Manchester in Clay County is about 80 miles and 90 minutes from Danville. It would seem an unusual stretch of highway to travel to see a psychiatrist.
Yet, Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson said “carloads” of residents there made that trip regularly to see Dr. Melborne Williams. They did not come to seek counseling from Williams, Johnson speculated, they came to get prescriptions for Xanax and other controlled drugs.
In the past year, 12 Clay County residents who were Williams’ patients were found dead of accidental drug overdoses, leading the state Board of Medical Licensure to issue an emergency suspension of Williams’ medical license last week.
Johnson’s criminal investigation into the “direct link” between the overdoses and the drugs prescribed by Williams is ongoing, and other law enforcement agencies also are looking into the deaths, he said.
“His name popped up everywhere,” the sheriff said. “Here would be a dead body and two feet away would be a pill bottle with Dr. Williams’ name on it.”
When Williams’ name appeared Friday in The Advocate-Messenger in a story about the emergency suspension of his medical license, it caught the attention of Lincoln County Coroner Farris Marcum.
Marcum recalled being called to the scene of a fatal crash on U.S. 150 near Crab Orchard on April 13. James Layton, 51, of Clay County, was killed when his pickup truck went off the road and flipped over about 10 a.m. Layton was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs when he crashed, Marcum said, but his brother and nephew, who were traveling with Layton in a separate vehicle, said they were going to Danville for an appointment with Williams.
“I thought it was strange, him coming from Clay County to see a doctor, but it is what it is,” Marcum said.
The allegations against Williams — who was on staff at Ephraim McDowell Region Medical Center for 13 years without incident until his suspension by the medical board — have prompted Marcum to begin reviewing “several” drug overdoses that have occurred in Lincoln County in the last year and a half.
One of those overdoses — Crystal Hager, 32, of Hustonville, who died in January with multiple drugs and alcohol in her system — was a patient of Williams, her mother, Serenna Sizemore, said Friday. Crystal Hager was the ex-wife of Thomas Wayne Hager Jr., who is accused of shooting two men to death and seriously wounding another in Danville in May in what police say was a drug-related incident.
“As a coroner, doing your due diligence, I think you need to go back and look to see if there are any red flags,” Marcum said.
The news of the psychiatrist’s suspension also caught the attention of Boyle County Coroner Dr. Don Hamner, who has known Williams for several years.
“I was actually shocked when I heard it,’ Hamner said Friday.
Hamner said he has only investigated a handful of accidental drug overdoses in his nearly two years on the job. Checking to see where the lethal drugs came from is included in a death investigation in such cases, Hamner said, but Williams’ name has never come up in any of his investigations.
“I’ve seen nothing at all related to him,” the Boyle coroner said.
Williams has been unavailable for comment, but one of his attorneys, James E. Smith of Louisville, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Williams plans to vigorously defend himself against the charges leveled in the medical board’s suspension order. The 12 Clay County overdose victims also had in their systems narcotics prescribed by other doctors, and some also were using street drugs, Smith said.
“We are confident that once the allegations are fully analyzed that Dr. Williams will be fully vindicated,” Smith told the Lexington paper. “We are certain that his prescribing practices did not lead to the death of those 12 patients.”
Williams is scheduled for a formal, trial-like hearing before the medical licensure board in December, said Leeann Diakov, the board’s assistant general counsel. Williams could permanently lose his medical license, it could be restricted or he could be cleared at the hearing, Diakov said.
Williams also has the option of challenging his suspension to have it reduced or lifted before the hearing, Diakov said. One of his attorneys indicated such a challenge is planned after Williams undergoes a neuropsychological evaluation as ordered as part of his suspension, she said.
According to the medical board’s complaint, Williams’ practice came to its attention in October, when one of the agency’s investigators reported several confidental informants used by police in drug cases identified Williams as a “reliable source” for Xanax, a commonly abused anti-anxiety medication often referred to as nerve pills.