Doctor accused of murder in overdoses ignored signs, witness says

A Rowland Heights physician charged with murder in connection with three fatal overdoses prescribed powerful narcotics to her patients despite “red flags” they were abusing drugs, a prosecution expert testified Tuesday at the doctor’s preliminary hearing.

The witness, a San Diego physician certified in pain medicine, said Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng failed to properly examine her patients, many of whom displayed obvious signs of addiction problems, such as scars from repeated injections with hypodermic needles, said Dr. Walter Strauser. Tseng “improperly dosed” large quantities of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to young patients with questionable complaints of pain, he said.

Tseng is charged with three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of three men, all in their 20s, who died in 2009. She also is charged with 20 felony counts of prescribing drugs to people with no legitimate need for the medications and one count of prescribing drugs using fraud.

She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Tseng, wearing an orange jumpsuit and taking notes, was silent during the second day of testimony in her hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court. She was accompanied by five attorneys.

Prosecutors expect the preliminary hearing before Judge M.L. Villar de Longoria to last about two weeks. At the end of the proceedings, Villar de Longoria will determine whether the government has presented enough evidence to take the case to trial.

The charges against Tseng, who was arrested March 1, represent a rare attempt to hold a physician criminally liable for patients’ deaths. Legal experts say the prosecutors’ burden is high and such cases are difficult to prove.

Prosecutors have passed along more than 15,000 pages of documents to Tseng’s attorneys for review and have a list of more than 80 witnesses who could be called to testify, including medical experts, members of Tseng’s staff and families of the patients who died, said Deputy Dist. Atty. John Niedermann.

Tseng is charged in connection with the deaths of Vu Nguyen, 28, of Lake Forest; Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert; and Joey Rovero, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, east of San Francisco.

On Monday, prosecutors named three other patients from Orange County under Tseng’s care who died of overdoses in 2007 and 2008 but for whose deaths she has not been charged. Those patients were Matthew Stavron, 24; Naythan Kenney, 34; and Ryan Latham, 21.

Prosecutors plan to use information regarding those deaths as evidence that Tseng knew patients were dying under her care, Niedermann said.

Tseng showed a “conscious disregard for human life, with which she continued, unabated, to prescribe in the same manner for years,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Grace Rai said.

April Rovero, the mother of Joey Rovero, sat in the front row of the courtroom, taking notes as the details of her son’s visit to Tseng were discussed. Joey Rovero died of an overdose nine days after Tseng prescribed him oxycodone and several other drugs.

“To hear his name in a court setting is still really emotional,” April Roverso said. “Ultimately, we just want to see it go to trial.”