The Pill Mill Killer

Erin Nealy Cox is leading the fight against Internet drug dealers

Published in 2005 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — July 2005

Like many teenagers, 18-year-old Ryan Haight of La Mesa, Calif., was intimately familiar with the workings of the Internet. So when Haight, an honor roll student and avid baseball card collector, went searching for drugs, he didn’t go to the back streets of the inner city; he went to the digital highways of the Internet. Haight was looking for prescription drugs and he knew what many adults do not — that such drugs are readily available over the Web.

Haight went to an Internet pharmacy site and logged in as a 25-year-old with severe back pain. He wanted Hydrocodone, a potent painkiller and a popular illicit drug among young people. Without inquiring further, the online pharmacy accepted his payment and sent him the Hydrocodone in the mail. Not long thereafter Ryan overdosed on a combination of drugs, including Hydrocodone. His mother found him dead on his bedroom floor.

Erin Nealy Cox’s job was to prosecute the Texas pharmacist and online pharmacy responsible for Haight’s death. As an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Cox, along with fellow prosecutor Dan Guess, successfully tried the case in October 2003, obtaining the nation’s first conviction of a pharmacist under the federal drug kingpin statute for conspiracy to dispense narcotics over the Internet.

Shortly after winning that case, Cox was snapped up from her job in Dallas and asked to join the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy (OLP) in Washington, D.C. Among its many tasks, the OLP serves as the attorney general’s principal policy development staff, reviewing and analyzing pending legislation proposals.

When she arrived in Washington in January 2004, the issue of how best to pursue a prescription drug policy was at the top of the Justice Department’s to-do list. Federal statistics estimate that 6.2 million Americans misused prescription drugs in 2002. By 2003, spending on Internet prescription drugs had grown to $3.2 billion. So it was significant, says her boss at the OLP, then-Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant, that Cox’s last case before coming to the agency involved a major illegal Internet pharmacy.

While Cox and Bryant acknowledge that some Internet pharmacies may be legitimate (as long as they comply with state laws requiring a person-to-person meeting between doctor and patient before a prescription is given), they say that many others are not, dispensing pills merely upon receipt of credit card information. Cox says that there are countless online “pill mills” operating in the United States today, making it easy for kids to go online and order prescription drugs with a parent’s credit card. Because these online pharmacies exist “out there in the ether,” they can shut down quickly and reopen elsewhere under a different name, notes Bryant.

In the absence of a federal statute on point, prosecutors have had to rely on a mix of other statutes, making it time-consuming and difficult to charge and prosecute these rogue pill-dispensing operations. Thus, Cox spent much of her time in Washington drafting comprehensive legislation that, for the first time, will provide a federal statute addressing the problem of rogue online pharmacies. Bryant credits Cox with having briefed it all the way up to the level of the attorney general, throughout the administration and in Congress. “She has just taken real ownership of this project,” he says. “But for her, we simply would not be in a position to be where we are. I don’t even know if we would have a good bill drafted, let alone sold it to so many stakeholders.”

While in Washington, Cox also spent time grappling with issues arising in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions on sentencing — U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. Fanfan — resulting in the federal sentencing guidelines being deemed no longer mandatory but simply advisory. As a prosecutor, Cox regularly engaged in federal sentencing and was able to offer invaluable insight as the OLP pulled together expertise throughout the department to determine the appropriate legislative response.

Cox’s value to the OLP lay in her unique perspective, her “prosecutorial seasoning and mindset” says Bryant. “She has enlivened many a meeting with a bunch of eggheads who haven’t been in the real world in a while,” says Bryant. “All of a sudden this energetic, articulate person who has recently been in the courtroom fighting real bad guys is helping reframe the issues.  She has been a breath of fresh air in many a policy discussion.

“We had never before had an assistant U.S. attorney detail into the OLP,” adds Bryant. “Erin was the first, and I am confident that we will be unlikely to ever adequately fill her shoes upon her return to Texas: she is fearless; she is a very good lawyer; she is an outstanding communicator [who] can make complicated things very understandable for busy people, which is an indispensable quality in Washington; [plus] she works very well across the aisle fostering coalitions of support.”

Cox served as Bryant’s senior counsel and, ultimately, as his staff director, until May 2005. “It was a whole new way of thinking,” she says of her experience in Washington. “You are trying to enact good legislation, good policy that will make a very large impact — larger than you could ever make with any one case or any one defendant.”

The OLP will miss Cox “hugely,” Bryant says, but he understands the demands of her responsibilities and family in Texas. Indeed, during her year and a half in Washington, Cox set up house with her infant daughter Amelia, while her husband, John Thomas “Trey” Cox III, a partner at Lynn Tillotson & Pinker, LLP, in Dallas, traveled most weekends to see them. “To say that he has been supportive is really the understatement of the century,” Cox says of her husband, “because he has been encouraging even to the point of his own personal sacrifice. It is just incredible.”

