After a month-long trial, a jury is expected this week to decide the fate of Michael Belfiore, a Merrick physician accused of writing hundreds of opioid prescriptions for profit and causing the deaths of two South Shore men.
Records indicate that Belfiore also prescribed fentanyl to Glen Cove restaurateur Mario Marra — the owner and chef at the popular eatery Marra’s — on March 7, 2009, eight days before he died of an overdose. His wife, Claudia Marra, who had witnessed his years-long struggle with an addiction to painkillers, guessed that Belfiore wrote Mario the prescription for 10 fentanyl patches “probably just to shut him up.”
Medical records in Marra’s case were subpoenaed, but charges relating to his death were not filed against Belfiore.
“I would like to see [Belfiore] go to jail,” Claudia Marra said last year. She hired a lawyer after her husband’s death, with the intention of taking Belfiore to court. However, she said, she was advised that she would need a doctor as an expert witness to testify against him, and that it would be difficult to pit “doctor against doctor” in court. Also, she said, she was afraid her husband would simply be painted as a drug addict. Eventually she dropped the effort.
“I said, ‘You know what, let me take it back, and let me just deal with it,’” Marra said. “I was working full-time as a teacher, and I was raising two boys. I was a mess, and I just wanted to get through the day, so I kind of took that back. I regret it.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley King delivered a nearly two-hour PowerPoint presentation to jurors in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Monday, reviewing the government’s evidence, attacking Belfiore’s credibility — and that of his expert witnesses — and urging the jury to find him guilty on all 28 charges.
Belfiore was acting as a “drug dealer,” King said, when he wrote oxycodone prescriptions for John Ubaghs, of Baldwin, and Edward Martin, of East Rockaway, both of whom died of overdoses.
Ubaghs, a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran and a martial artist, was “functional and fit” when he started receiving prescriptions for 30-milligram oxycodone pills from Belfiore, King said.
By the time of his death on April 13, 2013, Ubaghs was taking 15 pills a day and suffering from acute withdrawals — sweating, vomiting and anxiety — when he ran out, according to King.
On April 12, Ubaghs picked up a prescription for 150 pills from Belfiore, King said, and went to the movies with his girlfriend, who testified earlier in the trial that throughout the date, he was popping pills. The next day, he fell asleep while cooking a grilled cheese sandwich and stopped breathing.
In Ubaghs’s autopsy report, the Nassau County medical examiner’s office stated that it had “never seen an oxycodone level that high in any living person,” according to King. “He survived Iraq, but he could not survive this defendant’s illegitimate medical practice,” the prosecutor said, pointing to Belfiore, who showed little reaction during closing arguments.
Martin was found dead in his bed in March 2013, where, King said, a cut straw with oxycodone residue on it, and a bottle of oxycodone pills with Belfiore’s prescribing information on the label, were found “within arm’s reach.”
Martin’s autopsy report indicated an oxycodone level of 0.46 — enough to kill, King said.
Medical records from Martin’s first visit to Belfiore indicate that he showed signs of alcoholism, and on his second visit, Belfiore wrote that Martin was attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Still, according to King, Belfiore wrote Martin a prescription that day for 128 30-milligram oxycodone pills. “He allowed an alcoholic with a serious addiction problem to leave his office with a month’s supply of high-dose, legal heroin,” King said.
He also reminded jurors of Detective James Marinucci’s testimony on the first day of the trial. Marinucci, of the Nassau County Police Department’s vice squad, saw Belfiore while undercover as “James Burke,” a factory worker with back pain, visiting Belfiore six times in 2013.
During his visits, Marinucci told Belfiore that he had been given oxycodone pills by a friend — another of Belfiore’s patients — and at one point told him that he was sharing the pills with his girlfriend and asked Belfiore if he would take her on as a patient.
The fact that Belfiore continued to prescribe for Marinucci, despite the obvious “red flags,” and that he kept inaccurate — King called them “fake” — medical charts about Marinucci’s treatment program, should have been enough for the jury to find Belfiore guilty, King said.
King also took aim at Belfiore’s defense — including that he relied on misinformation from Purdue Pharma, an oxycodone manufacturer, when prescribing the drug. Pointing to Purdue promotional videos, which the Herald viewed last year, King expressed disbelief that Belfiore would rely on them, and not the growing body of knowledge about the dangers of opioids during the time he was prescribing them.
“He wants to you believe that these infomercials — which, I submit to you, were not very convincing — somehow corrupted his thinking,” King said.
Jurors began deliberations on Tuesday afternoon. Look for more as the story develops at www.liherald.com