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March 30, 2005

Man accused of victimizing deaf people

From: Mercury-Register, CA - Mar 30, 2005

By GREG WELTER/ediaNews Group

Butte County sheriff's investigators uncovered numerous local victims of prescription fraud last week after arresting a deaf man wanted for similar crimes in New York.

Robert Lee Berry, 51, allegedly used his disability to help him obtain large quantities of prescription drugs through numerous doctors and pharmacies in the Chico and Oroville areas.

The suspect moved to Oroville about three months ago from south central New York, where, over a period of years, he allegedly befriended several people in the deaf community, then stole money from them to buy prescription drugs. He particularly targeted cough medicines containing morphine.

Berry became infamous for the callous advantage he took of people with his same disability, earning him the label "The Dillinger of the Deaf."

He was first arrested two weeks ago in Oroville on two felony counts of forgery from Tioga County, N.Y. He made bail, but on Thursday was rearrested.

He was booked into the Butte County Jail in Oroville with bail set at $500,000. Sheriff's detective Eric Christopher said the high bond is warranted because Berry is a definite flight risk.

The suspect left New York before authorities there could serve the warrant on the forgery charges.

About 65 deaf victims in the area near Binghamton, N.Y., known as the Southern Tier, have signed petitions asking for his extradition.

The case against Berry in Butte County is still being investigated. It's unknown how many members of the local deaf community he may have contacted and possibly victimized.

Christopher said Berry successfully obtained enough illegal prescriptions to be selling them, but doesn't know if he did.

He said the suspect is trying to satisfy a serious drug habit, and that there are "stacks of evidence" in the case.

Berry is being charged with 24 counts of illegally obtaining prescription medicines.

Authorities in New York were actively seeking the man for years, but he eluded them.

In one well-documented case last year, Berry met Brenda Palmigiano, of Rochester, N.Y. while she was teaching a defensive driving course. He took her pain medications after she had surgery, and used her money to purchase additional prescription drugs.

She filed a criminal complaint against him, and helped another couple victimized by Berry to do the same.

Christopher said investigating a case where the suspect is deaf and nearly all the witnesses and victims are deaf has been challenging.

"Some of the victims are very proud of their independence, and embarrassed that they've been taken advantage of by another deaf person," he said.

New York authorities have not decided if they'll seek Berry's extradition.

© 2005 Oroville Mercury-Register