A well-known urologist and convicted felon hailed by his lawyer as saving “millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer” posted $100,000 bond and left the Tuscola County Jail on Thursday – after being charged with seven crimes.
Dr. Joseph E. Oesterling, 60, of Ann Arbor, was charged with running a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug building and five counts of delivery of a controlled substance. Prosecutors accuse him of running several “pill-mills” in mid-Michigan, but his lawyer, Saginaw attorney Alan A. Crawford, said Oesterling isn’t embarrassed about the charges.
“He’s not ashamed, but he’s angry about these allegations that are tarnishing his name and tarnishing his reputation,” Crawford told The Advertiser before Thursday’s arraignment.
“He’s still passionate about helping individuals and helping his patients,” Crawford said.
If convicted of the charges, Oesterling faces up to 20 years in prison. He awaits a hearing on the evidence at 1 p.m. on Jan. 17 in Tuscola County District Court.
Tuscola County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Reene has said the charges resulted from a seven-month investigation conducted by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Tactical Diversion Squad and the Thumb Narcotics Unit into alleged over-prescribing practices at Osterling’s clinics in Caro, Saginaw and Mount Pleasant.
In Tuscola County, Oesterling practiced at Caro Medical Group, 206 Montague Ave., in Caro, at the intersection of Joy and Montague streets across from the Caro Police Department.
Caro Medical Group, formerly Caro Family Physicians P.C., introduced Oesterling to the community via a Sept. 12, 2014 Facebook post, calling him “a world-renown urologist with more than 30 years of clinical and research experience. He trained at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, before joining the staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.”
Saginaw attorney Victor J. Mastromarco Jr., representing Oesterling in civil proceedings in Tuscola County regarding Oesterling’s assets frozen by investigators – told The Advertiser that the criminal charges are “a travesty.”
Mastromarco said Oesterling “discovered the link – 30 years ago – between the PSA and prostate cancer, which is used all over the world.”
“He has saved millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer – what they’re doing here today is a travesty,” Mastromarco said.
Oesterling, working at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in a 1991 article in “The Journal of Urology,” wrote a “critical assessment” of the prostate specific antigen, or PSA, which he called the most useful tumor marker for cancer of the prostate gland.
He later became chief of urology at the University of Michigan Medical Center but resigned from his university job. He pleaded no contest to a felony charge after the university stated it uncovered double- and triple-billing for the cost of trips by the doctor.
Oesterling told Tuscola County Magistrate Joseph A. Van Auken about his 1997 plea to the felony charge when Van Auken set bond at $100,000 cash or surety on Thursday.
Crawford asked the magistrate to release the doctor from jail on his own recognizance without having to pay bond money, but Tuscola County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Eric Wanink asked for a $750,000 cash or surety bond.
Reene said Tuesday the state of Michigan has suspended Oesterling’s license to practice medicine pending a formal administrative hearing, but Wanink maintains someone using the DEA number assigned to Oesterling has written a number of prescriptions for painkillers this month, including one on Monday.
Crawford said Oesterling denies writing the Monday prescription, and the doctor told Van Auken he isn’t practicing medicine.
Crawford said Oesterling was “struggling (to make) ends meet,” and “struggling to take care of the legal part” of the case. He added that Oesterling’s “assets have been frozen” and called the $750,000 cash/surety bond “certainly unreasonable.”
But Wanink said Oesterling has “considerable resources,” and owns 49 percent of the Birch Run Expo Center, an apartment complex in Reese, and “millions of dollars worth of John Deere toys and collectibles.”
Reene has said the allegations against Oesterling “include the massive over-prescribing of such substances as hydrocodone (commonly branded as Norco), methadone, amphetamines, phentermine, oxycodone, and alprazolam (commonly branded as Xanax).”
Online commenters on The Advertiser’s Facebook page debated the case against Oesterling. “Melissa Slanga” asked if Oesterling treated patients seeking pain relief when other doctors wouldn’t treat them or didn’t treat them.
“Not everyone wants to grow and smoke marijuana,” Slanga wrote. “Bills need to be paid and beds need to be made. Some need pills to do that. Not everyone cares to live 200 (years). They are happy to make it through the week. He and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. You never know … he may deserve an award.”
In determining Oesterling’s bond, Van Auken said he considered whether the doctor is a flight risk or a danger to the community.
“Every day you can watch the media and talk about the opiate addiction problems in this country,” Van Auken said.
Van Auken told the doctor that “based on the allegations of (Oesterling’s) assets, it doesn’t sound like it would be difficult for you to leave and disappear, or be hard to find, at least.”
Oesterling was arraigned via video as he sat in the Tuscola County Jail, wearing blue medical “scrubs” for a shirt, coupled with jail-issue orange pants. Oesterling’s wife (who covered her face during parts of the arraignment) and his two adult children were in the magistrate’s office during the proceeding.
Wanink said a certified nurse practitioner (identified as Laura Hintz) who worked with Oesterling has agreed to work with prosecutors on the case.
During a hearing earlier this month about Oesterling’s assets before Tuscola County Circuit Court Judge Amy Grace Gierhart, Wanink told the judge that Oesterling’s clinics, including one in Caro, prescribed a total of “some 330,000 dosage units of Norco, a (Schedule II) controlled substance, within a 16-month period.”
“A lot of hospitals” don’t even prescribe that much of the painkiller Norco in the same time period, Wanink told the judge.
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org