By Bruce A. Smith, with contributions from Josh Magill
The seizure of 39 horses from a 99-acre ranch on Meridian Ave in Graham is part a much larger – and vastly more serious – investigation of the horse owners being conducted by the Seattle office of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The owners of the horses, Dr. John L Diller and his wife Tina, confirmed to the Mountain News this week that the seized horses are theirs and had been taken in a two-day operation conducted by the Pierce County Animal Control (PCAC).
In addition, the DEA confirmed to the Mountain News that they have been conducting an extensive investigation of Dr. Diller’s medical practices and had conducted a recent raid of the Diller homestead, which precipitated the horse seizure.
The DEA has provided documents to the Mountain News detailing their investigation into Dr. Diller’s medical activities, most notably his possible over-prescribing of narcotics and other controlled substances, and also his failure to comply with proper medical standards regarding pain management.
According to the DEA documents, Dr. Diller’s medical license is currently under a two-year probation from the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission (MQAC) for his alleged over-prescription of pharmaceuticals, such as oxycontin and methadone, which are very strong pain-killers. In addition, the latter drug, methadone, is often used as a clinical substitute for heroin to counter withdrawal symptoms.
Nevertheless, Dr. Diller and his wife have not been charged in any criminal activity – neither for the alleged horse abuse nor the DEA’s drug allegations.
However, the DEA sent the Mountain News a 50-page public document that was the basis for obtaining a search warrant for the Diller property, and the affidavit is titled, “MJ05161-KLS.” It details numerous instances of Dr. Diller prescribing huge amounts of narcotic pain -killers, such as confirmed by Joe McCarter of the Lincoln Pharmacy of Tacoma, who told investigators that he had filled a 30-day prescription written by Dr. Diller for 540 tablets of 10 mg methadone.
In addition, DEA investigators found that the Department of Health’s Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) indicated that Dr. Diller had written individualized prescriptions for huge quantities of drugs. One script itemized by the PMP revealed a monthly order for 300 tablets of 5 mg. oxycodone coupled with 120 tabs of 30 mg oxycodone, which is believed to be a maximim strength dose, plus 90 tablets of 350 mg. Carisprodol, a muscle relaxant.
Another Diller prescription called for 540 tabs of 10 mg methadone along with 506 tabs of 30 mg oxycodone, again for a 30-day period.
A third prescription called for 360 tabs of oxycodone 5/325 mg, and was followed seven days later to the same patient for an additional 540 tablets of oxycodone for a grand total of 900 tablets, with both scripts indicating the pharmaceuticals were a 30-day supply.
Such over-prescription suggested to investigators that the patients are highly addicted to the drugs and/or selling their extra quantities.
Both seem to be occurring, as the affidavit details accusations from patients identified as Patient # 1 and Patient #2, claiming they witnessed other patients selling their drugs – including in the parking lot of Dr. Diller’s medical office in downtown Puyallup.
Worse though, is the allegation that some of Dr. Diller’s patients have died as a result of being over-prescribed, thus making him vulnerable to charges of being an accessory to murder.
DEA investigators identified three patients as having died from over-prescriptions: a man called Larry Feller, who died in March 2011; a patient known as “KR” who overdosed recently in Bonney Lake; and a man named Randall Rider, who moved to the Puyallup area from his home in Spokane several years before his death and became a patient of Dr. Diller’s.
Mr. Rider’s death is even more tragic because his brother, Russell Rider, MD, is an anesthesiologist at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane. According to the DEA documents, Dr. Rider attempted to get his brother in rehabilitation and tried to intervene with Dr. Diller to prevent the over-prescription of drugs to Randall.
In addition, Dr. Diller’s medical office is apparently not much more hygienic than his horse stables back home. The DEA documents provide a squalid description of the medical offices, offered by a former medical assistant named Tara Johnson. Johnson claims that the bathroom was unsanitary and contained a constant stench of urine, which was soaked into the wallpaper. Plus, Johnson charges that an examination room had flooded and had not been cleaned for several months.
Ms. Johnson’s allegations were compiled in a Labor and Industry complaint, claiming “unsafe” working conditions.
Along those lines, DEA investigators listed additional accusations from several former Diller staff stating the work environment was unsafe due to the threatening behavior from the patients.
Further, the DEA documents characterize Dr. Diller as a major drug dealer in the Puget Sound area, drawing patients from as far away as Aberdeen and Seattle.
