An alleged opiate painkiller ring that state investigators say peddled tens of thousands of Oxycodone and Xanax pills in Atlantic County is traced to an Essex County doctor, and 17 South Jersey arrestees.

Operation Oxy Highway (NJ Atty. General's Office)

Dr. Craig Gialanella, 53, of North Caldwell, with a general practice in Belleville, is charged with second-degree distribution of narcotics by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. Investigators assert that he supplied the drugs to Mary Connolly, 54, her daughter Lauren Connolly, 28, and her ex-husband Douglas Patterson, 53, all of Egg Harbor Township.

Investigators allege that Gialanella sold prescriptions for cash to operators in Atlantic County, and wrote prescriptions for people who had no medical need for the tablets. He allegedly wrote 413 prescriptions for about 50,000, 30-milligram Oxycodone tablets in the names of 30 individuals in Atlantic County and vicinity in 11 months in 2016.

Additionally, Gialanella is under suspicion of issuing prescriptions for people outside the United States. Investigators estimate that between January 2014 and May 2017, Gialanella prescribed more than 350,000 Oxycodone tablets, adding that street sales of $20 each would mean a value of more than $7,000,000.

Authorities said that Gialanella drastically scaled down the activity in February 2017, when Governor Christie set a five-day limit on initial opiate prescriptions.

Sixteen defendants, including Connolly's son Robert, 31, of Galloway face second- or third-degree distribution or conspiracy counts. Another son, Michael, 33, also of Galloway, is charged with obtaining narcotics by fraud, a third-degree count.

Twelve facing distribution or conspiracy counts are: Danielle Grainger, 33, Linwood; William Warren, 51, Egg Harbor Township; Francis Clemson, 53, Ocean View; Ashton Funk, 35, Northfield; Theodore Gogol, 37, Margate; Beatriz Oquendo, 34, Pleasantville; Amanda Blomdahl, 37, Somers Point; Kevin Reid, 47, Ventnor; David Blocker, 49, Galloway; Joseph Green, 39, Atlantic City; Christopher Perez, 34, Mays Landing; John Hager, 39, Deptford.

Convictions for second-degree crimes mean possible five-to-10-year prison terms and fines up to $150,000. Third-degree convictions carry possible three-to-five-year sentences and fines up to $15,000.

Gialanella brings to six, the number of doctors charged with peddling opiates illegally by the team since 2014. Two face strict-liability charges connected to overdose deaths.

Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said that it entails members of the Prescription Fraud Investigation Strike Team, detectives and lawyers in the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs and Organized Crime Bureau.

Operation Oxy Highway

"Operation Oxy Highway" begain in December 2016, when an Atlantic County pharmacist reported an unusual number of people, including Patterson, interacting with a doctor whose practice is more than 100 miles away, and obtaining large amounts of opiates.

According to investigators, the druggist cited multiple birth dates and identities that Patterson allegedly entered on oxycodone prescriptions, which would help evade detection by the New Jersey Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), and prescription limits. PMP records revealed the 413 prescriptions written betwen January 1 and December 7, 2016, authorities said.

Detectives allege that Patterson brought Gialanella to the attention of Mary and Lauren Connolly and others, extracting a share of the Oxycodone and alprazolam (Xanax) from each prescription, and enlisting his ex-wife to help oversee distribution.

Authorities believe that Gialanella charged $50 to $100 for brief office visits that involved no physical exams or treatments, and then wrote as many as five prescriptions every 30 days for 90 or 180 Oxycodone tablets of 30-milligram strength, and 90 two-milligram Xanax pills.

Lauren Connolly is accused of being an intermediary with street peddlers, and of pushing pills as well. Porrino's office says that Mary and Lauren Connolly are seen transacting business in surveillance images. Investigators allege that the Oxycodone tablets, "Blues," sold for $18 to $25 each, and that the Xanax pills,"Zannies," went for $5 each.

Data from the Attorney General's office indicates that opiate overdose deaths in the first half of 2016 amounted to 1,022 people, including 594 related to heroin, 394 tied to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, and 177 connected to Oxycodone. It's a 41 percent overall increase over the comparable time frame in 2015, including a 43 percent rise in the number of heroin overdose deaths, 46 percent more ascribed to Oxycodone, and a 120 percent jump in fatalities related to fentanyl.

For all of 2015, there were 1,587 reported drug overdose deaths in New Jersey. Heroin acounted for 918, another 417 are attributed to fentanyl, and 302 involved Oxycodone.

Charges are accusations. Defendants are presumed innocent unless, and until, found guilty in a court of law.

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