Andrea Opoku said she was living in a bubble.
She was happily married, with a master’s degree in business administration, two daughters and, after two miscarriages, the birth of a son who completed her family.
She was also forging prescriptions for powerful painkillers, with prescription pads that belonged to several doctors and a nurse practitioner at the outpatient clinic where she worked as office manager for Gulf Oaks Merit Health.
She didn’t see her dishonesty as that big of a deal until an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration called her in February 2017. She never realized people were becoming addicted to the powerful drugs she was illegally prescribing — hydrocodone and oxycodone.
She lost her job and, in June 2017, she was arrested on 10 felony charges of conspiracy, distribution and possession of controlled substances.
“I went into a dark place,” Opoku told U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden before he announced her sentence Monday morning.
Opoku was hoping for leniency. She said she pulled herself back up for the sake of her children and got a job at a pain clinic after Gulf Oaks fired her. There, she said, she saw patients suffering from addiction and realized what she had done.
She is now writing a book, she told the judge, and speaking to groups about the importance of ethics. People may start out taking a long lunch hour or not clocking out for lunch at all. Small indiscretions, she said, can build to grave dishonesty.
She started forging prescriptions in 2014. In 2015, co-worker Nakita Marie Piernas joined Opoku in forgery, Piernas admitted when she pleaded guilty in the case. Ozerden will sentence Piernas on Tuesday.
While the two women forged prescriptions, 10 others were arrested on federal charges involving participation in the pill ring, with hundreds of pills distributed. Still other defendants face state charges in the case, estimated to involve a total of about 40 people.
Opoku forged prescriptions until 2017, mostly for her husband, mother and daughter, she said, when they needed medication. Nothing indicated she or her family members were addicted to painkillers.
Federal agents in the case are convinced Opoku was making money off the forgeries, but she said when she pleaded guilty that she was not getting paid.
“I’m not up here to make any excuses and, initially, I was,” she told Ozerden, adding that at first she tried to blame others for what has happened. “It was my mistake.”
For sentencing purposes, prosecutors said Opoku’s crime was victimless. But Opoku said she knows that she created victims: people who were taking the pills, the health care professionals whose names she forged, her children and family.
She said that she has personally apologized to them.
“Instead of letting this beat me,” she said, “I have decided no matter the outcome I have to keep moving forward for my kids . . . It’s always important to remain ethical and be straightforward and just do what you’re supposed to do.”
Opoku’s attorney, Michael Reed of Hattiesburg, asked the judge for leniency, in light of Opoku’s remorse and efforts at reform.
Reed was hoping Ozerden might sentence Opoku to less than the minimum called for in federal guidelines — seven years and two months.
Ozerden pointed out several factors that weighed into his sentence: the length of the conspiracy and Opoku’s role as a leader. Once the second co-worker came on, and with a third involved, others were recruited to have prescriptions forged in their names and pick up pills that were sold in the streets.
Opoku did not even know all the conspirators. But the law didn’t say she had to know them all. Under federal law, only two people are needed for a conspiracy.
“The nature and extent of the offense and her role in it cannot be overstated,” Ozerden said.
Ozerden sentenced Opoku to serve seven years and six months in prison without the possibility of parole.
After the hearing, U.S. Marshals took her into custody and guided her out of the courtroom as she quietly wept.