Rowland Heights doctor to be tried for murder in 3 overdose deaths

Hsiu-Ying "Lisa" Tseng appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday for the conclusion of her preliminary hearing. She is flanked by lawyers T. Edward Welbourn, left, and Anthony Brooklier.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Saying a doctor “improperly used her prescription pad to cause irreparable harm,” a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Tuesday ordered the physician to stand trial for murder in the overdose deaths of three patients.

Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, who ran a medical clinic in Rowland Heights, failed to heed warnings that “something was terribly wrong and young men were repeatedly overdosing or dying,” Judge M.L. Villar de Longoria said.

Tseng, 42, is charged with second-degree murder in the 2009 deaths of three men, all in their 20s. She is also 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. It is the first time the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has filed murder charges against a doctor because of allegedly reckless prescribing practices, officials said.

A Times investigation in 2010 linked Tseng to the overdose deaths of at least eight patients, including the three alleged murder victims: Joseph Rovero III, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, east of Oakland; Vu Nguyen, 28, of Lake Forest; and Steven Ogle, 24, of Palm Desert.

During a three-week preliminary hearing, dozens of prosecution witnesses described Tseng’s clinic as overflowing with patients who seemed to be strung out on drugs. One former patient testified that he overdosed while in her office restroom. Others said they learned from fellow addicts that it was easy to get prescriptions for powerful drugs from Tseng.

Prosecutors showed the judge a video of Tseng prescribing pain and anti-anxiety medications to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent even though she did not believe he had an injury.

“Your wrist looks perfectly OK,” Tseng said in the video. “I mean, I don’t see a scar even.... If you need a little bit of pain medication here and there, fine, but for this kind of pain, you don’t even need Vicodin.... This is ridiculous.”

Minutes later, however, she wrote the agent a prescription for Vicodin and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.

During the hearing, the doctor’s defense attorneys argued that her patients who overdosed willingly sought and took the drugs prescribed by Tseng and were responsible for their own deaths.

Tseng is being held to an “impossible” standard of “having a crystal ball” that she could use to tell when her patients were lying and was “charged with believing” what her patients told her, said T. Edward Welbourn, one of Tseng’s attorneys, during his final arguments Tuesday.

Al Stokke, another Tseng attorney, told the judge that prosecutors are saying the nation has a prescription drug overdose epidemic “and this court is being asked to fix it ... by assigning blame to Dr. Tseng.”

But in her ruling, Villar de Longoria said Tseng “failed to heed repeated red flags” that her patients were abusing drugs and dying. She noted prosecution evidence that Tseng had been notified by coroner’s investigators and law enforcement officials that her “young, vibrant patients were dying of overdoses.” Additionally, there was testimony that some of her patients’ family members called Tseng, begging her to stop prescribing to their loved ones.

David Huy of Laguna Hills called Tseng after finding pill bottles in his son’s bedroom. “I told her that she should have her license taken away, that she was a drug pusher,” Huy testified.

After the judge’s ruling, family members of some of Tseng’s former patients who overdosed wept and embraced.

“I’m someone who believes in God, so I forgive her,” said a tearful Joseph Rovero II, the father of one of Tseng’s deceased patients. “But as for the laws of man, I feel Dr. Tseng has violated them. She committed a crime, and she has to answer for it.”

Tseng, who has surrendered her medical license, was arrested March 1 and continues to be held in lieu of $3-million bail. The judge denied her attorneys’ request Tuesday to lower that amount.

Tseng is expected to be arraigned July 10.