TAMPA — Not so long ago, they ran what authorities described as the most active pill mill in the United States, and now they are getting out from under long prison sentences by helping prosecutors jail other pill pushers.
In the process, they’re pulling back the curtain, showing jurors what it was like at what has been called ground zero for pill mills, the prescription narcotic equivalent to the “cocaine cowboy” days in South Florida.
The Tampa Bay Wellness Centre was so popular, according to court testimony, and was drawing so many patients that parking had become a serious issue.
The affiliated VIP Pharmacy was, authorities said, dispensing more oxycodone than any other retail pharmacy in the nation — more than 27 times the amount sold by the average Florida pharmacy and 49 times the national average.
A lone doctor labored inside the clinic to accommodate the demand from drug seekers, many from other states including Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.
To move people through quickly, the doctor saw groups of as many as five “patients” at a time, handing out fistfuls of prescriptions for massive doses of powerful narcotics that were filled at the on-site pharmacy. The doctor worked into the wee hours of the morning, trying to see everyone, to get the envelopes containing their office visit fees, paid in cash — half of which he pocketed as his pay.
To keep the customers from taking their business to other pill mills, one of the owners regularly went on food runs, buying pizza and other fast food to give them while they waited their turn, sometimes standing around for days waiting to be seen. Some clients were strung out on drugs, vomiting or having seizures. But virtually all of them would get their new prescriptions.
There wasn’t enough room to park; cars were being towed from illegal spaces. So the owners leased a parking lot up the street and hired a valet service.
But other businesses in their strip mall still complained their customers couldn’t park. People’s cars were being stolen. The owner of the building at Armenia Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard told the pill mill owners they had to leave.
They found a nice office in a legitimate medical building near St. Joseph’s Hospital, with about 2,800 square feet of space, enough to accommodate their needs.
But when 150 patients showed up the first day, the building manager grew concerned. And the situation only got worse. Patients were scaring old people who were there to see their dentist. The legitimate patients were spooked seeing the pill mill clients shooting up drugs in the bathrooms and stairwells.
After about five days, the pill mill was given until the end of the day to leave.
They found another spot off Busch Boulevard and moved into the office overnight. The next morning, when the same large crowd of people showed up in the parking lot, the building manager told the pill mill owners they couldn’t open for even a single day.
Once again, they had to frantically search for another spot.
They landed at another King Boulevard building where another medical business had been before. They ultimately bought that building, at 2137 Martin Luther King, where they stayed until law enforcement shut them down in November 2010.
The owners, operators and employees of the clinic, the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre, and the VIP Pharmacy were ultimately prosecuted in what the Drug Enforcement Administration said was one of the biggest pill mill cases in the Tampa area.
Facing lengthy prison terms, some of those arrested decided to save their own skins by helping authorities bring down other pill mill operators.
They began testifying against their fellows in the illicit prescription drug trade. In return, their sentences are being substantially reduced. Some are avoiding prison entirely.
While critics may question giving breaks to large-scale drug dealers, prosecutors say it’s necessary to enlist criminals to catch more bad guys.
“The drug world is a world of many, many different webs of connection,” said Assistant Hillsborough State Attorney Darrell Dirks, who called some of the federal pill mill defendants as witnesses in a state trial against the operators of the First Medical pill mill. “Unless you get individuals that are involved in those webs of connection, you have very limited ability to prosecute anyone other than the individuals that are on the street actually using the drugs or selling the drugs on the street. You can’t reach the upper echelons. That’s just a fact of life.”
Defense lawyer Chip Purcell represented the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre doctor, who was convicted in a federal trial last year in which the owner and operators testified for the prosecution.
“It does seem unsettling that the real perpetrators wind up with substantially less time than the people they testify against,” he said, “and that’s always disquieting. But that’s the nature of criminal prosecution. That’s something they always do.”
Purcell’s client, Ronald John Heromin, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and is appealing his conviction.
Pharmacy owner Marco Beltran was sentenced to 15 years in prison but is scheduled to appear before a judge next month after the prosecution filed a motion to reduce his time behind bars in recognition of his continued cooperation. That cooperation includes testimony against Heromin and at another federal trial and two state trials since he was sentenced two years ago.
Beltran also acted as a confidential informant for Tampa police, according to the prosecution motion, which says he arranged an oxycodone transaction with someone under investigation by state authorities. That person pleaded guilty and also testified against Heromin.
The prosecution motion recommends Beltran’s sentence be cut as low as seven years.
Purcell said Beltran is more culpable but is getting the break. “He earns the pile of money. He passes out the dope. He has all the contacts with the drug dealers, and he gets the best deal.”
For some defendants, the lawyer said, getting caught first can be the key to paying a lower price.
“Those that get arrested first get the best deal,” he said. “It doesn’t relate so much to your culpability as it does to timing.”
