A young mother pregnant with her third child stood before a federal judge Thursday morning to find out whether she would go to prison for twice picking up oxyocodone with prescriptions forged by two employees of Merit Health Gulf Oaks in Biloxi.
Kayla Tiara Caldwell, a 26-year-old from Pass Christian, was a low-level player in a pill ring that involved about 40 people over more than three years, beginning in 2014 and ending with indictments in June 2017.
Eleven people, including the two former Gulf Oaks employees, have pleaded guilty in federal court, while a 12th is undergoing a mental health evaluation. Others were arrested on state charges.
U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden sentenced three of the defendants Thursday.
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Caldwell was first up. She has only a ninth grade education and said her mother allowed her to “run the streets” without supervision when she was growing up.
Nonetheless, Caldwell had never been in serious trouble until a boyfriend talked her into putting her name on two forged prescriptions and picking up a total of 210 oxycodone pills. They sell on the street for about $30 a pill.
“I have changed my life completely around since this happened,” Caldwell told the judge. “I have never made a dumb decision like that in my life.”
Caldwell said she is studying for her GED and stopped smoking marijuana after her arrest.
Ozerden sentenced her to two years’ probation, with six months to serve under home confinement.
Two men charged in the case will be going to prison.
Ozerden found that Tyrone Leonard Thomas Jr. was “an intergral part of this scheme,” sentencing him to 8 1/2 years for conspiring to distribute oxycodonee, hydrocodone, amphetamines and other drugs obtained through fraud.
Thomas worked as a psychiatric technician at Gulf Oaks and, admittedly, found people willing to have their names used on forged prescriptions.
“But for this defendant’s actions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathlyn Van Buskirk said, “I don’t believe this prescription fraud ring would be as big as it is.”
A third defendant, Marcus DeShawn Price, will spend six years in prison, also on the conspiracy charge.
Ozerden agreed with Van Buskirk that Price was an organizer of the pill ring because he recruited others to participate.
The two Gulf Oaks employees who have admitted forging the prescriptions, Nikita Marie Piernas and Andrea Reene Opoku, are scheduled for sentencing next week.
The DEA spent about a year investigating the prescription forgeries after the Mississippi Pharmacy Board discovered a suspect prescription during a pharmacy inspection in Hattiesburg.