Buncombe County police take down an opioid trafficking ring in nursing homes

FILE: An ambulance paramedic prepares to administer Narcan, Picture taken August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

ASHEVILLE — Nineteen health care workers have been charged in Buncombe County with a total of 61 felonies, including trafficking $72,000 in opium or heroin.

The arrests come after a six-month anti-opioid abuse project called Operation Bad Medicine. The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office along with the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force worked to target health care workers who they allege were illegally diverting opioid prescription pain medication from area health care, nursing and assisted living facilities throughout the county.


Police allege that those charged were trafficking illegally obtained opioid prescription medication in amounts too large for one individual to consume and in too short of a time. Investigators say it indicates that the traffickers were illegally selling the opioids.

In total, police records show that 13,151 dosage units of opioids, 383 dosage units of amphetamines, and 120 dosage units of benzodiazepines with a street value of nearly $72,000 were allegedly illegally obtained by the defendants.

Those charged include: Payal A. Patel, Samantha Gail Hannah, Matthew Allen Adair, Benjamin Russell Seagle, Tara McDonald Watkins, Kara Kimberly Glenn, Irvin Vance Keys Jr., Walter Fleming Wade IV, Kelly Shane Whitson, Jennifer Denise Morgan, Majorie Katherine Aultman, Dustin Andrew Walden, Candy Ray Walden, William Joseph Brooks, Zhanna Nickolaevna Balvk, Elva Denise Silvers, Brandon Alexander Freeman, Holly Mae Pruitt and Harold Grant Utz.

The charges of trafficking in opium or heroin are in three levels, depending on how much of the drugs was found. Minimum mandatory sentences range from 70 months for between four and 14 grams, to level three felony, which is 225 months in prison for more than 28 grams. Additional fines ranging from $50,000 to $500,000.

Last month N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced that he is seeking documents from manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids as part of an investigation into whether manufacturers and distributors are using illegal practices in their marketing and distribution of prescription opioids.

Stein said the Department of Justice is investigating opioid manufacturers Endo, Janssen, Teva/Cephalon, Allergan and Purdue Pharma. They have also requested documents from opioid distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

In N.C. drug overdoses are the No. 1 cause of accidental death, topping car accidents for the first time. The N.C. Department of Justice estimates that nearly four people die each day from accidental drug overdose in N.C.