U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley said rewarding cooperation from defendants is an important tool for prosecutors. “Many of the crimes we prosecute would never be known to us if not for the cooperation of somebody else we’re prosecuting,’’ Bentley said. “If we were to turn off the spigot for cooperation by criminal defendants, there’s a tremendous amount of crime that would go undetected and unpunished.”
Beltran’s co-defendant, Louis Fernandez Jr., was initially sentenced to two years in prison but had that reduced to three years of probation in exchange for his continued cooperation; his son, Louis Fernandez III, who initially received five years and six months in prison had that reduced to one year; and Kimberly Curtiss, who was first sentenced to four years in prison, had that reduced to two years of probation.
Beltran’s lawyer, Frank Louderback, said Beltran “cooperated to a very large extent.’’ All of the defendants who cooperated were allowed to remain out of prison as the other cases progressed, Louderback said.
Louderback conceded Beltran likely didn’t have a high-minded reason to cooperate.
“I think probably it all was self-interest,” the lawyer said. “He was honest, forthright, came to the forefront early, gave significant testimony that resulted in a number of convictions that resulted in some very substantial sentences.”
In the state case of First Medical Group, for example, the owners and office manager were convicted of multiple charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy, racketeering and operating a drug trafficking conspiracy. Clinic owner Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and his wife, Michele Gonzalez, were each sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Beltran also testified against physician Paul Awa, who used to work at JW Wellness on Waters Avenue. Awa was convicted last year of conspiracy to traffic more than 28 grams of oxycodone and later sentenced to 25 years in prison.
And pharmacist Brian C. Weiler, who dispensed more than 100,000 oxycodone pills from two pharmacies, was convicted in a federal trial in December of conspiracy. He is awaiting sentencing.
While helping prosecutors, Beltran and the others are also giving an inside look at pill mills that plagued the Tampa area and the state of Florida for years.
Beltran said his operation was the offspring of a relationship that began in the Hillsborough County Jail in 2007. Beltran, facing charges in an organized fraud, struck up a friendship with pharmacist Christopher Switlyk, who had been arrested on charges of witness tampering, stalking and sexual battery, charges that would later be dropped. He is now serving nine years in federal prison in the pill mill case.
Beltran testified in Heromin’s trial that after both men were out of jail, Switlyk approached him about opening a pharmacy. Switlyk wanted Beltran to do marketing, to find customers by visiting pain clinics and soliciting patients.
Switlyk opened T&C Pharmacy at the intersection of Waters Avenue and Hanley Road the first week of 2009.
In March 2009, there was a shortage of oxycodone 30 milligram pills, Beltran said, and he and Switlyk got the ingredients to make their own, mixing raw powder with an inactive ingredient and pouring it into capsules. With the shortage, word spread that they had the drugs, Beltran said, and they began to get business from South Florida.
They moved the business to Armenia and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. that was renamed the VIP Pharmacy. The new location was right next door to Superior Injury Center, co-owned by Louis Fernandez III. Beltran would visit Superior and bring food to the staff, encouraging them to send their patients to VIP. Over time, Fernandez and his father would enter a business relationship with Beltran and Switlyk.
But Superior Injury Center had issues with parking because other tenants of the strip mall were complaining. The clinic was forced to move. First it went to another place on Armenia but had to leave after four days. Then the clinic relocated to Hillsborough and Rome, where it stayed until it was shut down in November 2010.
In the meantime, Beltran looked for a doctor he and Switlyk could work with in their own clinic. Eventually, they hired Heromin.
Beltran said he spread the word among out-of-state drug seekers that they should come to Tampa instead of driving to Miami. Heromin, he told them, would write prescriptions for twice the quantity of drugs they could get in Miami. And their prices were better.
Word, he said “spread like wildfire.”
In an apparent bid to appear legitimate, Beltran said Heromin wanted the office files to show the clients had a relatively recent MRI.
So the clinic sent people to a medical testing facility Heromin had a relationship with. At one point, Beltran said the doctor thought law enforcement could be deterred if the out-of-state patients had Florida identification, and so the pill mill started helping them get the identification.
After they moved to 2137 Martin Luther King, business was booming, Beltran said. They brought in $35,000 to $40,000 in cash a day. They didn’t take insurance, he said. “It’s a pain clinic,” he explained. “That’s pretty much how it works.”
Fernandez Jr. would count the proceeds at the end of the day and give Heromin 51 percent. The rest was used to pay employees and then split among Beltran and the two Fernandezes.
They began operating seven days a week, and Heromin worked ungodly hours.
One time, Beltran said, the doctor worked 30 hours straight to try to see everyone who came in. Beltran said he wanted to hire another doctor, but Heromin kept insisting he could handle it all.
He didn’t want to share the money with someone else.