At about 5 in the morning on Friday, Sept. 21, Richard Paey awoke foggy from a long night of deep sleep and instinctively reached for his locker to grab his glasses. Instead, he felt — what, a lamp? The wood of a bedside table? He noticed his bed. Soft. His wife Linda lay next to him. It was true.
The day before, he had been a prisoner, confined to a stark cell in Tomoka Correctional Institute near Daytona Beach, more than three years into a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking.
And now he was a free man.
On his first morning at home in Hudson, that fact took a few blurry seconds to sink in. "In prison, I had dreams where I'd be sitting at home with my wife, touching her leg, and then I'd wake up and find I was still in prison," Paey says. "It's the worst thing you can imagine. I slowly woke up that day, and the reality came to me that I was home, that it wasn't a dream."
Creative Loafing first told the story of Paey's arrest and incarceration in June 2004. Since then, he has become the country's most high-profile chronic pain patient — a cause celebre for foes of America's war on drugs and its draconian mandatory-minimum prison sentences.
But the full story of what happened to him inside, what led to his release, and what his life is like in the aftermath has not been told until now — a saga of injustice and survival in which the war on drugs runs smack up against the war on pain.
Richard Paey began his battle with pain in 1985, after a severe car accident in Philadelphia. Two failed back surgeries later, he faced a life of intense, unremitting agony. He tried every imaginable treatment option, but opiate pain medications — stuff like Percocet and Vicodin — were all that helped.
A sympathetic doctor in New Jersey provided him with the necessary doses — very big ones. But Paey, 49, is no junkie. He swears he's never gotten a buzz from pain pills, just a little drowsy when he first started taking them. Pain specialists back him up: The science, they say, is inexact, but essentially the pain soaks up the opiates, leaving nothing for the pleasure centers.
Richard and Linda, who met at Rutgers University, moved with their three young children to Hudson in 1994. Richard had trouble finding a doctor to treat him.
The War on Drugs — a term coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971 to introduce a new set of initiatives strengthening drug prohibition — had turned a harsh light on prescription pain meds. A few bad doctors were using their practices as pill mills, getting busted and making headlines. Legit doctors felt the chill and became cautious about writing large doses. It's a problem that continues to this day.
The New Jersey doctor agreed to mail Paey prescriptions of Percocet, Lortab and Valium. In 1995, a host of prescription painkillers was folded into Florida's drug trafficking laws. A year later, Paey popped onto the radar of a Pasco County detective who was monitoring pharmacies for large pain-pill prescriptions. He contacted the Tampa office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which sent an agent to visit Paey's doctor in New Jersey. When the drug cop suggested he might be under investigation, the doctor caved, said he never wrote scripts after a certain date.
That opened the door to hit Paey with prescription fraud and — preposterously enough — drug trafficking. Pasco Sheriff deputies surveilled Paey for weeks and never saw him sell a single pill. That didn't matter. If they could catch him with a large enough quantity of painkillers, obtained with what they contended were forged prescriptions, they could hang a trafficking charge on him. So they did. A heavily armed team burst into the Paey home in March 1997 and arrested him.
Right around this time, Paey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Within a few months, he would be consigned to a wheelchair.
It took three trials and seven years to finally put Paey in jail, convicted of multiple counts of drug trafficking, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and possession of a controlled substance. The judge had no choice but to mete out 25 years.
Prosecutors have said they offered Paey several lesser sentences, including house arrest. Paey counters that the state undercut the early plea bargains and over time the proposed sentences became unacceptably long. He knew he was in the right. He went to trial. He lost.
During his prison stay, Paey was articulate, noble and resolute in defending his innocence and the injustice of his sentence. Linda worked the talk shows, did interviews and gave speeches, even though she loathed every minute of it. 60 Minutes did a feature on Richard. The New York Times took up his cause. Myriad other media outlets jumped on board as well.