SCOBEY – On Feb. 8, 2009, the 12th thoracic vertebra in Kent Cromwell's back exploded.
The injury, suffered in a snowmobile accident, launched Cromwell into a new life with chronic pain and started him on a path to being one of 91 known victims in what is probably the largest crime spree to ever hit this idyllic town in northeast Montana.
“I went down and the snowmobile came up, and it just completely blew out my T12 vertebra. It’s what they call a burst fracture,” he said, sitting in his Scobey home with his wife, 53-year-old Ronda, and their dog, Sammi.
Bits of the shattered vertebra, located at the top of the small of the back, hit his spinal cord, initially paralyzing him from the waist down, he said.
Doctors gave Cromwell a 5 percent chance of walking again. He went through multiple surgeries and can walk, but still takes prescription medication for chronic pain caused by nerve damage.
Cromwell can walk thanks, at least in part, to the same two people he said he later learned had been going into his home for months, maybe even years, stealing his prescription pain pills – physical therapist Kevin R. Criswell and his former physical therapy assistant Cale J. Handran.
In some instances, the stolen pills were replaced with lookalike Tylenol pills. Cromwell said he went into withdrawals that drove him into a suicidal depression and landed him in a Billings psychiatric ward.
“Going through that was actually worse than the accident itself,” he said.
The same ordeal, he and Ronda said, also nearly ended their 33-year marriage. She was convinced he was secretly abusing his pills, or worse, selling them.
“I feel absolutely horrible for saying the things I said to my husband, you know. I’ve trusted him for 33 years,” Ronda said. “He’s in tears and I am accusing him of taking these pills.”
“The thing that bothers me is just how heartless they were, knowing what kind of pain I was in,” Cromwell said of Handran and Criswell.
In September, U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters sentenced Criswell, 32, and Handran, 33, to four years of federal probation for conspiring to steal prescription pain pills from Cromwell – and 90 other of their physical therapy patients during a 14-month period in 2011 and 2012. They were also ordered to pay more than $6,400 in restitution to Cromwell, complete addiction treatment and spend the first six months of their sentences in prerelease centers. Criswell is in Butte, Handran is in Great Falls.
Criswell and Handran both declined to comment directly for this story, but attorneys for each man said the two are sorry for what they did.
“In total, the defendants’ actions had a profound effect on the whole community of Scobey,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McCarthy wrote in a sentencing memo.
Scobey, the seat of Daniels County in northeastern Montana, is a town of fewer than 1,050 people. The entire county has a population of less than 1,800.
“This ain’t Mayberry anymore. It’s changed, big time,” said Daniels County Sheriff Skip Baldry, who investigated the case and then sought the help of the DEA in pursuing federal charges.
“In some instances, the victims invited the defendants into their own homes, because they trusted them,” McCarthy wrote in a court document. “The defendants betrayed their trust and stole their pain medication and switched it with Tylenol.”
In other instances, according to Baldry, one of the men would walk into a victim’s unlocked home while the other man worked with the victim in physical therapy.
“It was well-planned,” Baldry said. “It was premeditated.”
Carol Fouhy, 68, an emergency dispatcher in Scobey, was another physical therapy patient who had pain pills stolen from her home.
On a recent afternoon, she sat in her kitchen near her extensive teapot collection and recounted once telling Criswell and Handran, who would often make home visits to their patients, about her hiding spot for her pills – inside a teapot.
She has dozens of teapots, some of them artistic, some of them whimsical. One of them is a crusty survivor of a fire sparked during a San Francisco earthquake.
Over time, she said, she started noticing that some of her pills were missing. She would come home and her teapots would be disturbed. Her pain pills, prescribed when she had her knees replaced, didn’t seem to be giving her relief. All of this raised her suspicions and prompted her to find a new hiding place for her pills.
“I hid them in my underwear drawer in the cup of a bra upside down,” she said. “And, sure enough, after I got home my drawer was ransacked through and half the pills were gone.”
“It's such a violation,” she continued. “And every time I go to my underwear drawer, I think about it. Every time I take a pill out of a pill bottle, I think about it. Almost every time I see the teapots, I think about it. It's there with me all the time.”
She remembers once when Handran offered to clear the snow from her driveway while she was out, and now suspects that was an occasion he went into her house and stole pills.
“No way” does she keep her door unlocked anymore, she said.
But Jodi Axtman, another former physical therapy patient of Handran’s, wrote a letter in support of him before he was sentenced. She also mentioned that he stopped by her home and shoveled snow for her, but to her that was a sign of his good character.
“We need more of that in our world today,” wrote Axtman, one of about 20 people who wrote letters of support for Handran and Criswell.
