A retired New Jersey doctor who marketed an industry-grade herbicide as an accelerated diet pill and later faked a cancer diagnosis in an attempt to avoid prosecution was sentenced Wednesday to nearly three years in federal prison.
William Merlino, 85, of Mays Landing, sold the toxic chemical 2,4 Dinitrophenol, better known by the name DNP on the Internet to hundreds of customers looking to lose weight fast.
Federal agents shut down his business in 2019 after one of his UK clients died of a drug overdose.
“This is one area where we can’t have people freelance saying I know better than [U.S. Food and Drug Administration,] I know better than public health officials,” U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh told the doctor as he imposed a sentence of two years and nine months behind bars.
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But despite expressing remorse Wednesday over the deaths caused by his pills, Merlino continued to use DNP to lose weight and suggested the real reason for his accusation was that he was embezzling money from big pharmaceutical companies looking to cash in on other diet drugs.
“I wasn’t trying to run a business,” he said. “I was trying to help people. I’ve been trying to help people for the 45 years I was in practice.”
As for his attempt to delay his 2021 trial by falsifying medical records that said he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Merlino attributed it to a misunderstanding and blamed his then-lawyer for filing the court with a excuse that McHugh dismissed. .
“It’s really unfortunate that you’re in this position at this stage in life,” the judge said. “But I feel compelled to say that it was arrogance that brought you to this position and it is the same arrogance that has been displayed in this courtroom today.”
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The FDA has banned DNP, an industrial chemical with commercial uses as a herbicide, dye and explosive for human consumption in the United States since the late 1930s, when it became clear it led to cataracts, liver damage, organ failure and death in patients who were taking it as weight loss therapy and to treat other diseases.
Previously, forms of DNP had been sold over the counter. And during World War II, the Russian military supplied thousands of its soldiers with the drug to raise their metabolism and body temperature during the harsh winter conditions of the Siege of Leningrad.
While it is now illegal to sell DNP as a drug in most countries, it remains readily available in certain corners of the internet where patients swear by its ability to boost metabolism and burn fat rapidly.
Merlino, who spent Wednesday’s proceedings dressed in green prison overalls and handcuffed to a wheelchair stationed at the defense table, told the judge he conducted “extensive research” into the chemical’s potential uses in human patients after retired from active practice of medicine in 2005. He took it himself, he said, for eight months and lost about 80 pounds.
But prosecutors argued that despite Merlino’s claims that he acted in good faith, he knew selling DNP as a drug was illegal.
For example, Assistant US Attorney Joan E. Burnes noticed that when she started selling DNP on eBay, she shipped it to her customers around the world using several fake return addresses. And when the auction website pulled its listings in 2018, she continued to sell the chemical on Twitter and on her own website.
But despite adding disclaimers to his client communications, noting that DNP was intended for agricultural use, he still included information about how it had been used for weight loss before it was banned, a message Burnes said. defined as a knowing nod to the real reason his customers were willing to pay for access to the drug.
Merlino, Burnes said, made more than $54,000 in sales between 2017 and 2019.
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“This is a man who knew the law and decided he wasn’t going to comply with the law,” Burnes said. “And doing so has had tragic consequences.”
The death of one of Merlin’s clients, a 21-year-old British bodybuilder whose name prosecutors have withheld from the public court, has attracted the attention of the UK’s National Food Crime Unit, which, after tracing Merlin’s l origin of the drug, notified the FDA.
Federal agents raided Merlino’s home in 2019, effectively shutting down his business. And although a jury convicted him three years later of smuggling misbranded drugs into interstate commerce, Merlino suggested Wednesday that medical records linking the bodybuilder’s death to DNP use and which were later used against him during the his trial had been falsified.
“For overdose, you have to take almost 10 times the therapeutic dose,” he insisted.
But Merlino’s attempts to falsify medical records led to his subsequent conviction last year on charges of obstruction of justice.
While awaiting trial on charges related to his DNP sales, a close friend sought advice from his retired doctor after his wife was diagnosed with a terminal case of pancreatic cancer. But rather than review the woman’s medical records, as he initially told his friend he would, Merlino forged his own name on the documents and passed them on to his then-lawyer, Edward F. Borden Jr.
The attorney took them to the court in a request to delay Merlino’s trial for months. Both the court and prosecutors agreed until they discovered the documents were forgeries.
Burnes said Wednesday that Borden was unaware of Merlin’s deception when he asked for the trial to be postponed.
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His new attorney, Robert Gamburg, said Wednesday that while his client had made mistakes, he still believed the man was redeemable.
“It was definitely a poor pick, words can’t describe how poor a pick it was,” he said. But “it still has a lot to offer to society, it still has a lot to accomplish, it still has the ability to help people.”