Pharmacists foil alleged drug scam

A woman who allegedly used forged prescriptions to illegally obtain large amounts of opiate pain medication was arrested on Friday morning after quick-thinking employees of a La Cañada Flintridge pharmacy unraveled the apparent scam.

Pharmacist Sonal Patel and pharmacy technician Belle Cruz of Flintridge Pharmacy & Medical Supply said they had become suspicious of multiple prescription drug orders for a single patient last week and after some digging surmised that the orders were coming from a fictitious medical office.

The two pharmacy workers notified the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station, and mid-morning Friday deputies arrested 28-year-old Van Nuys resident Tina Bokazadeh after she arrived to pick up her third bottle of Norco — a derivation of the potentially addictive opiate hydrocodone — that week.

Bokazadeh, who posted bail Monday, is now also being investigated in relation to similar alleged scams throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, possibly including pharmacies in Glendale, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Harley. Harley declined to identify specific stores until completion of the investigation.

Patel and Cruz said that a caller identifying herself as a nurse first made telephone contact with the pharmacy on Tuesday, providing what appeared to be proper identification numbers for a medical office. Later that day, Bokazadeh picked up a two-week supply of pills and paid for them with a check — closing a routine transaction, or so it appeared until the next day.

“Then on Wednesday that same nurse calls me again and tells me they need to do an emergency surgery [on Bokazadeh] for ovarian cancer, and that they didn’t give her enough of the Norco on Tuesday. That’s when we started getting suspicious. Then on Thursday, around noon, this nurse calls and says she needs one more [two-week] refill. That’s a huge red flag,” Patel said.

After receiving the third call Thursday, Cruz said both nurse and patient started sounding increasingly emotional about Bokazadeh’s health. But as the alleged scammers were spinning their tales of woe, Cruz was already conducting a background check.

“The number that was given to us was disconnected. I Googled the doctor, but couldn’t find him. I looked up the [identification] number they gave, and it came up with another doctor’s number. I called that number and spoke to a secretary there to verify the patient and she said, ‘Let me guess: ovarian cancer, right?’ Apparently they’d been doing this over a year,” said Cruz, who made a crime report later that day.

When Bokazadeh arrived at the pharmacy just after 10 a.m. Friday morning to claim her third prescription, Cruz phoned deputies as Patel stalled for time.

“I stood back there pretending to count pills, and the last thing she said was ‘Doctor, is this going to take any longer?’ before she turns around and slowly walks out. [Bokazadeh] went out the door slowly, but as soon as she saw officers coming in from all different directions, she started running towards Ralphs [next door],” Patel said.

Deputies quickly apprehended Bokazadeh, who immediately began to complain of chest pains and was taken by ambulance to Verdugo Hills Hospital, said Harley.

After several hours under medical observation, Bokazadeh was found to be well and booked at the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station on suspicion of prescription forgery..

Detectives continue to investigate the case and are attempting to identify the caller who claimed to be a nurse, Harley said.

“People call in prescriptions every day, but when it’s back to back like that — three days in a row — come on!” exclaimed Cruz. “They pushed it, and it didn’t sound right.”

Flintridge Pharmacy & Medical Supply owner Michael Stremfel said that finding five police vehicles outside the shop when arrived at work on Friday, just after the bust, came as a bit of a shock.

“I was bracing myself for the worst, and then I find out that our workers are basically responsible for apprehending [an alleged] key figure in a narcotics ring. At first I was relieved, and of course now I’m rather proud,” Stremfel said.

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