Single mother of two Nikita Piernas, 29, will spend the next seven years and six months in prison, without the possibility of parole, for conspiring to forge prescriptions for powerful painkillers while she worked as a medical assistant at Gulf Oaks Merit Health's outpatient clinic in Biloxi.
More than 30 friends and members of the Piernas family, based in Pass Christian, attended her sentencing hearing Monday in federal court, hoping for leniency.
Her attorney, Ellen Allred, asked that U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden sentence her to only two years, arguing that she was sorry for what she did and was only trying to support her two sons.
Piernas testified during the hearing.
Around the time she went to work at Gulf Oaks in October 2014, she broke up with the father of her two children. She was trying to keep her rental house, furnish it and feed her two sons, who are nine and five years old.
Shortly after she started working at Gulf Oaks, Piernas saw office manager Andrea Opoku writing prescriptions and asked what she was doing. Opoku, who recently received the same sentence from Ozerden, told Piernas she could make money writing the prescriptions.
Opoku was charging $200 to $300 for prescriptions to hydrocodone and oxycodone. Piernas started selling prescriptions for $100, first to a co-worker and another acquaintance. Later, her contacts supplied names and dates of birth she could use to write more prescriptions.
In all, the women wrote more than 100 prescriptions. A total of 12 people were indicted on federal charges as being part of the pill ring, with Piernas and Opoku as the leaders.
While they used the same doctors' names and recruiter for the pill ring, along with prescriptions for similar doses and drugs, the women wrote most of their prescriptions independently of one another on prescription pads that belonged to Gulf Oaks for the use of doctors and nurse practitioners.
Piernas said she knew that what she did was wrong, but she was too proud to ask her family for financial help. She worked a separate job on weekends at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport to try to support her sons, but the full-time job at Gulf Oaks paid only $10 an hour.
"I wanted to be independent," Piernas told Ozerden. "I wanted to show my boys, 'We're going to make it,' and it got out of hand."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathlyn Van Buskirk, who prosecuted the case, pointed out that opioid overdoses killed 42,000 people in 2016 — a five-fold increase since 1999.
Ozerden said he had to take into account the sentences he had already handed down in the case, the destructive nature of the drugs the women were dispensing and other factors.
"In an effort to protect her family," Ozerden said, "she put lots of other people at risk. That's something that has to be considered here."