Authorities crack down on illegal backroom pharmacies

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Authorities shut down illegal pharmacies across Southern California and charged 17 people with unlawfully distributing drugs, they said Tuesday, including operators of a Tustin gift shop where a toddler received two injections before her death last year.

A grand jury indictment returned Tuesday targeted backroom pharmacies in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Pomona, El Monte and Tustin.

Nine of the 17 people charged have been arrested. All are accused of violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to determine which products are safe and effective as medicines.

All of the cases relate to drugs allegedly smuggled into the United States from Mexico. Backroom pharmacies thrive in Latin American immigrant communities where many can't afford professional care, lack health insurance or fear deportation if they go to a hospital.

''Those who prey upon immigrants by selling dangerous drugs disguised as medicine deserve to be prosecuted and punished,'' said U.S. Attorney Alejandro N. Mayorkas. ''Immigrants should be aware that these clinics offer a dangerous brew that may harm your health and the health of your family.''

The grand jury indictment includes allegations that four defendants conspired to smuggle medicine to be sold at the Los Hermanos store in Tustin.

Court documents allege that Laura Escalante, 38, of Tustin, conducted two ''examinations'' in February 1999 of 18-month-old Selene Seguros Rios in a backroom of the gift shop. According to authorities, the child was prescribed dipyrone, commonly called ''Mexican aspirin,'' and given an injection of it by a Los Hermanos employee.

The indictment alleges that Los Hermanos employee Monica Bernabe, 25, gave the child a second injection a few days later.

The toddler died soon after.

Dipyrone has been banned in the United States since the early 1970s and can lead to severe blood infections, said assistant U.S. attorney Joseph Johns, the case's lead prosecutor.

Bernabe was arrested Tuesday morning at her Santa Ana home.

Escalante, who allegedly passed herself off as a doctor, is a fugitive along with her husband, Joel Bernardo Escalante, 43, and her brother-in-law, Ramon Octavio Escalante, 53, of National City. The men were charged with smuggling drugs from Mexico.

Authorities said the Escalantes are part of the King family, accused of operating backroom pharmacies in Orange County.

Other members of the King family who have been indicted include Manuel Javier King, 72, of Tustin, the alleged patriarch, and two of his daughters, Rosa Alexandra King, 42, of Irvine, and Silvia King Fernandez, 45, of Tustin.

The elder King is charged in a four-count indictment with receiving smuggled and misbranded drugs, illegally dispensing drugs and possession of anabolic steroids.

Rosa Alexandra King is accused in a 12-count indictment of receiving smuggled drugs and selling them at the Santa Ana-based ''99 Cents y Mas'' and at ''Nashalie's. Authorities claim the parents of a 15-year-old paraplegic boy were sold a powerful antibiotic at Nashalie's and the boy suffered convulsions and died after being given the drug.

''Some of these drugs are not just dangerous, they're deadly drugs and they are literally being dispensed to children, to elderly patients and to people with compromised immune systems for ailments as simple as the common cold and the flu,'' Johns said. ''We find it to be just outrageous.''

Seven others were charged Friday with allegedly operating a separate black market ring in the San Fernando Valley. That case centered on Santa Elba Hernandez, 56, who allegedly worked with six relatives to operate backroom pharmacies in the Arleta, Sun Valley, North Hollywood and Van Nuys sections of Los Angeles.

In other cases announced Tuesday, Juventina Montano, 27, of Las Vegas, faces 11 counts related to smuggling medicine for stores competing with the Hernandez family.

The federal grand jury also charged Jesus Leos, 42, of El Monte, and his ex-wife, Veronica Ponce, 42, of Covina, with operating a black market pharmacy in El Monte and illegally selling penicillin and other drugs.


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