6 Canadians accused of selling counterfeit cancer drugs to U.S. doctors

Six Canadian men have been arrested under the Extradition Act in connection with an international internet drug investigation involving the distribution of counterfeit cancer drugs.

Kristjan Thorkelson, Thomas Haughton, Ronald Sigurdson, Darren Chalus, Troy Nakamura and James Trueman are wanted for prosecution in the United States.

Arrests under the Extradition Act took place in Manitoba and British Columbia on June 14 and 15, respectively.  

The six have been released on bail and are scheduled to appear in court July 12, Ian McLeod, media relations adviser with the federal Department of Justice, said in an email to CBC News.

Kristjan Thorkelson

Kristjan Thorkelson is the president and founder of CanadaDrugs.com. (CBC)

“As this matter is pending before the courts, it would not be appropriate for the department to comment on specifics at this time.”

CanadaDrugs.com is a Winnipeg-based company that is still operating and is licensed by the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba. Thorkelson is the president and founder of the company. According to its website, the company and its predecessors have been offering “distance based pharmacy care” since 2001.

U.S. federal prosecutors have accused Thorkelson, CanadaDrugs.com, and affiliated companies and associates in the United Kingdom and Barbados of illegally importing and selling $ 78 million worth of unapproved new drugs, misbranded drugs and counterfeit drugs to American doctors between 2009 and 2012.

“Canada Drugs purchased its inventory from questionable sources and ultimately sold counterfeit versions of the drugs Altuzan and Avastin to physicians in the United States,” court documents allege.

​At the time, a CanadaDrugs.com manager acknowledged shipping and distributing vials of the blockbuster cancer drug Avastin, but said he didn’t know the drug was counterfeit.

It was found to contain cornstarch and acetone but no active ingredients.

mi-fake-altuzan-usfda

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released these images in 2013 of versions of Altuzan that it found to be counterfeit. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

In 2012, CanadaDrugs.com issued a statement insisting it is not connected to the counterfeit Avastin case because the company doesn’t sell that drug.

In 2014, American authorities laid charges of smuggling goods into the United States, conspiracy and international money laundering.

The Canadian company’s U.K. affiliate, River East Supplies, is also accused of falsifying customs documents to hide the product.

CanadaDrugs.com and several U.S. companies are accused of not keeping the medication at the cold temperatures required to keep them safe.

“Thorkelson orchestrated and profited from the Canada Drugs criminal enterprise,” U.S. court documents allege.

In 2015, RCMP officers raided the Winnipeg offices of CanadaDrugs.com and assets in one bank account were seized.  

American federal prosecutors have also put a hold on four bank accounts in Canada, the United Kingdom and Barbados “to assure the availability of the funds for forfeiture in the event of the defendants’ conviction.”

The claims have not been proven in court.

If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison and fines.

Extradition process

Once an extradition hearing has been set, a judge will decide if American authorities have provided enough evidence to go to trial in Canada. If so, the men will be committed for extradition.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will make the final decision on whether to surrender them to U.S. authorities to face trial.

6 Canadians arrested in U.S. extradition request for allegedly selling fake cancer drugs online2:21

The men have the right to appeal to the minister, and/or to apply for judicial review of the minister’s decision to the Court of Appeal.

If those decisions are upheld, they can appeal either or both decisions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

A person may be extradited from Canada only if the alleged criminal conduct is recognized as criminal by both countries under the principle of double criminality.

The players

Haughton owns several drug distribution companies in Barbados and the United Kingdom. He’s a Canadian citizen and Thorkelson’s brother-in-law.

Sigurdson is listed as a chief financial officer for Canada Drugs. Chalus and Nakamura were managers of drug sales for several of the companies.

Canadadrugs.com

In 2015, RCMP officers raided the Winnipeg offices of CanadaDrugs.com and assets in one bank account were seized. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Documents filed in the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench on June 15 and 16 indicate Thorkelson, Haughton, Sigurdson, Chalus and Nakamura were released on bail and conditions, including surrendering their passports and not moving without notifying authorities.

All but Trueman so far are represented by Winnipeg lawyers. Those representing Thorkelson, Sigurdson, Chalus and Nakamura declined comment. The lawyer for Haughton could not be reached.

The Food and Drug Administration referred all media calls to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and a spokesperson there also had no comment.

Meanwhile, American Paul Bottomley pleaded guilty in connection with this case in 2013. In a separate civil case, he forfeited more than $ 1 million U.S., a 2011 Aston Martin/Vantage V-12 and 10 pieces of property in Montana, which were found to be proceeds of his illegal activity.

Another man named in the CanadaDrugs charges, Ram Kamath, had a single charge of smuggling dropped in 2015 in exchange for his co-operation with authorities.

In 2014, Health Canada suspended CanadaDrugs.com’s Drug Establishment Licence, meaning the company could not sell prescription drugs to pharmacies until the federal department’s concerns were addressed.

That licence was reinstated on Aug. 3, 2016, following a Health Canada Good Manufacturing Practices inspection.

Internet pharmacy pioneer convicted

This isn’t the first time American officials have pursued a Manitoba-based internet pharmacist.

Andrew Strempler was arrested in Panama in June 2012. He was being deported to Canada but his flight included a layover in Miami, where he was arrested.

Andrew Strempler

Internet pharmacy pioneer Andrew Strempler has been quietly transferred from a U.S. prison, to one in Manitoba. (Fred Greenslade/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

He was charged in connection with a 2005 seizure of drugs shipped by Mediplan Pharmacy, which Strempler founded. It is also known as RxNorth.com and was later sold to Thorkelson.

The FDA claimed many of the drugs promoted as Canadian actually came from other countries.

Strempler was convicted and sent to prison in 2013 for marketing unapproved and allegedly counterfeit drugs to Americans.

He served most of his time in the U.S. but was transferred to a minimum-security prison Manitoba in 2015.

He was released after serving two-thirds of his sentence in October 2015 on conditions including not owning or operating a business until Jan. 2, 2016, and providing financial documents to his parole officer.

Strempler is considered one of the pioneers of the internet pharmacy industry, which started in 2001 when he sold a pack of Nicorette gum on eBay from the pharmacy he owned in Minnedosa, Man.

He was flamboyant with his wealth and could be seen driving around Manitoba in a yellow Lamborghini, just one of his many luxury cars.

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