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Federal Prosecutors Weren’t Consulted On Kansas City Pharmacist Robert Courtney’s Early Release

Chris Murphy
Former pharmacist Robert Courtney pleaded guilty in 2002 in the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City after admitted he adulterated cancer medications.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri received news of Robert Courtney’s early release from KCUR’s story on Monday.

The decision to release notorious Kansas City pharmacist Robert Courtney from prison seven years before his sentence was set to expire was made without consulting the federal prosecutors who put him there.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri said it was not even informed that Courtney was slated to be released from the federal correctional center in Englewood, Colorado.

“I can confirm that our office was not involved or notified of Courtney’s release,” Don Ledford, a spokesman for the office, said in an email.

In fact, Ledford said, the only news the office had received of Courtney’s release came from KCUR’s story about it on Monday.

“This was a Bureau of Prisons administrative decision,” he said.

Gene Porter, the now-retired assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Courtney, decried the decision to release Courtney, saying it was “unfortunate and misguided.”

“Robert Courtney should not have been released early and should have served the full 30-year sentence justly imposed by the district court,” Porter told KCUR in an email.

Courtney pleaded guilty in 2002 to adulterating cancer and other drugs over a 10-year period. The FBI said that his scheme, designed to boost his profits, involved as many as 4,200 patients and 98,000 prescriptions.

Lori Reyes, left, sheds a tear as she talks about her mother's death, outside the United States courthouse in Kansas City, Mo. Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002, while her nephew David Kobe, right, looks on. Reyes was at the courthouse to witness the plea agreement entered into by pharmicist Robert R. Courtney resulting in Courtney pleading guilty to 20 felony charges related to dispensing of diluted chemotherapy drugs. Reyes' mother, Martha Durkin, died of cancer after recieving chemotherapy drugs from Courtney's pharmacy.

His imminent release was disclosed in a letter last week to individuals who had requested the Bureau of Prisons notify them of any changes in Courtney’s circumstances.

The letter, signed by a unit manager at the Englewood prison, said that Courtney would be released to a halfway house this week and then to home confinement in Trimble, Missouri.

The letter said the move was authorized by Attorney General William Barr, who, “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to place inmates at minimal risk of recidivism in home confinement.

Asked to explain why Courtney was a candidate for release, a Justice Department spokesman said that the Bureau of Prisons has discretion under memos issued by Barr in March and April “regarding which home confinement cases are appropriate for review in order to fight the spread of the pandemic.”

“The BOP has been proceeding expeditiously in its review consistent with that confirmation,” the spokesperson, Emery Nelson, said in an email to KCUR.

Nelson added that the department has a victim/witness notification program “designed to provide timely information to victims of federal crime with regard to significant events that may occur throughout the criminal justice process including release.”

But more than a dozen enraged relatives of Courtney’s victims told KCUR that they had not been told of the decision to release Courtney and learned of it only from KCUR’s account.

“We are now suffering all over again and the pain will not get easier since now we know he is getting out,” the granddaughter of one of Courtney’s victims wrote in an email.

Last year, the 67-year-old Courtney sought a reduction in his sentence under the federal First Step Act of 2018, which allows for early release from prison based on “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

In April, the federal judge who sentenced him in December 2002, Ortrie Smith, denied the request, saying Courtney had not exhausted his administrative remedies.

And earlier this year, Courtney filed a motion for “compassionate release” on the grounds he suffers from numerous health conditions, including cancer, a stroke and three heart attacks.

That motion was pending when the Bureau of Prisons sent its letter saying it was releasing Courtney because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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