September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

In hindsight, Barb Wibbenmeyer says she should have known something was wrong. Twice before, the Lee’s Summit, Mo., customer service specialist had battled ovarian cancer, enduring surgery and debilitating rounds of chemotherapy that left her violently ill from nausea and caused her salt-and-pepper hair to fall out in clumps. When the cancer returned at the end of last year, Wibbenmeyer, now 46, said her prayers and began the chemo process yet again at the office of a Kansas City doctor near her home. But things went differently this time. While the side effects of the drugs were noticeably milder—”I was nauseous but not nearly as bad,” she recalls—the treatment seemed utterly ineffective. “The cancer is raging now,” she says. Her only hope is an experimental drug she soon will begin taking at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Fully engaged in fighting for her life, Wibbenmeyer never dwelled on the possible reasons for her most recent course of treatment having failed—until the arrest last month of Robert Courtney, the pharmacist who she alleges had supplied her drugs. On Aug. 23 a federal grand jury in Kansas City indicted Courtney, 48, on 20 felony counts of diluting chemotherapy drugs delivered to the office of Kansas City oncologist Verda Hunter in May, June and August of this year. Tipped off by a suspicious pharmaceutical sales rep, according to court documents, Hunter contacted federal authorities, who tested prescriptions filled by Courtney for two powerful drugs, Taxol and Gemzar. They discovered that the pharmacist consistently delivered medication for Hunter’s ovarian-cancer patients that was less than half strength (in one case, less than 1 percent of the prescribed potency). According to the FBI, one woman who received watered-down drugs has since died.

Already a millionaire several times over, Courtney reportedly told investigators on Aug. 15 that he nonetheless was motivated by greed. He allegedly personally diluted the pricey drugs, pocketing hundreds of dollars per IV bag of adulterated solution. If convicted, the pharmacist, a churchgoing father of four, faces life in prison and a $5 million fine, and investigators are now scrutinizing his dealings as far back as 1995. “I don’t even know where to begin,” said the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Porter, at the Aug. 20 hearing during which Courtney’s request for bail was denied. “What we know for certain is that there are at least 30 to 35 victims. [Courtney] has inalterably affected that many people and their families.”

Although he initially cooperated with investigators, Courtney has since pleaded not guilty. But for licensed nurse practitioner Connie Remby, who underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer using drugs provided by the pharmacist five years ago, Courtney’s alleged tampering is beyond explanation. “When you’ve got cancer, you are fighting with all your life,” says Remby, 45, whose cancer has since spread to her bones and brain. “You’re giving everything you can to try to get better. For someone to take advantage of someone in this situation is unthinkable.” Courtney has been temporarily stripped of his pharmacy licenses, and at least 25 civil suits have been filed against him (and, in some cases, against Eli Lilly) for negligence and wrongful death. Attempts to reach Courtney’s lawyer and Eli Lilly for comment were unsuccessful.

Friends and neighbors who know Robert Courtney as a family man who teaches Sunday school and never misses his sons’ soccer games can scarcely believe he is capable of committing the crimes prosecutors allege. “I’m shocked. I just can’t believe he would do what they say he’s done,” says Orilla Brott, 85, a widow whom Courtney met at church and invited to his house for Christmas last year when he realized she would otherwise spend the holiday alone. Raised by Robert L. Courtney, now 75, and his wife, Nelle, who died of cancer three years ago, the younger Robert and his three sisters moved often as their father, an evangelist preacher, jumped from pulpit to pulpit in towns such as Palco, Kans.; Reform, Ala.; and Beaver City, Neb.

Courtney studied pharmacology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, graduating in 1975. His two oldest children—Vanessa, 22, and Valerie, 19—are from the first of his three marriages, to Quiness Osborn. In 1991 a friend invited him to Texas to meet a divorcée raising a daughter of her own. The couple married two years later. Now, Laura Courtney, 41, a homemaker, and Robert share a sprawling $700,000 house in Kansas City’s upscale Platte County neighborhood with Laura’s 11-year-old daughter Brittany and their 7-year-old twin sons Robert and Drew.

Until his arrest, colleagues had always regarded Courtney as a friendly competitor who, although slightly aloof, was a Kansas City-area pioneer in the practice of premixing highly toxic cancer drugs to the complex specifications of doctors who administer chemotherapy. “He was willing to do some of these cutting-edge things, and he seemed to be pretty successful at it,” says local druggist Dennis Hendershot. Indeed, Courtney amassed assets of close to $10 million. Still, investigators claim he owes $600,000 to the IRS. (Courtney’s lawyer insists his client’s tax bill has been paid.) He also lost a lot of business when five doctors moved offices and began using another pharmacy last April.

It was at about that time, according to documents filed in federal court in Kansas City, that Darryl Ashley, a regional sales representative for Eli Lilly, the company that makes and sells the cancer drug Gemzar, informed Hunter’s office that his records showed that Courtney had billed the doctor for more than twice the amount of the drug than he had purchased wholesale. Her suspicions aroused, Hunter had a batch of drugs from Courtney’s pharmacy tested for strength and found they were drastically diluted. She called the FBI in late July, and the official investigation was launched.

Prosecutors may face an uphill battle in proving the case against Courtney, since the drugs he allegedly doctored were administered long ago. Furthermore, cancer is a notoriously unpredictable disease, making it nearly impossible to establish the exact effects of a particular dose of chemotherapy. Nevertheless, Don Probance, whose wife of 52 years, Joyce, lost her five-year battle with ovarian cancer (her treatment included chemotherapy with drugs supplied by Courtney) March 26, 2000, can’t help being haunted by thoughts that his wife’s days may have been cut short by a pharmacist’s greed. “How does he sit down and think over the day’s business?” asks Probance, 75, a retired railroad worker who considered his wife his best friend. “Does he go, ‘Well, I shorted 10 patients, that’s $11,000’? It’s just horrendous.”

Patrick Rogers

Lorna Grisby and Pam Grout in Kansas City

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