MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- He is responsible for one of the largest thefts of prescription painkillers in Wisconsin history, but did the feds give him a sweetheart deal?
It's hard to fathom how Christopher Schultz got away with it for so long, stealing thousands of pills from the pharmacy where he worked -- month after month, for years -- but it's what he did after he was caught that outraged friends and relatives of the man who became his scapegoat.
Until the fall of 2012, Christopher Schultz was an Aurora pharmacist at a store on Silver Spring Drive in northwest Milwaukee. According to state and federal court records, he used his access to painkillers as a source of personal income -- as much as $100,000 per year. At the height of his scheme, Schultz was stealing up to 6,000 pills every month, mostly hydrocodone, which police say sells on the street for roughly $8 per pill. That's a street value of $48,000 per month. Schultz sold those pills to a friend, who ran them from Milwaukee to Chicago. There, the friend sold the pills to another man, who then distributed them to wealthy Chicago lawyers. It was an illicit pipeline of prescription painkillers that flowed for at least three years, possibly longer.
By the time Aurora Healthcare finally discovered the discrepancies in its accounting system, the US Drug Enforcement Administration says Schultz had diverted more than 155,000 pills onto the black market. It's one of the largest prescription drug thefts in Wisconsin history.
"These things just don`t happen in our profession very often, to this extent," says James DeGiacomo, a retired pharmacist. The discovery was especially difficult for DeGiacomo to accept, because he was Schultz's boss.
"I had absolutely no clue that any of that was going on," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I trusted him. I was duped. I feel terrible about it, but I had no idea."
Schultz was fired. His pharmacy license was revoked. And he was facing substantial prison time. That's when he decided to help the government as a confidential information. But he didn't just flip on anyone. He helped the feds nail one of his longtime friends, a man we've agreed to identify only as 'Benjamin.'
"When he was up against it, he did something that nobody else thought, that none of my friends would do to each other," says Tony, a close friend of Benjamin's who is upset at Schultz for setting him up.
He says it didn't make sense to give Schultz a deal, because he wasn't giving up a bigger fish. Tony says Schultz was the big fish.
"The feds just couldn't get their heads around the concept that Chris was the top guy," Tony says.
In a letter to FOX 6 News from the Oshkosh Correctional Center, Benjamin describes himself as the "middle man," a recreational drug user who developed a problem and needed to fund his habit. He admits it was "poor judgment" and writes, "I have always accepted my fate in this."
What Benjamin has a hard time accepting is that Schultz - the actual pill thief - got a lighter sentence than he did. Benjamin is serving two years in a medium security state prison. Schultz is serving 15 months in a minimum security federal prison camp.
"Not fair this gentleman gets less than my son," says Benjamin's mom. "Especially because he was stealing from a pharmacy for years and years and years."
After the sentencing hearing in federal court on December 19th, Schultz walked away from the courthouse. The judge gave him more than a month to get his affairs in order before reporting to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on January 22nd. The man he helped the government snare got no such accomodation.
"They took him in handcuffs," recalls Benjamin's mother. "He couldn't even turn around and say goodbye to us. It was heartbreaking. The worst day of my life."
Of course, both men are now convicted criminals. But DeGiacomo says Schultz's crime is especially egregious, because of his education.
"He is well aware of the statistical spike in hospitalization and even deaths that have occurred recently due to prescription narcotic diversion," DeGiacomo says. "He added to the problem and that is despicable."
Just a few months before Aurora discovered Schultz's ongoing diversion of painkillers, the Silver Spring pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint by Daniel Lee, who also committed three other armed pharmacy robberies.
Lee got around 12,000 pills from the Aurora pharmacy. It's unclear how many he got in the other three, but likely far fewer than the 150,000 Schultz pilfered. But Schultz got just 15 months in prison. Lee is serving 65 years.
"Because he used a gun," Tony says. "And Chris just used his diploma."
Last fall, FOX 6 reported that the US Attorney was recommending Schultz be given probation. We based that on the minutes of a plea hearing, which indicated that "counsel does not object to the recommendation of probation." A spokesman for the US Attorney's Office, Dean Puschnig, now says that interpretation was incorrect. He says the minutes referred to the recommendation of the probation department. Puschnig says prosecutors never recommended that Schultz be spared prison time.
Aurora Pharmacy declined to answer specific questions about how Schultz was able to get away with the pills thefts for so long. Instead, the company issued a brief statement, which reads:
"Aurora Pharmacy has worked closely with authorities on the apprehension and conviction of this criminal. This theft from our organization has helped us to identify and implement processes to deter criminals in the future." --John Gates, vice president, Aurora Pharmacy