24 arrested in Kentucky as suspects in Florida pill pipeline

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comApril 15, 2009 

In a sting dubbed Operation Pill Crusher, 24 alleged drug dealers in Montgomery and Bath counties have been arrested and accused of obtaining prescription drugs at Florida clinics and bringing them back to Kentucky to sell, Mount Sterling Police Capt. David Charles said.

The broad investigation into the pill pipeline between Florida and Kentucky involves every county in Kentucky "from east to west," State Police Sgt. Mark Burden said.

Four people were arrested Tuesday and the rest within the last week. All are charged with trafficking in a controlled substance.

Dozens of additional dealers are under investigation in the yearlong operation that involves the Mount Sterling police department, a special investigations unit of the Kentucky State Police and officers from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Charles said Tuesday.

Police were out on the streets in and around Mount Sterling on Tuesday, rounding up alleged traffickers who police say are subsidizing car, van and airplane loads of people traveling to Florida to get prescription drugs to sell.

"We are investigating the links between these specific dealers and overdose deaths in this area," Charles told the Herald-Leader. Additional charges are possible in connection with the deaths, he said.

The Herald-Leader reported Sunday that dozens of Kentucky deaths have resulted from overdoses of powerful pain pills prescribed by Florida physicians in 2008.

Officials in the two states did not have exact numbers of overdose deaths, but they said they are occurring across Kentucky.

Thousands of Kentuckians are traveling to South Florida's pain clinics. Once there, people get prescriptions for hundreds of painkillers like oxycodone, sold under the brand name Roxicodone, and for Xanax, an anti-depressant.

A combination of factors has led to the much-traveled Kentucky-Florida pipeline. Kentucky and 37 other states electronically monitor the number of narcotics prescriptions a person obtains from physicians. But Florida has no such system.

That has led to a proliferation of storefront medical clinics in Florida whose parking lots are filled with cars from Appalachian states and where doctors prescribe and dispense the often-abused drugs for cash.

On Tuesday, Charles released the names of 15 of the 24 who were arrested. The other names have not been made public for investigative reasons, he said.

According to Charles, those arrested include: Tammy R. Trosper, Crystal L. Rothwell, Scott C. Donaldson, Christine W. Martin, Rebecca J. Lawson, Laura Willoughby, Jeff Willoughby, Michael D. Lyman, Amanda Ferguson, James Logan Sizemore, Bill Brierly, Samantha Sanders, Robert Defino, Este McFarland and Tom Mazur.

Charles said that at least half of those arrested are not addicted to the prescription pills and are solely traffickers. "Their motives are purely mercenary," he said.

The other half traffic in the pills, but also take them to feed an addiction, he said.

Burden said Kentucky law enforcement officials are working with their Florida counterparts. The investigators are also looking at Florida physicians. The deaths resulting from overdoses of pills obtained in Florida have left several communities damaged, Charles said.

"This has been a tremendous drain on our resources. The deaths are draining our future," he said.

Kentucky has a history of prescription drug abuse. In traveling to Florida and other states, people seeking pain pills to use or to sell illegally are trying to avoid the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, known by the acronym KASPER, which tracks the people who are prescribing, dispensing and obtaining the pills.

As one of 12 states that do not have a tracking system, Florida has become a popular destination for people obtaining pain pills.

Doctors charge a few hundred dollars for an MRI that justifies the prescription and, in many cases, the drug seekers get monthly prescriptions filled at the clinics, for as many as 300 pills, without ever having to go to a pharmacy.

The drug dealers are making thousands of dollars for each trip to Florida, Charles said.

Each 30 milligram Roxicodone is selling for $30 on the street in Kentucky, a 15 milligram Roxicodone is selling for $15, and a Xanax brings about $4, Charles said.

He said police seized 801 pills prescribed by Florida physicians at the home of one drug dealer in the past week.

A proposed law creating an electronic monitoring system is working through the Florida legislature and could come up for a vote next week. Similar legislation has failed for the past seven years in Florida.

In Kentucky, there have been a handful of high-profile criminal prosecutions into the organized crime syndicates that deal in prescription drugs from Florida.

Meanwhile, Charles said, his Mount Sterling Police Department and other Kentucky police agencies will have to stay on top of the various methods that drug dealers use to obtain prescription drugs for illegal use.

"This is a race without a finish line," Charles said. "We just can't declare victory and walk away."

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