A federal jury convicted a Cherry Hill man Thursday on 50 counts of drug-related crimes, concluding that he ran one of the city's largest prescription pill-peddling operations with the help of a suburban doctor's secretary and residents of a North Philadelphia housing project.
In all, Leon Little, 36, took in more than $3.3 million selling about 400,000 oxycodone and Xanax pills between 2010 and 2012, prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger hailed the verdict as a strike against the epidemic of opioid abuse plaguing the region.
"Heroin and opiate-based prescription medication - such as oxycodone - are two of the most abused drugs in the area," Memeger said in a statement Friday. "And just like street drugs, prescription drug abuse produces the same problems: addiction, crime, and broken families."
Little's attorney, David Nenner, did not return calls seeking comment.
According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration analysis released Thursday, more than 53 percent of Pennsylvania's more than 3,400 drug overdose deaths last year were tied to abuse of prescription opioids.
Federal authorities have sought to combat that trend with recent high-profile prosecutions against pill-pushers and doctors whose misuse of their prescription pads led patients to addiction and, in some cases, death.
Little's conviction came after a three-week trial and more than three years after investigators with the DEA, the IRS, and the FBI shut down the operation with nearly 60 arrests and convictions.
But almost as troubling, prosecutors said, as the volume of pills moved by his drug empire was the number of people he paid to pose as patients in severe pain in order to obtain prescriptions.
Little and accomplices including Colise Harmon, 37 - who was also convicted Thursday of conspiracy, drug distribution, fraud, and other charges - recruited a small army of residents of the Raymond Rosen Projects, a Philadelphia Housing Authority development near 25th and Diamond Streets.
Witnesses at trial, including several of Little's former recruits, testified that Little and Harmon picked them up at the project, shuttled them to a doctor's office in Bala Cynwyd, and then took them to one of three North Philadelphia pharmacies to fill their prescriptions - sometimes as often as four times a day.
Little, they said, resold the drugs and then laundered the proceeds through several accomplices - including a charity that his organization created called the Chasing Dreams Foundation - before depositing the money in the account of a consulting firm.
He spent the proceeds liberally on jewelry, flashy clothes, a $17,000 motorcycle, and more than $1.9 million at area casinos, according to IRS investigators.
The scheme hinged primarily on the assistance of a Bala Cynwyd doctor's secretary - Heather Herzstein, 31, of Folcroft - who frequently forged prescriptions and vouched for them when pharmacists called to verify that they were legitimate.
Prosecutors have said that Herzstein acted without permission of her boss, Lawrence Browne.
Browne, 90, voluntarily gave up his medical license shortly before Herzstein's 2013 indictment, acknowledging several instances in which he forgot what patient he was treating and gave duplicate prescriptions to patients for controlled substances because he had forgotten that he already had done so.
Browne could not be reached for comment.
"He had become more frail as the years passed on," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tomika N.S. Patterson, who prosecuted Little's case. "He had fallen asleep during appointments. Other people would go posing as other patients, and he didn't know the difference. And this organization took advantage of that."
Herzstein pleaded guilty last year to charges of conspiracy, drug distribution, and fraud, and faces sentencing next month.
Little faces a potential life sentence at a hearing next year.
"Whether it's a doctor selling prescriptions illegally, or a drug organization that is taking advantage of a doctor," Patterson said, "these are the kinds of cases that it's important that people in the community know we will prosecute."