Terah Holley trusted her doctor. Her family says that trust put her in an early grave.
“You watch their life literally slip away right in front of you,” her daughter, Allyson Holley, says through tears.
Terah Holley died of a prescription drug overdose on July 25, 2014, at the age of 39. The death certificate lists the cause of death as "probable morphine toxicity."
The Sherman resident is one of seven overdose deaths – three in Texas, four in Oklahoma -- named in the federal indictment against her doctor, Howard Diamond.
Federal investigators are looking into as many as 15 other deaths.
Diamond faces charges of drug distribution, money laundering and health care fraud. He is in federal custody.
His attorney says Diamond is innocent and did nothing wrong.
“Most pain management specialists will tell you even one death is a red flag,” says Mark Normandy, a retired DEA agent. “I think the high number of deaths involved is probably the most egregious portion of it. I’m told the quantities that he prescribed were just off the charts.”
Normandy is the former partner of Susannah Herkert, the lead investigator on the Diamond case. He and Herkert helped pioneer the methods the DEA now uses to investigate and prosecute pill mill doctors.
“There’s a very big presumption in favor of the doctors,” Normandy says. “However, the legal standard is a very simple one. Are they dispensing these drugs for a legitimate medical purpose? What I think people need to take away from this is that the people that we prosecute are just drug dealers. They're not bad doctors. They're not negligent doctors. They're drug dealers.”
Allyson’s mother started seeing Diamond after suffering extensive nerve damage and a hip injury in a car wreck. Ten days before she died, she filled prescriptions for morphine, oxycodone and two other powerful drugs.
“There were a few times where we would be eating, and my mom would just fall asleep in the middle of the plate,” Allyson said.
Terah's family says she was taking the medications correctly. Federal investigators say he was prescribing her massive amounts of the high-powered drugs.
Terah, a single mother, often worked two and three jobs to support her children. She worked as a waitress and a hairdresser. She completed cosmetology school shortly before her death.
Allyson says her mother was all about beauty. She didn’t leave the house without her signature brown lip liner.
Photos of Terah showed how her appearance changed after she started seeing Diamond. She went from a beautiful, vivacious, young woman to looking bloated and haggard.
It was hard to see her downward spiral. Allyson moved in with her grandparents at 15.
“If it was going to happen, I didn't want to see it,” she says. “I didn't want to hear about it. I didn't want to watch my mom turn into somebody that she wasn't.”
Terah's partner, LeAnn Winters, died a year before Terah. Her cause of death could not be determined.
"When LeAnn died, Diamond prescribed my mom more pills," Allyson said.
Terah's family hoped her partner’s death would be a wake-up call. Her father told her that he feared that she would end up dead.
“She said the doctor and I know what we're doing,” says Cindi Holley, Terah’s stepmother. “[She had] a lot of trust in that doctor.”
Terah’s children tried an intervention months before she died, telling her what her addiction was doing to them.
“She didn't see a problem in it as much as we all did. She was in denial,” Allyson says.
Terah was visiting her brother’s home in in Yukon, Oklahoma, when family members found her unresponsive. She died at the hospital.
“What kills me the most is that I didn’t get to tell her that I loved her before she passed,” Allyson said.
The family says the medical examiner contacted the DEA after Terah’s death. The medical examiner was concerned about the mix of medications he was prescribing her, they say.
“She said she was surprised my mom’s liver hadn’t failed a long time ago,” Allyson says.
Allyson's tattoos keep her mom's story alive. She’s got a sunflower – her mother’s favorite flower -- and her mother’s first name on one of her forearms. On her back, a tattoo says, “If my love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”
“He ripped a family apart with three kids that needed their mother,” Cindi says. “He broke her father’s heart when he used that prescription pad.”