Coroner Questioned in Methadone-Related Death

A methadone-related death is being investigated in Lake County, Chicago, after officials learned that the county’s coroner, Dr. Richard Keller, prescribed the drug to the victim at a Waukegan clinic, where Keller is medical director.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the DEA is participating in the investigation, which includes a review of whether Keller and clinic staff followed proper procedures in administering methadone, commonly used to treat heroin addiction. In addition, a state agency has faulted the clinic for not reporting the death as required.

Steve Vaughn, 30, of Lindenhurst died hours after he was administered 70 milligrams of methadone on December 3, 2008, at the Green Dragonfly clinic during his second day of treatment, Keller said.

State’s Atty. Michael Waller questioned why Keller investigated his own patient’s death, as this is a potential conflict of interest. The coroner typically determines if any foul play was involved with an unnatural death. “The whole situation is just questionable,” Waller said. “The coroner is supposed to determine the cause of death, and in this case the coroner issued methadone to a person who never had it before.”

Keller began working for the clinic shortly after it opened in October 2008 to treat patients who are addicted to opiates. When Vaughn’s mother returned home from work to find her son dead on December 3, Keller investigated the death and concluded that Steve died from mixing methadone and Xanax.

Vaughn had not been prescribed Xanax and was using someone else’s medication, said Keller, a licensed physician. He concluded that Vaughn did not overdose on either drug, but likely went into respiratory arrest after mixing the two, which is known to be a potentially lethal combination. “He had mixed methadone and Xanax, which he had been warned against taking [together],” Keller said.

Keller said he does not believe there was a conflict of interest in having his office investigate the death. “We handled it like any other case,” Keller said. “It’s like any other doctor who signs a death certificate for his patient, which happens all the time.”

Vaughn’s mother, Jill, said she was not aware that Keller was the same doctor who prescribed her son’s methadone. She said he was addicted to Xanax, not heroin. She also said that she believes her son lied to clinic staff so he could enroll in the methadone treatment program, having been turned down by other health clinics.

Steve was accompanied by his brother, who said he didn’t hear any staff members warn Steve about the dangers of mixing methadone with Xanax. “He didn’t tell them anything about Xanax; he just wanted to get on methadone to get off Xanax,” his mother said.
“When you are dealing with drug addicts, you are dealing with liars and thieves,” she said. “[Green Dragonfly] didn’t even do a minimal urine test to see if he had anything in his system.”

Waller also questioned whether Keller tested Vaughn’s blood to determine which drugs were in his system before providing the methadone. Keller said Vaughn underwent a routine physical exam before being treated with 40 milligrams of methadone his first day and 70 milligrams the next.

Richard Weisskopf, state opiate treatment authority for the Department of Human Services’ Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, said that state officials inspected the clinic two weeks ago and found that the clinic did not report Vaughn’s death, as is required of all methadone-related deaths. Keller said he reported the man’s death to state and federal agencies, though possibly not in a timely manner.

First elected to the position of county coroner in 2004, Keller recently announced he did not intend to seek re-election when his term ends in 2012. He blamed politics, saying it interfered with other educational programs he was involved in, such as suicide prevention and adolescent substance abuse.

Keller said he thought the state’s attorney’s inquiry was politically motivated. “Certainly when you look at the facts in the case, there certainly was no crime that occurred,” he said. “Unfortunately, a young man died. Unfortunately, these things happen.”