Overdose murder case was brought to a previous District Attorney who declined to prosecute

State had data about purchased pills

DENVER - A former Cherry Creek School District employee accused of murder in connection with an overdose death could have faced charges years ago, but the District Attorney's office didn't move forward.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta his deputies first brought the case to Carol Chambers, the former District Attorney. His officers reintroduced it to prosecutors under the current DA George Brauchler, who decided to move forward.

Almeda Beth Sullivan, 50, is now being charged for an overdose death that occurred in her home during 2011. An affidavit says Carter Higdon, 21, died in Sullivan's home at 7250 East Bentley Circle in Centennial.

The autopsy revealed Higdon had died 12-18 hours before Sullivan called police. Toxicology tests cited in the affidavit showed elevated levels of Oxymorphone and alcohol, as well as Xanax, Trazodone, and marijuana.

Sullivan was a teacher's aide at West Middle School in the Cherry Creek School District in 2004 and 2005, according to Tustin Amole with the school district. She worked in the transportation department for about a year prior to that.

Over the years, Sullivan obtained thousands of prescription pills and the state had the data to prove it all along.

The Prescription Drug monitoring program -- known as PDMP -- tracks controlled substances sold in Colorado. Pharmacies update the database each time a prescription is filled.

When investigators checked the database for Sullivan, Higdon and three others she's accused of providing drugs to, they found hundreds of Opana prescriptions between 2007 and 2011. Opana is a brand name of oxymorphone, an opioid pain medication.

The prescriptions totaled more than 21,000 pills, investigators found.

During the same years the prescriptions were filled, the deaths connected to Sullivan were adding up. Sierra Cochran, 19, died of an overdose in Sullivan's home in January of 2008. The next month, Martynas "Tez" Simanskas, 20, and Lindsey Jo Saidy, 28, both died.

Investigators found Sullivan's phone number in Simanskas' phone and Saidy's aunt told authorities that all three had recent contact with Sullivan.

State Senator Irene Aguilar is also a physician who relies on the PDMP and says the system works well "if physicians use it."

The majority of medical professionals, however, don't use it.

According to a report from the Department of Regulatory Agencies, only 30 percent of active physicians and 27 percent of dentists even have accounts to log into the system. 58 percent of physician's assistants have accounts, but only 36 percent of advanced practice nurses with prescriptive authority do.

Among pharmacists, the ones who dole out the pills, only 47 percent have accounts to query the PDMP.

Aguilar explains it is a physician's responsibility to look for red flags of fraud or abuse before writing prescriptions, but they are not required to do so. Lawmakers are hesitant to force the issue, she says.

"It was really hard to get it passed even in the format in which we passed it," she explained, citing concern about "civil liberty violations."

Colorado is the second in the nation for prescription drug abuse, but an effort to change things could be coming. Governor John Hickenlooper is heading a commission of governors exploring ways to curb the problem and the District Attorney's Office prosecuting the case against Sullivan is looking at other drug-related cases where PDMP data may be valuable.

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