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Opioids trial, 1952: The downfall of Hennepin County Coroner Russell Heim

Federal drug agents had become curious about the unusual number of prescriptions for morphine and other narcotics that Heim issued from his 12 West Lake Street office.

photo of russell heim
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Dr. Russell Heim, 1934.
In 1952 Russell Heim (1886–1960) was a practicing physician and, since 1942, Hennepin County’s elected coroner. The Minneapolis Star called his narcotics prosecution “one of the most sensational trials of a public official…in the history of Minnesota federal courts.”

Hennepin County coroner was a part-time position that involved performing autopsies and supervising the morgue. Even before his arrest in September 1952 Russell Heim’s performance in office had provoked headlines. A Hennepin County grand jury in 1947 blasted him for “careless, wasteful, and indifferent” management. Among other things, he allowed supposedly full-time employees to work other full-time jobs, while other employees got full-time salaries for very little work. Heim called the charges an uninformed smear, and nothing came of them.

But law enforcement was already watching him — not for his official work but in his private medical practice. Federal drug agents had become curious about the unusual number of prescriptions for morphine and other narcotics that Heim issued from his 12 West Lake Street office. A criminal investigation began in May of 1952.

On September 19, 1952, a federal grand jury in Minneapolis indicted Heim on 229 counts of violating federal narcotics distribution laws. Trial came on just one month later. It lasted six days and included nearly 100 witnesses, including Heim.

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The crucial witnesses produced by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Essling were several drug addicts, some legitimate patients of Heim’s, and dozens of pharmacists. The drug addicts testified that Heim had been their long-time source. One of them was Heim’s medical office assistant, who testified that Heim paid her partly in cash, partly in drugs. Several of Heim’s patients testified that they had never received narcotics from him, though records showed he had issued many morphine prescriptions in their names. Some twenty-nine pharmacists from fifteen stores scattered around Minneapolis testified that Heim typically both wrote morphine prescriptions and picked them up in person. The former president of the Hennepin County Medical Association told the jury that over the two-year period covered by the indictment Heim had prescribed an unusual amount of the opioid dolophine as well as 1,640 tablets of morphine. A typical physician would have prescribed a bare fraction of that amount in such a period. The prosecution’s theory of the case was simple: Heim ran a business consisting of writing false narcotics prescriptions, then selling the drugs at a hefty markup.

The most remarkable thing about the trial was that though Dr. Heim insisted that he was innocent, he admitted almost all of the facts. In a way, he had to, because he had given an apparently candid interview to federal narcotics agents in June. Trial lawyers tried to get this statement excluded from evidence, but failed. Heim admitted writing all 229 of the narcotics prescriptions charged against him, but asserted that they were all legitimate, and that he was the best judge of the pain medication his patients needed. He did not seem to have an explanation for why he, rather than his patients, retrieved the drugs from the pharmacies.

Narcotics agents had been watching Heim for five years. They had visited him in his office and warned him about the number of known addicts hanging around. And yet, his narcotics license had been renewed several times. At trial Heim’s lawyers argued that this amounted to governmental consent: because Heim acted openly, they maintained, he had no intent to commit a crime. (But one of the narcotics agents testified that Heim told him, “I’ve been expecting you. I have been writing prescriptions in the names of patients and I suppose that’s wrong.”)

The jury agreed and convicted Heim on all 229 counts. Judge Gunnar Nordbye also agreed, dismissed all defense arguments, and sentenced Heim to four years in prison. “I can honestly say I never smuggled or trafficked in any illegal narcotics,” Heim said after sentence.

Prison did not satisfy the federal government. The next year it seized his car. After Heim came out of prison in April of 1954, the government continued its pursuit, seeking payment of $18,650 income taxes it said was unpaid from his narcotics income. When Heim failed to pay it all, the IRS pursued his now ex-wife and held her liable for nearly $3,000. Russell Heim died, living alone in a nursing home, on August 26, 1960.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.