The Texas Connection

Erin Nealy Cox has covered a lot of ground in her 34 years. And while she says she has enjoyed the journey immensely, she couldn’t be happier to return to Dallas, where her legal career began.

Although she was born in Mississippi, Cox has lived in Salem, Ore., and Baton Rouge, La. Her father, a doctor, became medical director of Exxon and moved the family from Baton Rouge, where Cox had lived since age 12, to The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston. Cox finished her last two years of high school in The Woodlands.

She graduated in 1992 from the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in finance and business administration. Upon graduating Order of the Coif from Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas in 1995, she clerked for the Honorable Henry A. Politz, chief judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Shreveport, La. It was there that she met her future husband, Trey Cox, who was clerking for the Honorable Jacques L. Wiener Jr., also of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Judicial Circuit.

“It was a total law geek story,” laughs Trey Cox, 34, who has been recognized in his own right as an outstanding attorney, most recently as a 2004 Super Lawyer in Texas Super Lawyers magazine and Texas Monthly and by the Dallas Business Journal as one of the “10 Metroplex Litigators Worth Having on Your Side.” Recalling the hours they spent together in the law library that separated the two judges’ chambers, Trey Cox explains how he and Erin became friends and eventually “dated on the sly.” After their respective clerkships ended, Erin headed to New York in September 1996 to work as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett for a year while Trey went to Atlanta to work at King & Spalding. They saw each other whenever possible and became engaged that Christmas. Since Erin was to begin a one-year clerkship in September 1997 with the Honorable H. Barefoot Sanders, the U.S. senior district judge for the Northern District of Texas, Trey, a Louisiana native, looked for a job in Dallas. “I told people that the girl of my dreams had moved to Dallas,” he says, “so I did too.”

After clerking for Judge Sanders, Cox applied to work at the U.S. Attorney’s office, but initially did not get hired because of a lack of trial experience. Instead, she joined the Dallas firm Carrington, Coleman, Sloman and Blumenthal as a litigation associate, where she was assigned to partner Barbara M. G. Lynn, now a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Texas. As a “fresh out of the box” attorney, it was clear to Judge Lynn that Cox took great pride in what she did, and did things well. “I thought she was just absolutely terrific to work with — smart, a good strategic thinker, hard worker, aggressive in the right way, and very intent on problem solving,” says Lynn.

Cox remembers her Carrington days fondly, noting how Judge Lynn let her argue motions in court, meet with clients and work one on one with her. To this day, she and Judge Lynn are so close that the judge regularly recuses herself from Cox’s cases. “You know,” muses Lynn, “we have a substantial age difference, she and I, but I would count her as one of my closest friends. I may have been her mentor at one time, but she doesn’t need mentors anymore.” Laughing, she adds, “And I take credit for all the good things that she does.”

After nearly a year and a half at Carrington Coleman, Cox applied to work at the U.S. Attorney’s office again. This time she was hired. Initially Cox was assigned to a portfolio of immigration cases that, because they tended to be repetitive, quickly gave her confidence and courtroom experience. After about six to nine months of handling the same kinds of cases, Cox felt that she was ready for more. That opportunity came when, in 2001, Bob Webster, criminal chief at the U.S. Attorney’s office, asked Cox to help try a complex white-collar case in which the defendant, Brian Stearns, was charged with 82 counts of fraud involving numerous investors. “It was a fabulous opportunity for me, so I jumped at it, even though it was quite intimidating,” says Cox.

“She was exceptional in her skills, just a natural in the courtroom and very well received by the jurors, court personnel … even the defense lawyers respected her for her ability to present that case,” says Webster. “It was a complex case and she was able to winnow it down to the most understandable facts and organize it in a manner that allowed it to be presented most expeditiously.” After a three-week trial, Stearns received a 30-year sentence and was ordered to pay $36 million in restitution to his victims.

Webster is delighted to welcome Cox back to Dallas. Cox, for her part, is excited to return to the courtroom.

“I love being an assistant U.S. attorney,” she says. “Being a prosecutor isn’t just about winning. I’ve felt that I’ve been doing good. That really [has been] my job satisfaction. [Unlike private practice,] you never have a problem with clients or client development; ours is a volume business. But at the end of the day, even if you don’t indict, you always try to do good.”

Quoting another of her mentors, the late Shannon Ross, former criminal chief in Dallas before Cox left for Washington, Cox says that “every criminal defendant deserves two lawyers: a good criminal defense lawyer and a prosecutor who seeks the truth.”

Cox says that she is honored to be that prosecutor.

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