Warrants describe darker side of doctor

July 20, 2005 - To some of his patients, Dr. William Coburn was a man who would go out of his way to help people, working late into the night and taking patients' phone calls on his cell phone.

To law enforcement, he was a doctor who supplied narcotics to drug addicts, accepting everything from guns to electronics as payment, keeping late hours to avoid being caught.

Coburn, 72, has pleaded not guilty to charges he traded prescription drugs for a gun and illegally possessed firearms. He was arrested June 30 after his Lynn Road medical office and Thousand Oaks home were searched and six weapons were seized.

Since his arrest and the subsequent charges, patients have spoken up on his behalf. But the search warrants used to carry out the arrest, which were unsealed by court order this week after a request by The Star, paint a grim picture of a man who has practiced medicine in the community for more than 30 years.

The warrants reveal that the investigation into Coburn began two years ago, with allegations he had been overprescribing medications. Those claims are also being reviewed by the Medical Board of California. The tips led detectives with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department to search Coburn's offices in March 2004.

Part of the investigation also involves allegations from a Thousand Oaks pharmacy that Coburn had been overprescribing medications for certain patients. Last month, detectives received more information on Coburn's practices from an informant who was helping expose him for "the betterment of the community and also for monetary compensation," according to the search warrant documents.

The informant, who is not named in the documents, claims to have been typically prescribed 100 Vicodin and 100 Xanax pills by Coburn for pain. The informant said he had been addicted to painkillers since 1996 after a knee injury.

He had been a patient of Coburn's for about three years and had met with him about 30 times, according to the documents.

For each visit, the man would reportedly pay a $75 consultation fee, then give $200 to Coburn in his back office. If the informant didn't have money, he gave the doctor items ranging from tools to guns to get prescription medications, he told detectives.

The informant claimed to have traded a .357-caliber magnum, two rifles, two television sets and tools engraved with his initials for drugs, either from the office or in prescriptions.

The man also told detectives Coburn would see patients as late as 3 a.m. Detectives wrote in the documents that the late hours were a way to dodge attention from other doctors, building managers and law enforcement.

Leading up to the search of Coburn's offices and home, the informant set up a late meeting with the doctor to trade a gun for prescriptions. He first called Coburn on his cell phone with detectives nearby.

He told the doctor he had a "piece" and had called to find out if the doctor wanted it. The informant described the gun as a "9 mm SIG" and said he wanted 100 Norco, a painkiller, and 100 Xanax to "keep him going," according to the documents. The men agreed to meet at 9 p.m. June 30.

The night before his arrest, detectives watched as patients arrived and left from the parking lot of Coburn's office from 8 p.m. until about 1:30 a.m. It appeared the patients would make a phone call from the parking lot, either from cell phones or a pay phone, before going in. Some patients appeared to be under the influence of medications, detectives wrote in the documents. One woman had no shoes and was wrapped in a blanket.

The informant also arrived that night and told detectives he had traded tools for Norco and Xanax. He said the doctor had asked about the gun and the men would do the exchange the following day. He told detectives the doctor did not examine him.

Although the exchange of the gun is not reported in the documents, a 9 mm SIG-Sauer was among the weapons recovered from the doctor's office June 30. Detectives also seized another 9 mm Glock pistol, a .22-caliber Derringer pistol, a Colt .357-caliber revolver and a Winchester rifle. From his home, detectives seized a handgun, a plastic container of suspected methamphetamine and Demerol and Vicodin.

Coburn's son, James Coburn, was subsequently arrested on suspicion of possessing methamphetamine.

Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Wright, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment for this story.

Coburn's attorney, Kevin DeNoce, said he is waiting to review key evidence before commenting on the allegations. But he did say Coburn had a reputable medical career up until the charges surfaced.

"A man's distinguished medical career should not be defined by one mere allegation that has yet to be proven," he said.

News of Coburn's arrest prompted some patients to rally to his defense. Suzanne Chapin of Westlake Village said if the charges against Coburn are true, he would have been acting with good intentions.

"If Dr. Coburn were to have taken firearms from a patient, he would have had a moral and ethical reason, and pure and sound reason for doing so," she said. She said Coburn might have done so to protect someone.

"Part of his ministry as a physician is to help people in any way he can, especially those who cannot afford healthcare," she said. "Some people might misconstrue that. In my opinion, I believe he would have had pure motives in order to do something like that."

Chapin, who works as a nurse, said she has seen the doctor off and on the past 10 years, and he has always been careful to not overprescribe medications. "I could never see him giving medications out in an inappropriate way," she said.

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