A pharmacist from the Massachusetts company linked to tainted drugs that killed 64 people was arrested Thursday as he prepared to leave the country, becoming the first person to be criminally charged in an ongoing federal investigation.
Glenn Adam Chin, 46, who prosecutors allege supervised the preparation of fatally contaminated medicine at now-bankrupt New England Compounding Center, was taken into custody at Logan Airport, where he had a ticket to Hong Kong.
It was the latest turn in a medical scandal that left hundreds of patients sickened, made headlines nationwide, and sparked hundreds of civil lawsuits.
“I am so mad about this, because this could have been prevented,” said Anna Adair, 51, who developed an infection in her spine caused by black mold after receiving contaminated injections at Michigan Pain Specialists. Adair said she was upset about the possibility that Chin was trying to flee the country to avoid responsibility for any role he had in the outbreak.
“If this guy only knew all the people who died and the pain we went through, he wouldn’t leave the country. He would stand up and say, ‘I am sorry about it,’ and not try to run and hide.”
Chin, who lives in Canton, pleaded not guilty to a single count of mail fraud Thursday, was released on $50,000 unsecured bond, and is under house arrest. He agreed to surrender his passport and must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
His attorney, Paul Shaw, scoffed at the implication that his client was fleeing, saying Chin was headed to a family wedding with his 66-year-old mother, his wife, and his young children. He called Chin’s airport arrest a ploy by prosecutors for media attention.
“It was orchestrated by the government to have all this,” he said during the hearing.
Shaw said Chin had round-trip tickets purchased ahead of time, which the government knew about. Chin was never told he was under investigation, said Shaw, nor was he interviewed.
Prosecutors said if convicted, Chin faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant US Attorney George Varghese said his office could not take the risk that Chin would leave the country and not return.
The US attorney’s office and the Justice Department’s consumer protection branch have been investigating New England Compounding since a nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak began in fall 2012. Prosecutors said 751 patients fell ill after receiving contaminated medicine, and 64 of them died.
“These people have suffered tremendously,” said Kim Dougherty, managing attorney in theBoston office of Janet, Jenner & Suggs LLC, who represents about 100 victims.
Several clients, she said, have lost relatives, and others have lost livelihoods. People once physically active now use wheelchairs; store owners were forced to sell their businesses.
The first criminal charge in the investigation reassured her clients the government is taking the case seriously, she said.
“It was a bit of a relief, a sign that things are moving forward and the government is still doing this investigation, and in all likelihood, will be indicting the people who are responsible for all the deaths and the illnesses,” Dougherty said.
A US attorney’s office spokeswoman declined to say whether more charges were expected, saying only that the criminal investigation is ongoing.
Attorneys associated with the Framingham pharmacy did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
According to the criminal complaint filed by Benedict Celso, a special agent for the Food and Drug Administration, Chin supervised four pharmacists and 10 pharmacy technicians in so-called clean rooms, and was personally responsible for compounding steroid stock solutions.
“During the course of this investigation, I have learned of numerous unsafe practices employed by Chin at NECC while producing supposedly sterile medication,’’ Celso wrote. “These unsafe practices included improper sterilization and improper testing of supposedly sterile medication. Moreover, to conceal these unsafe practices, Chin instructed pharmacy technicians to mislabel medication to indicate it was properly sterilized and tested.’’
Chin was in charge on June 29, 2012, when one batch of methylprednisolone acetate was made. Chin, the federal complaint alleges, “directed that filled vials be sent out of the clean room for shipment to NECC customers.’’
On Aug. 7, 2012, Michigan Pain Specialists in Brighton, Mich., ordered 400 vials of the material, the complaint alleged. New England Compounding sent the requested vials, each of which included the abbreviation for “injectable’’ on the label, indicating the medicine “was sterile and fit for human use,” the complaint said.
Over the next two months, doctors at the Michigan clinic injected 625 patients with the compound, the complaint alleges. After receiving the injections, 217 patients contracted fungal infections; fifteen of them died, according to the complaint.
After the hearing, Chin’s attorney called the allegations in the complaint “absolute nonsense.”
He said he did not dispute that the contaminated medication was compounded on Chin’s watch, but said officials have never determined the cause of the contamination.
“Until the government can tell you what the cause of the contamination was, it was hard to say it was under Mr. Chin,” Shaw said. “Once the vials left that clean room, and then were shipped, it was no longer under his responsibility.”
Adair received injections of the compound that were shipped to Michigan in summer and fall 2012.
By October, she was in too much pain to walk. She spent 41 days in the hospital receiving antifungal treatment, and while she feels better almost two years later, she has lingering symptoms.
Lower-back pain radiating down her legs makes it difficult to walk or bend down to tend her beloved flower and vegetable gardens.
“I don’t do what I want to do anymore,” she said.