CAMDEN — The ringleaders of an ongoing $50 million drug compounding fraud case asked a federal judge Thursday to lessen their travel restrictions so they can take their son to Walt Disney World next week.

Sara Hickman, 42, a former teacher, along with her husband, William, 42, a pharmaceutical sales representative, who have both pleaded not guilty in the case, appeared in U.S. District Court in front of Judge Robert B. Kugler.

While arguments were scheduled for 2 p.m. April 5 regarding the conditions of the couple’s release including the freezing of their assets, Sara Hickman’s attorney, Lee Vartan, asked about a trip to Disney World in Florida that she had planned and already paid for scheduled for next week.

“Both Hickmans have known about the investigation for two years,” Vartan said, adding that they left the country twice over that time with family and came back each time. “We don’t believe they are a flight risk.”

The couple also has a planned trip to Puerto Rico over the Easter holiday, and want to go on that trip as well, said Samuel Moulthrop, William Hickman’s attorney.

While Kugler said there should be a secured bond and doesn’t agree with travel outside the country, he’s “not opposed” to the Disney trip. Kugler deferred to pre-trial services, who supervise defendants who are released from custody, to make the decisions on the trip.

“If a family has no money for living expenses (because their assets are frozen), they wouldn’t be taking a trip like that,” Assistant U.S. Attorney R. David Walk Jr. said.

Also during the appearance, where all seven of the co-defendants appeared, the state and the defense spoke about the exchange of evidence in the case, which amounts to in excess of 100,000 documents, which should be started before the next status conference slated for 1:30 p.m. May 29.

Prosecutors allege the Hickmans were ringleaders of a local criminal organization authorities said cheated taxpayer-funded public workers’ health insurance programs out of more than $50 million.

The seven join a total of 30 people charged in the case since August 2017. Most are from Atlantic County, and the list includes teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees along with a doctor and pharmaceutical representatives.

“They are facing the most serious charges in this case,” Walk said. “Everything has changed significantly.”

The maximum sentence for the conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, Walk said, before adding that he found it “ironic” that the Hickmans have no money for living expenses, but can afford vacations.

Five other co-defendants who pleaded not guilty in the case last week also appeared, including:

Brian Pugh, 41, of Absecon, co-owner of Tony’s Baltimore Grill and owner of BP Med 1 LLC

Thomas Schallus, 42, a Ventnor police officer, who was allegedly recruited by Pugh

Christopher Broccoli, 47, of West Deptford, Gloucester County, a Camden firefighter

Thomas Sher, 46, of Northfield, and John Sher, 37, of Margate. Both men are Margate firefighters and were allegedly recruited by their brother Michael Sher, another Margate firefighter. Michael Sher has already pleaded guilty in the case.

Also Thursday, attorneys for Schallus and Thomas Sher scheduled a 4 p.m. Wednesday hearing about lessening the conditions of release that prohibit them from interacting with each other without their attorneys.

“All of these folks live in proximity of each other,” John Whipple, Shallus’ attorney, said. “These folks can’t avoid bumping into each other.”

Whipple said it’s “almost impossible” to prevent the co-defendants from seeing each other around their communities. The co-defendants’ live close to each other, frequent each others businesses and their children interact on sports teams at school, he said.

He said Schallus is the “rules guy” and as a suspended police officer “did not want to run afoul” of the rules.

“I understand this has upended the lives of many people — the likes of which they’ve never seen before,” Kugler said. “All I can do is move this case along as quickly as possible.”

Kugler said he understood Whipple’s concern, but that he didn’t think the defendants would be in violation for “bumping carts at the grocery store.”

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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