An Orange County doctor who often saw patients at Starbucks coffeehouses was sentenced Thursday to 11 years in federal prison for selling prescriptions for highly abused medications to patients with no legitimate need for them.
"You abused the position," U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford told Alvin Ming-Czech Yee before sentencing him. "People came to you for healing, and they came away worse for the experience."
Yee, 44, of Mission Viejo, pleaded guilty in April to seven counts of illegal distribution of a controlled substance by a practitioner.
Although Yee had reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and agreed to serve eight to 10 years in prison, the judge sentenced him to a longer term, saying Yee took advantage of a "position of trust and authority" and that the sentence needed to send a message to other doctors.
Authorities said Yee met patients at Starbucks stores throughout Orange County and that he charged as much as $600 for meetings in exchange for prescriptions for drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax. His examinations lasted about a minute and consisted of checking patients' blood pressure and pulses and asking them to bend over to touch their toes, they said.
A medical expert who reviewed Yee's practice for federal prosecutors called it "a front for drug dealing," according to a federal search warrant affidavit. Several area pharmacists refused to honor prescriptions written by Yee because of the large number and high dosages of narcotic prescriptions, court documents state.
Before the sentencing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Ann Luotto Wolf played video in court from undercover agents who posed as patients. In one video, the grind of a Starbucks espresso machine can be heard as Yee discusses which medications he will prescribe.
"These people are desperate," Yee said of his patients in one video, laughing.
Wolf said at least two patients in their early 20s died of drug overdoses after Yee prescribed drugs for them. Yee was not charged in their deaths.
Tammy Rosas, the mother of one of those patients, told the judge her son went through rehabilitation numerous times and that she contacted Yee to tell him her son was using the medications recreationally.
Rosas said her son — a 22-year-old lacrosse player who was being scouted by college recruiters — became addicted to prescription pills after having knee surgery. He died a few days after Yee wrote prescriptions for him, she said. When her son's photo was shown in court, Rosas sobbed.
Yee, who was arrested in October 2011 at his Irvine office, initially was charged with 56 counts of illegally distributing a controlled substance.
"I never dreamed that I would reach a stage where I would lose my privilege to practice medicine," Yee told the judge Thursday in a Santa Ana courtroom. "I'm truly sorry."
Yee, dressed in a black suit jacket and slacks, said he had been "profoundly embarrassed" and that many family members stopped talking to him because of the allegations.
In numerous letters filed with the court on Yee's behalf this week, several former patients described him as a caring, dedicated physician who answered their calls and emails between visits. One patient said she met Yee at a Huntington Beach Starbucks "because he was in the process of finding another office closer to his home base" and that the only way she was able to see him was to meet there. They met, she wrote, to discuss lab results.
"I personally found him to be a brilliant doctor with deep compassion and sincere intentions to helping people better their lives," she wrote.
Yee's mother, Trudy Yee, wrote that he "always wanted to be a doctor" and that she was surprised by the charges.
The judge asked Yee to surrender in January to begin serving his prison sentence.