ALAMOSA — Twelfth Judicial District Court Judge Michael A. Gonzales sentenced former nurse practitioner Debra Rice, 62, to 90 days in the county jail and 10 years probation at the Alamosa Combined Court on Thursday afternoon.
“There has to be punishment,” Gonzales said “I think you need to see the people” in the county jail, many of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses.
Rice was convicted of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance — a level 2 drug felony, and theft, which is a level 5 drug felony after she agreed to a plea deal with the Attorney General’s office in early August.
Rice’s probationary period will run concurrently on both sentences, she will have to donate $10,000 to a nonprofit drug education and/or a drug prevention center in San Luis Valley of her choice and she must put in 1,000 hours of community service.
“The community and charitable work would be for the best interests to the public,” Gonzales said.
Five-hundred of those community service hours must be done
in San Luis Valley.
Gonzales imposed a $1,000 fine for the drug felony 2 offense, and Rice will have to write an apology letter to the community in the Valley Courier.
Gonzales said Rice also imposed fines of $17,700-plus for restitution and another $3,000 fine for a drug offender surcharge.
Rice tearfully addressed the court prior to the sentencing.
“My choices have been more harmful than good,” Rice said. “I truly want to apologize to my patients, my community and Alamosa.”
Colorado Assistant Attorney General Daniel Seidel recommended a five-year prison sentence, and he added that Rice would possibly have to serve two years of her term.
Defense Attorney David Lipka used PowerPoint to plead his client’s case before Gonzales, as the presentation encompassed approximately 45 minutes, featuring a handful of character witnesses depicting Rice as an upstanding nurse practitioner.
Lipka’s presentation was powerful enough to influence Gonzales to an extent.
Gonzales said the Rice case was the “toughest” he ever had to sentence.
However, Gonzales’ sentence also included that Rice hold no position in the medical field during her probationary period, and she also is to abstain from any involvement with controlled substances — alcohol and drugs.
While sympathetic toward Lipke’s depiction of Rice, Gonzales said: “I see the pains of it every day; The jails are full,” families are destroyed because of drugs’ effects.
Gonzales said his sentence had to be “balanced” to send a message to the community.
During the August plea agreement, Rice was charged with 50 counts in connection to the distribution of a controlled substance through prescribing medications between 2014-17 while working at SoCo Medical Services.
The sheer amount of drugs distributed by Rice led Gonzales to say: “That’s both appalling and sickening; it’s not a matter of training or skills … it’s a matter of common sense.”
Four of the charges had to do with forgery and theft.
In the plea agreement, Rice admitted to 48 counts of theft “between Oct. 24, 2015, and Feb. 20, 2017, involving between $5,000-20,000 intended to deprive the State of Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.” She also pled guilty to an added count of felony distribution of a controlled substance. The remaining 49 charges were dismissed.
The agreement stipulated that with Rice’s plea the judge would only sentence her to a maximum of five years in the Department of Corrections (DOC) or seven years in Community Corrections. In theory, she could have faced up to 11 years in prison if found guilty by a jury on just the two charges. She also agreed to $17,082.68 in restitution to the State of Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
While acknowledging that Rice had no criminal past, Gonzales said: “I’ve seen the horrors the pills have had on the community.”
The State Board of Nursing suspended Rice’s professional nursing license in 2017 after investigating the number of prescriptions she was issuing and the deaths of three patients related to drug intoxication. The state board found that Rice had written more than 2,400 prescriptions for controlled substances during five months in 2016 alone and more than 7,000 prescriptions during a 13 month period in 2016 and 2017.