Well-known urologist Dr. Joseph E. Oesterling walked away from the Tuscola County Courthouse on Thursday morning into pleasant October sunlight – his future much brighter after a jury acquitted him of seven criminal charges that could have sent the 61-year-old physician to prison for up to 30 years.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Oesterling, of Ann Arbor, told a juror outside the courthouse Thursday before shaking the man’s hand after a six-man, six-woman jury rendered its verdict in one of the longest jury trials in recent memory in Tuscola County.
Minutes earlier, a different juror – jury foreman Dennis Squires, 57, of Mayville – stood and read the verdict to Circuit Judge Amy Grace Gierhart: The jury found Oesterling not guilty of running a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug house and of five counts of delivery of a controlled substance.
Oesterling, accused by prosecutors of massively overprescribing drugs including the painkiller Norco from his clinic at 206 Montague Ave. in Caro, cried softly immediately following announcement of the verdict. He embraced Troy defense lawyer Ronald W. Chapman II, one of his two attorneys.
Seconds later, the doctor who once was chief of urology at the University of Michigan Medical Center, hugged his wife, Carmen, and then embraced several supporters in the courtroom gallery, including two of his patients – Saginaw residents Alan Wolfgang, 84, and Judy Castanier, 76.
“All I can say is he saved my life – truthfully,” Wolfgang told an Advertiser reporter.
“He’s a great man. I love the guy,” Wolfgang added.
After walking out of the courtroom, Oesterling said he felt relief, adding he is very grateful to the jury and to his lawyers, Chapman and Troy attorney Robert J. Andretz.
“All along in my own heart, I always felt that we were providing good care to our patients, and taking care of them as if they were my own family members,” Oesterling said.
After his acquittal, Oesterling said he was headed to Caro’s Big Boy restaurant for a celebratory meal with his attorneys and supporters. He and his lawyers even posed for a photo outside the courthouse with “Harvey,” the man in a pumpkin suit who is mascot for the Tuscola County Pumpkin Festival, which sponsors activities outside the courthouse from Thursday through Sunday.
Oesterling has been hailed by one of his former attorneys with making a research discovery that “saved millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer.” In 1997, though, Oesterling pleaded no contest to a felony charge after the University of Michigan stated it uncovered double- and triple-billing for the cost of trips by the doctor.
Oesterling’s trial in Tuscola County began Sept. 12, and saw about 39 witnesses testify – most for the prosecution, including Laura J. Hintz, a physician assistant at Oesterling’s medical offices in Caro and other mid-Michigan communities. Hintz was granted immunity from prosecution in return for testifying against the doctor.
Not enough proof?
Squires said jurors didn’t believe prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Oesterling was guilty of any of the seven criminal charges. “The issue that it all came down to was ‘Were the prescriptions written in bad faith or for a non-medical purpose?’” Squires said. “Whether everybody agreed or not, we couldn’t say there wasn’t a medical reason in his mind. We couldn’t get past that.”
The jury deliberated for almost five hours on Wednesday and Thursday. Oesterling broke into tears, lightly sobbing, as he walked toward the defendant’s table prior to his sentencing and after shaking the hand of Raymond Brinkman, 87, of Tuscola County’s Columbia Township. Brinkman, one of Oesterling’s patients, stood in the front row of the courtroom gallery, hoping for an acquittal.
“It was incredibly emotional, from the time that we made a phone call to let (Oesterling) know that there was a verdict, to the time that the verdict was announced,” Chapman said. “(Oesterling) was definitely very emotional. His life was on the line here, and the potential 30-year exposure to jail has just been lifted off of his shoulders today.
“That’s a powerful feeling that I don’t think many people – including myself – will ever know. I’m happy that he gets to call his kids today and tell them ‘Dad’s coming home.’”
Tuscola County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Eric F. Wanink, along with Assistant Prosecutor Eric Hinojosa, tried the case in front of Judge Gierhart. Wanink declined comment after the jury’s verdict, deferring questions to county Prosecutor Mark E. Reene, his boss.
“Our office respects the jury’s verdict,” Reene said. “There are a variety of reasons why I can’t say much else.”
Prosecutors accused Oesterling of operating a “pill-mill” at the Caro office, overprescribing Schedule II controlled substances such as Norco. Schedule II controlled substances, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration or DEA, “have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
When asked if Oesterling put the health of county residents at risk by the number of Norco prescriptions from his Caro office, Reene said “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that with what transpired,” adding that was one reason prosecutors and investigators spent so much time on the Oesterling case.
