Stephen J. Lee, Published July 09 2009
Sister of convicted killer Moe Gibbs, already convicted of attempted murder, now faces multiple drug charges
A former physician’s assistant in the Air Force, Etienne last month pleaded guilty to attempted murder and now is charged with illegally selling thousands of prescription weight-loss pills since late 2007.
Etienne, who turns 32 next week, pleaded guilty June 16 to two counts of second-degree attempted murder, reduced from the initial charges, for trying to kill her two young daughters with carbon monoxide inside her vehicle June 22, 2008. She is scheduled to be sentenced in August on those charges and is free on bail.
On June 30 in Crookston, she was charged with 19 felony counts of fifth-degree selling of a controlled substance. Each count carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, based on an investigation dating to November 2007.
According to the court complaint, from March 30, 2007 to July 22, 2008, she received shipments totaling 25,000 phentermine pills, usually in 1,000-pill shipments. That total was more than all the pharmacies in Polk County sold during the same period, investigators say.
Etienne is scheduled to appear July 22 to face the drug charges in a Crookston courtroom.
In late 2007, Etienne was a physician’s assistant with the 319th Medical Operations Squadron at Grand Forks Air Force Base when the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations opened an investigation into whether she was selling phentermine illegally.
Phentermine is an amphetamine-like appetite-suppressing drug used for weight loss and is in the general class of stimulants or “uppers.”
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, of several drugs developed as appetite suppressants to replace amphetamines in the market, phentermine is “the most widely prescribed and most frequently encountered on the illicit market.”
Phentermine has a long list of possible side effects, many of them dangerous, such as high blood pressure, and often is highly addictive. It’s considered a controlled substance in Minnesota and several other states.
Based on the court document, the drug investigation appeared to be tightening down on Etienne, she had just quit a medical job and she herself was high on alcohol mixed with phentermine when she tried to end the lives of her daughter and herself last summer.
She sold the pills generally for $1 per pill, making a profit of 70 to 84 cents a pill, based on figures in the complaint. Her “clients” were women, some of them Air Force personnel going on overseas deployments, who bought them as part of a weight-loss program.
Etienne had a federal DEA controlled substances registration certificate and worked for physicians. But she fraudently obtained and sold the phentermine pills from her home, which she falsely described as a clinic to obtain the pills, and by delivering them in person to her “clients,” investigators allege in the court complaint to establish probable cause for the Etienne to be charged.
Etienne worked out of a clinic on the base, in Fargo and in Bagley, Minn. She worked briefly for former Fargo physician Rodney Lee, who, in an apparently unrelated case, had his license suspended for improperly dispensing prescription drugs.
Investigators say that Etienne used her arrangements with Lee and other physicians to fraudently obtain more weight-loss pills that she was allowed to obtain and sell.
The high number of pills she was handling apparently brought Etienne to the attention of authorities.
During interviews with Air Force and North Dakota investigators in November 2007, Etienne said because she soon was leaving the Air Force, she had begun seeking civilian jobs, partly to fund the defense of her brother, Moe Gibbs, who was facing murder charges. Gibbs later was convicted of killing a New Salem, N.D., woman in Valley City.
Etienne told investigators she was selling phentermine pills as part of a Medifast weight-loss program under her new company, “EZ Breezy Weight Loss and Wellness,” which she operated out of her East Grand Forks home.
Nov. 16, 2007, after an interview with Special Agent Christel Thorsell of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations and Special Agent Steve Gilpin of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Etienne “became verbally and physically non-compliant with the officers but eventually was handcuffed,” according to the complaint. She was not arrested at that time.
Searches of her vehicle and home in November 2007 found a host of evidence that Etienne was procuring phentermine fraudulently and selling it illegally, according to the complaint.
By June 2008, according to the investigators’ complaint, the drug investigation involved not only the Air Force, North Dakota’ s BCI and East Grand Forks police, but Polk County Social Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.
June 17, 2008, she received her second-to-last shipment of the pills, again 1,000.
June 22, 2008, she tried to kill her two daughters and herself while texting her husband, who called police, leading to her arrest. Her daughters were treated at the hospital and released. Her last shipment of pills, 2,000 this time, arrived July 22, 2008, according to the complaint.
Investigators continued to find and interview clients of Etienne’s pill business until a few months ago.
Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth plans to seek an “aggravated” or longer-than-typical sentence in the case because Etienne “is not amenable to probation and/or the offense is more serious than the typical offense.”
Herald Staff Writer Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.
The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.