He was just trying to collect the pills to survive, to live," Jim Paey said. "He's a very depressed man right now -- very depressed, very angry."

A spokesman for the Florida governor said Bush can't pardon Paey until he's served one-third of his sentence. He said the governor does not plan to alter the state's tough drug laws or reduce mandatory minimum sentences. "If a person who was convicted feels that they were wrongly convicted of a crime, there is an appellate process," spokesman Russell Schweiss said.

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