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Rowland Heights doctor faces murder charges for prescription drugs

March 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A Rowland Heights doctor is facing murder charges after three of her patients died from prescription drug overdoses.

Dr. Lisa Tseng allegedly gave prescriptions for drugs like Xanax, Oxycontin, Vicodin and Adderall at a rate of 25 per day over a three-year period with minimal questions and only cursory patient examinations.

Tseng was scheduled to be arraigned Friday but the arraignment was postponed until March 9.

Los Angeles County prosecutors say Tseng, who they've dubbed "Dr. Feelgood," has done more than overprescribe drugs. They say she's guilty of murder, responsible for the deaths of three otherwise healthy men in their 20s.

"When she's prescribing 90 or 100 pills of Opana or Xanax or Valium or Oxycontin to one young adult at a time, she absolutely has no regard for human life. None. She should get the death penalty," said Sylvia Melkonian, whose son died of a prescription drug overdose.

The 42-year-old doctor ran a clinic in Rowland Heights with her husband, who is also a doctor. She came under scrutiny by the California Medical Board and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 after a pharmacy reported problems with her prescriptions. Tseng wrote more than 27,000 prescriptions over three years starting in January 2007.

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley claims she did it all for the money.

"There were deaths directly as a result of her prescribing medication that was probably not needed at all, to feed someone's habit," said Cooley. "Her incredible greed, her prolific dispensing of literally thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dangerous drugs."

Tseng was arrested on Thursday following a long investigation involving DEA agents posing as patients. For the victim's families, her arrest did not come soon enough.

"I was up absolutely in tears today that she's finally arrested and finally going to be charged with murder because she is a murderer. She's killed a lot of kids and she's destroyed many, many families," said Melkonian.

Tseng was charged Thursday in the deaths of Vu Nguyen, 29, of Lake Forest, on March 2, 2009; Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert, on April 9, 2009; and Joseph Rovero III, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, on Dec. 18, 2009.

Parents of victims are hoping the case not only stops Tseng but also sends a powerful message to other doctors about the dangers to patients and the risks they face for over prescribing medication.

On top of the murder charges, Tseng also faces 21 other felony counts, including four involving undercover DEA agents, alleging she prescribed drugs using fraud and without a legitimate purpose.

The DEA suspended her license to write prescriptions in 2010 and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California said Tseng voluntarily surrendered her medical license. Her husband continues to run their clinic.

She was being held on $3 million bail and could a face state prison term of 45 years to life.

Tseng was a focus of an Eyewitness News investigation last February. A request for an interview was denied at the time, but her attorney released this statement: "Dr. Tseng cares deeply about all her patients and looks forward to her opportunity to vindicate herself in court."

In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, however, Tseng spoke up and said she was "really strict" with her patients and followed legal guidelines.

"If my patient decides to take a month's supply in a day, then there's nothing I can do about that," she said.

Tseng's statements were consistent with the most common defense on the rare occasions that doctors are charged with murder for prescriptions.

Ellyn Garafalo, an attorney who has defended doctors in overprescribing cases, said "a doctor can't control what a patient does with the drugs. A doctor can't be a policeman. The doctor has some deniability."

Garafalo noted that prosecutors charged Michael Jackson's doctor with involuntary manslaughter instead of murder in the pop star's death from a drug overdose.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.