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Pill ring: Federal officials hard on opioid crimes

Becky Campbell • Aug 1, 2016 at 7:49 PM

A former Jonesborough pizza parlor owner was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison last week for his part in a prescription drug ring he apparently used to feed his own addiction.

Rocky Hendrix, 47, pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. He became embroiled in an opiate addiction after a back injury several years ago, according to information gleaned from documents filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville. Hendrix came upon a direct supply when he found Resolutions HealthCare and Weight Loss, a sliding scale health clinic started in January 2010 by Sherry Barnett.

Barnett, 46, started the clinic after obtaining her nurse practitioner license and after doing clinical work at the Johnson City Downtown Clinic, according to documents filed by her attorney, Dan Smith. Clinical practice was Barnett’s “true passion.” and she wanted to support the needs of uninsured patients, he said. The clinic did well, but after a time Barnett began to have marital problems and she had added stress from starting a doctorate of nurse practitioner program.

“It was at this point that Sherry became vulnerable,” Smith wrote in the sentencing memorandum he filed. And while Barnett rarely drank and never used illegal or illicit drugs, she came to a point that she used her first illicit prescription drug, and eventually began writing opioid prescriptions for others — including Hendix and one of his employees, Robert Stanton II.

“With all that was going on in her life, the moment that she used the drug she was euphoric and she felt that she could handle her crumbling marriage and the excessive amount of work and school she had planed on her own shoulders,” Smith wrote. “It began with a half pill a day, then two pills a day, then five and finally 20 to 30 pills a day after the death of her husband in July 2013.”

Barnett’s guard was down and the ugly face of addiction was staring right at her.

“She knew she was in trouble and she began to search for a way out,” even using Narcan, an opiate antidote, to help herself withdraw. She realized the clinic was an obstacle to her recovery, but it was the only way she had to support her children, and “threats from her fellow addicts and friends and their pleas of being dope sick was a significant barrier to her taking more decisive action,” Smith said.

But when the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation came knocking on Aug. 19, 2014, Barnett apparently took the opportunity to “escape the pressure of her fellow dope addicts and seek recovery,” Smith said. She closed the clinic that very day and ended up hospitalized two days after passing out due to hypertension. She remained in the hospital for two weeks, which allowed the opiates to leave her system.

“The two weeks away from the drugs gave her the first clarity from her addicted state and she knew that she needed help,” Smith said. Barnett reached out to TnPAP,  the Tennessee Professional Assistance Program, that assists impaired healthcare professionals rehabilitate from addiction and facilitate their safe return to practice.

After three months of sobriety, Barnett obtained employment at an area hospital as a nurse practitioner, but lost that job in May 2015 when the state Board of Nursing put her license on probation for two years. Through friends who “knew her non-addicts self,” Barnett was able to get a job at another area hospital as an RN. She also began volunteering to help others in their recovery from addiction.

At the one-year mark of her sobriety, Barnett learned she’d been indicted in federal court on the drug distribution charges. Again, she lost her job but eventually found work as a case manager in a recovery clinic. Her nursing and nurse practitioner licenses expired. She has remained under supervision in the TnPAP and completed numerous educational requirements, a psychiatric evaluation, continued to attend two 12-step meetings each week and is subject to random drug tests. 

As of May 31 — the date of Smith’s filing the sentencing memorandum document — Barnett had 19 clean drug tests from TnPAP and four clean drug tests from U.S. Probation.

“Most of these actions were initiated by and completed long before Sherry was indicted. After her indictment, she has continued her recovery,” Smith said.

But during Barnett’s struggle with her addiction, she aided others in theirs as well, including Hendrix.

Through the words of friends and relatives, by means of 11 letters of support filed in federal court on Hendrix’s behalf, the story of his addiction reads like so many others.

Hendrix’s introduction to opioids apparently occurred after injuring his back in a water-skiing accident, for which he was legally prescribed painkillers to aid in his recovery. He, like millions of other Americans who obtained that first prescription through innocent means, became addicted to the drugs and could not function without them.

A single father of two girls, Hendrix has been a fixture in the community since opening his first restaurant, Rocky’s Pizza, in Jonesborough, in 1996. Since then, two more stores opened. Hendrix was always involved in community events and donated to various organizations, churches and schools in the areas his restaurants served. His family maintains the restaurants now and continues the things he started.

Hendrix’s arrest in the opioid conspiracy was his first brush with law enforcement, but it proved to be a hard one.

In the U.S. Attorney’s filing regarding Hendrix’ sentencing, it stated “a sufficiently punitive sentence is necessary to promote respect for the law. Hendrix’s behavior in the instant case demonstrates a lack of respect for the law. His crimes were not limited to obtaining a few unlawful prescriptions over a short period of time; rather, he obtained hundreds of them over approximately three years.”

Prosecutors had sought a 9- to 11-year sentence for Hendrix. U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer opted for 78 months, or 6 1/2 years. He must compete 500 hours of substance abuse treatment while in prison.

In April, Stanton was sentenced to six years, which will be followed by three years of supervision. He must compete 500 hours of substance abuse treatment while in prison, and the court recommended Stanton receive credit for his participation in that program.

Barnett’s sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 28. Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 70 to 87 months.

 

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