Dr. Richard Snellgrove briefly stopped prescribing the powerful opioid fentanyl to former 3 Doors Down guitarist Matt Roberts after singer Prince died from a fentanyl overdose, records prosecutors have filed in a criminal case say.
Snellgrove, who practiced in Fairhope, Alabama, is charged with 13 counts of writing fentanyl and other prescriptions for Roberts that were not medically necessary and with causing the musician's death from a fentanyl overdose. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
His trial, expected to last 10 days, begins at 8:30 a.m. Friday before U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose in Mobile.
If prosecutors prove fentanyl killed 38-year-old Roberts, the sentence on that count alone is a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors have said they plan to use as evidence texts that Roberts and Snellgrove exchanged about Prince's death. Snellgrove knew Roberts was a drug addict, court records say, having helped him enter rehab for one month in the spring of 2012, after the co-author of hit song "Kryptonite" left 3 Doors Down.
Less than three months before he died, in late May 2016, Roberts and Snellgrove texted about Prince's death.
“During this exchange, Roberts stated that he understood Dr. Snellgrove needed to drop 'things down,' " says a motion filed in the case by Richard W. Moore, U.S. Attorney for Alabama's Southern District.
"Prior to this text message exchange, Dr. Snellgrove prescribed fentanyl to Roberts, both directly and indirectly, during the months of March and April 2016. Following this text message exchange, Dr. Snellgrove did not prescribe fentanyl again to Roberts until July 12, 2016.”
Roberts' respiratory system shut down from an overdose on the early morning of Aug. 20, 2016 — less than three months after the alleged text exchange
A guest found his body and thought he was sleeping in the hallway outside his hotel room in West Bend, Wisconsin. He was scheduled to play as a celebrity guest guitarist with the band NIX later that day at a veterans' benefit in Milwaukee.
Roberts was wearing a fentanyl patch when he died. An autopsy also found in his system the opioid hydrocodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, both medications Snellgrove prescribed.
The trial will pit an expert physician for the government against one for Snellgrove, documents filed in the case show.
A government's expert, psychiatrist and addiction specialist Michael Baron of Tennessee, says in court documents that Snellgrove should not have prescribed fentanyl and hydrocodone for Roberts.
“The medical record shows Dr. Snellgrove perpetuated a known addiction," Baron concluded. "He prescribed large quantities of controlled substances with frequent intervals in a crescendo pattern, progressing to multiple drugs. The prescribing was for trivial complaints that did not require that type or quantity of opioids."
Baron noted Roberts got some prescriptions without an office visit or patient note explaining the treatment, uncommon in a professional medical practice. He also said Snellgrove should have pursued other treatments for Roberts, who suffered from lower back pain and arthritis in his hands.
But a doctor expected to testify for Snellgrove says Roberts was properly treated.
“The medical records indicate that Matthew Roberts was opioid tolerant and dependent and was suffering from chronic to severe pain in his lower back and severe chronic pain periodically in his hands as a result of psoriatic arthritis," internist and primary care specialist Robert C. McDuff says in court records. "Dr. Snellgrove exercised appropriate medical judgment regarding the care and treatment of this patient and acted well within the usual course of professional medical practice in his prescribing of Fentanyl Duragesic to Matthew Roberts."
Duragesic is the brand name of fentanyl time-released through a skin patch. According to a Drug Enforcement Administration investigator who testified in another case, it is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and is often prescribed for cancer patients.
A warning on the Duragesic website says, "Even if you take your dose correctly as prescribed you are at risk for opioid addiction, abuse, and misuse that can lead to death."
Roberts, a shy man overwhelmed by fame and prone to anxiety, had been abusing drugs for years.
Snellgrove had been trying to wean Roberts off the hydrocodone, McDuff said.
In the months before his death, Roberts claimed to be suffering "severe symptoms" from his arthritis, McDuff said. He wanted relief because he was in the studio working on a new album.
Snellgrove prescribed 50-microgram patches in March 2016, then supplemented those two days later with 25-microgram patches.
The prescriptions stopped after Prince's death but resumed in July, prosecutors say, when Snellgrove prescribed a month's supply of Fentanyl. Seven days later, Roberts texted Snellgrove claiming the girlfriend of a friend had stolen his opioids, including seven fentanyl patches.
Roberts told Snellgrove, according to prosecutors: "I'd already gotten rid of the packaging on the fentanyl, so our names aren't on anything she took."
Prosecutors say Snellgrove wrote out another prescription for a one-month supply of fentanyl, upping the dose from 50 micrograms to 75 micrograms. There was no office visit or insurance billing associated with the prescription, prosecutors say.
Roberts paid his last visit to Snellgrove two days before the trip to Wisconsin. When a drugstore was out of the 50-microgram patches Snellgrove prescribed during that visit, the doctor agreed to write a 75-microgram prescription that Roberts was able to fill at a different pharmacy.