But Chapman said prosecutors chose witnesses who “didn’t like Dr. Oesterling very much or had something to gain by testifying.”
Elora Barrons, a medical assistant at Oesterling’s Caro office who testified for the defense at the four-week trial, “was absolutely clear of any baggage, and she provided the most complete and credible testimony,” Chapman added.
Drugs without tests
One portion of a video recording played during Oesterling’s trial featured a female undercover informant visiting Oesterling at his Caro clinic, and another recording featured a male undercover informant visiting him there.
Oesterling provided prescription painkillers to both patients without first doing medical tests and receiving results of the tests, and without receiving any medical records from other doctors.
Hintz, during her testimony, indicated Oesterling was prescribing painkillers to drug addicts at his Caro office and his other offices.
Wanink, during his closing rebuttal argument to the jury on Wednesday, stressed that Oesterling chose not to do physical exams on pain-medication patients, and chose to disregard medical tests, urine tests and information about patients’ prescription histories from the Michigan Automated Prescription System “that is thrown in front of him by his employees.”
“Mr. Chapman talked about a tale of two Oesterlings. I like that,” Wanink said. “One very educated, loves his urologic patients and probably really did help a lot of people in his career.
“But then you see this other doctor, who took advantage of these addicts in a very shameful way, knowing what kind of people they are, staring him right in the face. And his employees are trying to get him to stop, and he simply ignores their efforts and carries on.
“And why? Why do we see no standard of care with these people? Because we know that (Oesterling) can rush right through there in 10- and 15-minute intervals, give ’em their (prescriptions) and they’ll leave happy and come back the next month … and it cuts down (time) even more when you have your nurse write up the prescriptions and have ’em ready ahead of time.”
Jurors, however, agreed unanimously “that (Oesterling) was prescribing Norco and other prescriptions for the purpose of medical use and not for drug use or racketeering,” said Robert Mullin, 61, of Novesta Township, a juror.
“From his testimony (Oesterling) stated he was a farm boy on a dairy farm in Indiana and his father got prostate cancer, and he wanted to see if he could help other people in that field because he was very sad that he lost his father to cancer,” Mullin said. “I think that was … why he went into urology to begin with.
“He was basing a lot of his patients on the feelings his father went through, in pain, and he wanted to basically help the public with their pain problems. Whatever they did with their pills when they left the office, that’s after the fact.”
Mullin said he noticed that Oesterling left his seat at the defense table and walked to the courtroom door to open it for patient Art Barton, who traveled out of court using a motorized wheelchair, which Barton sat in during his testimony.
“(Oesterling) was down-to-earth,” Mullin said. “He got off his seat and come down and opened the door for (Barton).”
Oesterling thanked supporters who attended his trial, noting “Many of them are very busy, especially during the harvest season – and they still came and were supportive, which is testimony of true friendship.”
Rich Sylvester of Tuscola County’s Gilford Township, one of Oesterling’s patients, told The Advertiser at the trial on Thursday he was “astounded” when he first read about criminal charges against the doctor.
Brinkman, describing himself as a longtime patient of Oesterling, said he was “very happy” following the verdict.
“I set up my surgery date with him before I ever met him, and that’s unusual,” Brinkman said. “I heard of his track record across the United States – in the East, and at Mayo Clinic, I believe, and before here, Ann Arbor (at the University of Michigan). He’s a great guy.”
Oesterling’s license to practice medicine in Michigan has been suspended, but the doctor said he hopes to return to work as a physician.
“We need to get his money back and his license back,” Chapman said. “The (Tuscola County) prosecutor is still maintaining a civil case for the assets of Dr. Oesterling that they’ve seized under the premise that he committed illegal acts, which he’s now been found not guilty of.
“So unless they desire to drop that suit, we’re going to have to litigate that issue as well.”
When asked about the civil lawsuit against Oesterling, Reene said the lawsuit “is still pending – that’s about all I can say in regard to that.”
“They attempted to take his house, they seized a lot of assets from financial institutions, and they seized a number of cars,” Chapman said. “He’s been driving a yellow Volkswagen Beetle with 225,000 miles on it since this case (originated), because they seized his car. That’s the tragedy of the situation here.”
When asked if he would consider opening a medical office again in Caro, Oesterling said “I’m more than happy to continue here if the opportunity allows me. I am a very forgiving individual. I’m a very sensitive, compassionate person, and even though this experience happened, it does not color me going into the future.”