Both men, records state, sought addiction counseling on their own while the case was under investigation.
On March 22, 2012 – more than two years before he and Handran were indicted in federal court – Criswell had a letter published in the Daniels County Leader on the same day news of the investigation made the front page.
“I write this letter a humbled man,” Criswell stated. “First and foremost, I want to apologize to the community for the unacceptable and upsetting actions and mistakes I have made.”
Criswell and Handran gave up or lost their jobs at Daniels Memorial Healthcare Center, and were disciplined by the state's Board of Physical Therapy Examiners. Handran’s license remains suspended and is set to expire April 1. Criswell’s license is listed as active, but is also set to expire April 1.
The two were prominent figures in the community, Handran a hometown boy and Criswell a former student-athlete who starred on the University of Montana’s basketball team. He was a ranked scorer in the Big Sky Conference from the 2003 through 2006 seasons, records show.
Baldry said the case divided Scobey, and that resentment among some community members lingers.
There were allegations that some of the stolen pills were being sold. Baldry said he interviewed several people about this but he was unable to substantiate the claims.
Baldry started investigating the case in February 2012 after receiving multiple complaints from Scobey residents saying someone had entered their homes and stolen their prescription pain medications, court records state.
The sheriff continued to investigate, and in early March interviewed both men, not long after a resident reported catching Criswell suspiciously trying to enter a patient's home.
Criswell came clean, but Handran “clammed up” and didn’t offer any information, according to Baldry.
He interviewed Criswell twice more, and in one of those interviews Criswell identified 91 victims from a subpoenaed list of physical therapy patients who sought care at Daniels Memorial Healthcare Center from Jan. 1, 2011, though March 15, 2012.
The sheriff said that if they had drawn from a longer timeframe, more victims probably would have been identified.
“I know some of the victims are still very upset, (but) all in all I think we’re pretty forgiving,” Baldry said of the Scobey community.
Some of the victims aren’t around to be upset.
More than a dozen of them – mostly elderly people recovering from surgeries – died between the time Baldry started investigating the case in early 2012 and when it went to prosecution, he said.
While none of those deaths are attributed to the stolen pills, he explained, those victims unnecessarily spent portions of their last months alive in pain.
“There’s a lot of people out there that lived and died in a lot of pain,” the sheriff said.
Joe Kirkland, resident agent in charge of the DEA in Montana, described the case as both “significant” and “unusual” because of the number of burglaries and victims and because the offenses were committed by medical professionals.
“It also shows you how addictive prescription drugs can be,” he said, adding that both men were well-educated and had promising careers ahead of them. “They were willing to throw them away to steal drugs.”
Although no deaths in this case were attributed to prescription drug abuse, prescription pill abuse is a growing problem in Montana and is often more deadly than many realize, data indicate.
Last year, an estimated 125 people in Montana died – some intentionally, some not – from poisoning attributed directly to prescription drugs, up from 86 deaths in 2003, according to a report from the state’s Office of Epidemiology and Scientific Support.
But prescription drug abuse in combination with other factors can be linked to the deaths of more than 300 Montanans per year, according to the Montana Department of Justice, which characterizes the problem as an “invisible epidemic.”
“There might be a misconception that because these drugs are FDA approved, or prescribed, that they’re safe, or safer than an illicit drug. That actually is just not the case. (They’re) just as dangerous as street drugs if you’re not using them appropriately,” said Kaelyn Kelly, prescription drug abuse prevention and consumer protection outreach coordinator for the attorney general’s office.
One of the biggest steps that can be taken in fighting prescription drug abuse is education, particularly of young people, according to Kirkland, the DEA agent.
The agency, which works with state and local authorities to investigate drug cases, also has a number of resources, including a booklet, available online, with information to help parents understand prescription drug abuse and how to talk about it with their children.
Tips include recommendations to keep pills locked up or to turn them over to law enforcement when they’re no longer in use.
More than 16 percent of Montana high school students have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription at least once during their lives, according to the 2013 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
And a variety of surveys and studies suggest that most people, including kids, who abuse prescription pills are more likely to get them from a friend or family member than a dealer.
No state charges, such as burglary, were filed against Criswell or Handran, but pressing those charges is still a possibility, according to Sheriff Baldry.
He said he is waiting to get his investigative files back from the DEA, which he will review to determine if the case should be referred for possible prosecution at the state level.
Regardless of the final outcome, though, this case has left scars, according to Baldry, Fouhy and the Cromwells, who live next door to Handran's home in Scobey.
“I don’t feel like I can trust anybody anymore,” Ronda Cromwell said.
“That’s the bad part, you know?” Kent Cromwell added. “Having to lock that door when we leave – we shouldn’t have to do that in this town.”