The affidavit also charges that an estimated 70-80% of Dr. Diller’s patients paid cash for their doctor visits, paying between $80-130 per visit to receive their drug prescription.
One of the major reasons underlying the DEA search warrant of Dr. Diller’s home was to obtain information on where this cash has gone, along with gaining a more detailed understanding of the kind of pain treatment he dispensed to his patients.
Dr. Diller and his wife have declined to discuss these allegations with the Mountain News, and have referred reporters to their attorney, Lance Hester of Puyallup. However, Mr. Hester has not responded to multiple inquiries from the Mountain News.
As for the horses, Dr. Diller and his wife have reportedly operated their equine breeding business since 1965. According to the fuglyhorse blog, the Diller’s horse ranch is known as Malia Arabians and Warmbloods, but no signage is visible on Meridian and an Internet search of their horse breeding activity is inconclusive.
Nevertheless, Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who oversees the Animal Control Department, told the Mountain News that the primary complaint against the Diller’s is the lack of adequate shelter for the horses and their failure to maintain proper equine care.
Anderson acknowledged that many of the seized horses appear well-fed and that food and water was readily available in the Diller barns.
However, the facilities were unsanitary, with urine-soaked straw and feces compacted up to a foot-thick in some stalls. Further, many of the horses were kept in pitch-black conditions without any light or ventilation.
In addition, most of the horses seemed to live their entire lives inside their stall, with no evidence of any outdoor pastures for grazing or paddocks for exercise.
As a result, Anderson said the horses were unfamiliar with being handled by humans and were very skittish and dangerous. Hence, the transfer of the 39 to county custody took two days and required a full crew of animal control officers.
“It went great even though the horses were very hard to handle” said Anderson. “There were no injuries to any of our officers or the horses.”
Anderson said that her department has six animal control officers, and she also called upon Kitsap Animal Control for additional officers and equipment. In addition, Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies were called in to provide security after hours.
To continue the care and protection of these horses Anderson has assembled a team of experienced volunteer wranglers from the Pierce County Backcountry Horsemen, the PCSD and other equine organizations to compliment her officers.
Anderson has taken personal charge of the rescue operation and seems determined to avoid the disappointments that occurred in the county’s last large-scale horse rescue – the Darlene Wilson 40-horse episode of 2010. In this occurrence, the PCAC tried to partner with a local equine rescue organization that ultimately found itself without sufficient resources to properly care for its initial installment of twenty horses. Ultimately, the rescue group had to euthanize about ten of the horses, and eventually the PCAC had to intervene and take a handful of horses. Finally, the remaining ten horses were court –ordered to be sold.
Further, criminal charges against Ms. Wilson have stretched out through the months, and the drama has shown the difficulties in a successful prosecution of horse abuse.
Nevertheless, the county is picking up the tab for the feeding and caring of the 39 horses. Anderson told the Mountain News that she has tapped into her agency’s reserves to supply $40,000 for this operation. However, as the effort to build a prosecutable case proceeds – thus requiring the need to preserve the evidence – the bill may rise higher.
Regardless, this initial outlay comes at the expense of not being able to cover any voting re-counts should her organization be required to do so after the general election in November.
Such happenstance reflects the unusual mandate for the Auditor’s Office. Typically, a county auditor handles elections, real estate documentation and public licenses, such as deeds and passports. Historically, the Humane Society has handled animal control issues, especially the licensing of pets, but now the Pierce County Auditor has assumed responsibility for animal control. .
This transfer occurred several years ago as the number of animal-related criminal incidents grew, such as abuse cases and dangerous dog attacks upon children and adults. The Human Society realized it was no longer able to provide a sufficient level of service to the public and transferred responsibilities to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. However, the PCSD soon learned they were not well-suited to administer pet licenses or respond to barking dog complaints at 2 am.
Then, in 2006 under the administration of the then-Auditor Pat McCarthy, the Auditor’s Office took responsibility for animal services. Currently, Ms. Anderson’s office handles the usual pet owner traffic directly, while her six animal control officers are trained and supervised by the Sheriff’s Department, from whom she contracts the officers’ services.
Now, Ms. Anderson and the county are enmeshed in a complex law enforcement case than spans across the accusations of animal abuse to murder, and yet, no one is charged at present with any criminal wrong-doing.
© 2012 The Mountain News-WA