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August 23, 2005

Deaf man gets two-year sentence for drug fraud

From: Enterprise-Record, CA - Aug 23, 2005

By TERRY VAU DELL - Staff Writer

OROVILLE - A deaf mute wanted in three states was sentenced to two years in prison Tuesday for using his disability to obtain a large amount of prescription narcotics from some 20 Butte County doctors and pharmacies. A seemingly resigned Robert Lee Berry nodded his head up and down, as a sign-language interpreter communicated the sentence to him in Butte County Superior Court.

Berry was mistakenly released from custody last month while awaiting sentencing in the case after authorities in New York and Massachusetts indicated they did not plan to extradite him in connection with alleged crimes in those states.

The disabled man got an Oroville motel owner to allow him to use a special keypad-equipped telephone to contact the judge so he wouldn't be held responsible for failing to come to court that day.

He was initially charged with 15 counts of obtaining prescription pain killers by fraudulent means from 12 local doctors and eight pharmacies.

All but one of the counts was dropped in a subsequent plea bargain.

Berry admitted he was addicted to painkillers since his late teens, but denied forging any of the local prescriptions, insisting he obtained all the narcotics legally from a variety of doctors in Butte County.

In arguing for an upper-term prison sentence Tuesday, deputy district attorney Kevin Maloney said a Sheriff's Office investigation showed the deaf man had used his disability to obtain "305 days worth of drugs in 25 fraudulent transactions during the 69 days he was loose in California."

The prosecutor alleged Berry had befriended a woman in Oroville whom he met through a chat room for the deaf, borrowing more than $1,000 from her to pay for the various prescriptions.

Court reports indicate that at the time of his arrest in Oroville, Berry was being sought for allegedly defrauding several deaf women in New York and Pennsylvania to feed his drug habit.

He is also wanted for questioning in connection with an alleged molestation of a 6-year-old girl in Massachusetts.

All three states so far have declined to extradite him.

Berry's attorney, Dennis Hoptowit, urged the judge Tuesday not to consider the unproved out-of-state charges.

In asking that a probation officer's recommendation to place Berry on probation be followed, Hoptowit asserted that in the silent world his client inhabited, prison would be terrifying.

But Judge Gerald Hermansen imposed a two-year prison sentence, citing the sophisticated methods the deaf man used to get local doctors and pharmacies to write the large number of narcotic prescriptions.

© 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record