A Clayton County psychiatrist, who came to be known far and wide as “Dr. Death,” was charged Wednesday with killing at least three of his former patients who died of overdoses.
For years Dr. Narendra K. Nagareddy avoided repercussions from allegedly over-prescribing pain medications. Then in January he was arrested, charged with prescribing pain medicine to 29-year-old Audrey Austin, who died of an overdose.
Nagareddy was free on a $100,000 bond from that arrest when a Clayton County grand jury on Wednesday returned a 62-count indictment that said the doctor murdered not just Austin, but two other people — David Robinson, 49, and Cheryl Pennington 47.
Like Austin, Robinson and Pennington died of overdoses after allegedly going to Nagareddy for prescriptions for powerful, addictive pain medicines — hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, fentanyl and amphetamine salts.
Nagareddy is charged with 59 counts of writing prescriptions for drugs that are outside the normal professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose, or not signing or dating prescriptions on the date they were issued.
“Unequivocally, we will be ready to defend this matter,” said Steve Frey, Nagareddy’s attorney. “He is innocent of all of these charges.”
In addition to Austin, Robinson and Pennington, the indictment also names 42 other people to whom Nagareddy allegedly illegally prescribed pain medicine.
News of the indictment brought some relief to relatives of the three.
“I’m very glad to hear it. I’m very glad to hear he’s been having a couple of bad days in a row since they busted his office,” said Ruth Carr, Austin’s mother. “It’s a sweet feeling.”
Austin died Feb. 23, 2014, Pennington died Feb. 18, 2011 and Robinson died Jan. 25, 2015.
When Nagareddy was arrested in January, authorities said three dozen of his patients had died while he was prescribing them controlled substances. At the time, investigators said they confirmed through autopsy reports that at least 12 patients died of prescription drug overdoses.
Clayton District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said the indictment was an extension of the January arrest on the one charge. She said she did not know if charges would be brought in other jurisdictions.
Lawson said Nagareddy was arrested at about 1:30 p.m. at his McDonough home, where he had been on home confinement since January. This time he is being held without bond.
Nagareddy will be arraigned on July 7 and his trial is scheduled for Aug. 8, Lawson said.
Clayton authorities have already seized the building that housed Nagareddy’s practice. They’ve also seized a Mercedes Benz and some money. The Clayton DA’s office secured a lien against Nagareddy’s home.
Long before he was arrested, however, court records show law enforcement, pharmacists, other doctors, state regulators and addiction counselors knew Nagareddy was the go-to physician for prescription-drug addicts. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the mother of one patient had complained to authorities in 2012 that Nagareddy gave her daughter prescriptions she did not need.
Years of state and federal data, available to the public, raised red flags showing that Nagareddy was among the state Medicaid program’s top prescribers of one of the most abused prescription drugs.
The patients who squeezed into Nagareddy’s crowded Arrowhead Boulevard office were battling anxiety or depression, as well as addictions, according to AJC interviews with relatives and an affidavit filed by investigators in Clayton County court.
The psychiatrist was one of the few doctors in south metro Atlanta certified as a specialist by the American Board of Addiction Medicine. These specialists are trained on how to monitor patients for signs they are using their medications to get high.
His waiting room would be packed with dazed and bleary-eyed patients who would wait for hours to be seen.
“I’d see a lot of zombied-out people. You could tell a lot of them were junkies,” said Rebecca Gray after the January arrest. Her brother Ricky Thompson, 47, died in February 2015 of an overdose of oxycodone and alprazolam.
The Nagareddy case illustrates how pervasive prescription-drug-related deaths have become, one expert said.
Overdose fatalities now exceed the number of deaths in car crashes in Georgia and nationwide, said Jim Langford, executive director of the Georgia Prevention Project, an Atlanta-based organization that works to increase public awareness of the dangers of street and prescription drugs.
“Everybody from housewives to teenagers to college students, you name it, are taking these prescription opiates in excess of what a normal person would take for pain,” Langford said. “They’re using these pain killers to get high. These aren’t casual users. They keep taking higher and higher doses, sometimes they mix them with drugs like fentanyl, and they continue to use these powerful combinations and it becomes lethal.”
Langford said he was not surprised by the Nagareddy case. “I suspect other doctors like that, who are acting like conduits for people who are abusing these kinds of drugs.”