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Kansas City Ex-Pharmacist Robert Courtney Will Remain In Prison, Senator Hawley Says

071620_demory_webedit.png_buycks family
Buycks family
Demory Buycks, a mother of seven and grandmother of 15, died of ovarian cancer in 2002 after receiving diluted cancer drugs mixed by Courtney.

The decision to keep Courtney in prison would mark a reversal by the Bureau of Prisons to release Courtney to a halfway house today and then to home confinement in Trimble, Missouri.

Updated: July 16, 2020 at 4:52 PM CDT
This story was updated to include comments from U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.

Robert Courtney, the former Kansas City pharmacist whose dilution of cancer medications led to the premature deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of patients, will not be released from prison early, according to U. S. Senator Josh Hawley.

Hawley, a Missouri Republican, posted the news on Twitter today, saying the Justice Department had informed him this morning that Courtney would remain incarcerated. Hawley could not immediately be reached for comment.

The decision to keep Courtney in prison would mark a reversal by the Bureau of Prisons to release him to a halfway house today and then to home confinement in Trimble, Missouri, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. KCUR first reported the news on Monday, sparking an outpouring of anger by families of patients victimized by Courtney’s scheme of diluting drugs for profit.

A spokeswoman for the minimum security prison in Englewood, Colorado, where Courtney was serving his sentence, said that he was still in custody as of early Thursday afternoon. She declined to say whether prison authorities had reversed their decision to release him.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Democrat, said in a news release Thursday that he was told by prison and Justice Department officials that Courtney's release was still under review.

“Robert Courtney is a man who took advantage of public trust to commit abhorrent crimes that led to pain and suffering of hundreds, if not thousands, of Kansas Citians,” Cleaver said. “There are those in prison who have committed victimless crimes and are at high-risk of COVID-19 complications that, understandably, should be released for home confinement. However, Mr. Courtney is not one of these individuals. His crimes should disqualify him from early release, and I’m hopeful as the Justice Department undergoes further review of this case they will come to the same conclusion.”

Courtney was sentenced to 30 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in 2002 to various crimes associated with his drug dilution scheme.

A petition on Change.org to pressure prison authorities to reverse their decision had drawn more than 5,800 signatures by early Thursday afternoon. The petition was started by Kansas City resident Dianah Buycks, the granddaughter of Demory Buycks, who died of ovarian cancer in 2002 not long after being treated with drugs diluted by Courtney.

“Robert Courtney killed thousands of people including my grandma,” Buycks wrote. “She was ready to fight Cancer head on with the help of medication. She was optimistic, but little did she know the diluted prescriptions provided by her pharmacist, Robert Courtney, would fight against her. This man’s pure greed would go on to kill THOUSANDS of others.”

In a phone interview, Buycks told KCUR that when her father, Demory’s son, heard the news this week about Courtney’s early release, he called her in anguish.

“My dad is not very emotional at all,” she said. “But I could hear the pain in his voice. He was really, really bothered by it.”

Her father, Garry Buycks, told KCUR that that after her diagnosis, his mother “decided that she did want to try and fight the cancer. We were all in agreement.”

But after beginning treatment, he said in a phone interview, “she wasn’t reacting to the chemotherapy the way the doctor had expected. She wasn’t losing her hair. The one time she had it, and it made her really sick. And then after that, it was just nothing.”

The news of Courtney’s early release, he said, “was really just like a knock across the head.”

Demory Buycks, who was 70 when she died, worked as a district manager at Avon, the cosmetics company, Buycks said. She raised seven children and had 15 grandchildren.

She was active in her Baptist church — a “silent activist,” Buycks’ wife, Jackie, called her — and was the primary caretaker for her own mother.

“When she was told she had cancer, she started making plans for us to start taking care of our grandmother and to do certain things, because our grandmother was getting up in age also,” Buycks recalled. “That’s the kind of person she was, always thinking about somebody else.”

Courtney was arrested in August 2001 after Kansas City oncologist Verda Hunter notified the FBI that a salesman from drug maker Eli Lilly and Co. had told her Courtney was dispensing far more of the cancer medication Gemzar than he was purchasing.

Federal agents set up a sting operation to buy drugs from Courtney, who mixed cancer drugs for Hunter at his pharmacy in the Research Medical Center Tower, and discovered that the drugs were far less potent than Hunter had ordered. One sample contained less than 1% of the prescribed amount.

Authorities said the scheme to dilute chemotherapy drugs for profit lasted for about a decade and affected as many as 4,200 patients, and 98,000 prescriptions for cancer medications and other drugs.

Courtney, now 67, was sentenced in December 2002. He had been scheduled to be released in 2027, five years early — apparently for good conduct in prison — but the news that he would be released this week traumatized families whose loved ones were victimized by him.

Lynn Humphries, whose husband, Master Sgt. Donald W. Humphreys, died in 1998 at the age of 50 after receiving drugs mixed by Courtney, said the news came "as a shocking and irresponsible action."

"To know that he will be living inside a home just 61 miles from where I live, free enough to enjoy life with his family, knowing that after 22 years of living as a widow that I will never be given that option," she said in an email.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas City, which prosecuted Courtney, was not informed in advance of the decision to let him out of prison early, according to spokesman Don Ledford. The now-retired assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him, Gene Porter, called the decision “unfortunate and misguided.”

“Here’s the ultimate irony,” Porter said earlier this week, before the Bureau of Prisons apparently reversed course on its decision to release Courtney early. “Robert Courtney withheld potentially life-saving medication from late-stage cancer patients thereby depriving them of hope for a longer life. With the decision to release him early, he received hope, the very thing that he stole from hundreds of not thousands of patients.

“Given the magnitude of his crimes, he did not deserve to be given such hope. And the families of those he stole hope from are left to wonder where is justice when the well-considered judicial sentence that survived Courtney’s multiple attempts to have it undone can now be overturned by the unreviewable stroke of a bureaucratic pen.”

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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