Crime & Courts

Federal trial begins for Eagle River nurse practitioner charged with deadly opioid over-prescribing

U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building

The federal criminal trial of a former Eagle River nurse practitioner charged with supplying vast quantities of opioids that resulted in the overdose deaths of several of her patients started Monday in Anchorage.

Jessica Spayd, 51, is charged with seven counts of “distribution and dispensing of a controlled substance resulting in death” and one count of “maintaining drug involved premises” at her former Eagle River Wellness pain clinic.

Spayd was originally charged in October 2019. The trial has been delayed for years due to the coronavirus pandemic. Records show Spayd surrendered her nurse practitioner license to state authorities in 2020.

She faces 20 years to life in federal prison if convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Her case represents something not often seen in Alaska courts, especially at the federal level: Criminal prosecution of a medical provider for contributing to Alaska’s opioid crisis. Even rarer is that the case is being heard by a jury. Less than 2% of federal defendants go to trial, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prosecutors contend Spayd moved a staggering amount of highly addictive and dangerous prescription opioids to her patients over a roughly five-year period: In all, she prescribed about 4.4 million pills, assistant U.S. attorney Ryan Tansey told the jury in opening arguments Monday.

Spayd “abandoned her oath to do no harm and used her medical license to feed addictions and make money,” Tansey told the jury.

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Those millions of pills had deadly consequences, the prosecutors say. Tansey projected the names and faces of five Alaskans he said died from overdosing on pills Spayd prescribed: Ellen Kubiak, Loren Dirks, Betty Stonefield, Kathleen Butcher and Julianne LeBoeuf. None had terminal cancer, Tansey said. None were in hospice.

Prosecutors assert that Spayd failed to do physical exams or tests or otherwise medically justify the opioids she offered patients. One woman was prescribed 1,500 fentanyl lollipops for headaches, Tansey said.

At one point, pharmacists at major pharmacies around Alaska quit filling prescriptions written by Spayd and one tipped the Drug Enforcement Administration, launching an investigation.

Spayd’s defense attorney, Steven Wells, said the case was not about medical malpractice. Instead, he contended in Monday’s opening argument, it hinges on intent. The question, he said, was what Spayd was thinking.

Spayd, he said, attracted a difficult clientele of people with severe and legitimate pain issues. Wells promised evidence that she had been trying to taper patients off opioids, and that she’d rejected patients who came to her seeking drugs, and that her job was a “balancing act” of trying to help patients in pain.

Spayd “may not have been perfect, but she cared,” he said. “She did what she did because she thought it was best for her patients.”

The trial is expected to last for several weeks.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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