The Tampa Bay Wellness Centre at 2137 W Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. was raided last week by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Tampa Police Department, along with the VIP pharmacy and another business on the same street. Four people were arrested on misdemeanor charges, and a pharmacist was later charged with trafficking. This is the story of one pain clinic and a few of the people it touched. It is one small, cinder block corner of a statewide prescription drug epidemic that claims 5,000 lives a year.
Earlier this year, behind Ryan Cragun's house, a pain clinic cranked to life.
As Cragun watched, long lines formed outside the building. Cars from all over the country crammed the lot. People waited for appointments in the sun. They waited for appointments at dusk. They waited for appointments into the night.
While they waited, they drank, stumbled, slept, fought.
Cragun, 33, is a former Mormon from Utah who teaches the sociology of religion at the University of Tampa. He is mostly mild-mannered and laid-back. But the noise was becoming a nightly occurrence, and he worried about his wife and infant son. One night in February, he heard a car alarm and an argument outside. His son started to wail.
Cragun marched outside.
He barged into a waiting room that looked more like a biker rally than a doctor's office. He saw scars, tattoos, tattered clothing.
"It's 11:30 at night," he said to the people at the front desk. "Why the hell are you still open?"
"We don't want to turn anyone away," a woman said.
She assured him they would work on the noise. But Cragun knew she had no control over the scrum outside.
Cragun picked up a business card off the counter.
Tampa Bay Wellness Centre
Dr. Ronald J. Heromin
Jessica Dobbin stood over her 21-year-old stepson's hospital bed. He was just waking up.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked him.
It was April 21. The night before, he had swallowed handfuls of pills — 31 in all — mostly the muscle relaxer Soma. He also had oxycodone, marijuana and cocaine in his system.
The doctor arrived. Her stepson had bruises all over his chest. He asked how they got there.
"We paddled you," the doctor said.
"You mean I almost died?"
In the days after the overdose, he promised to straighten up. But after a week, someone noticed him nodding off. And he sent someone else to pick up his paycheck one Friday.
So his father, Noel, 50, stopped by a Walgreens and bought a drug test.
"I can tell you right now," his son said, "it's going to be positive."
On May 18, Jessica, 34, sat down at her computer to compose an e-mail. She addressed it to Gov. Charlie Crist, the FBI, the DEA, the International Narcotics Control Board, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and the National Association of State Controlled Substances Authorities.
The hospital had given her one of her stepson's pill bottles. It was dated four days before his overdose. It had contained 120 Somas. Her son also had prescriptions for 340 Xanax and 240 oxycodone from the same doctor, issued the same day.
The name on the pill bottle: Dr. Ronald J. Heromin.
Dr. Ronald Heromin in Tampa, Florida is prescribing our kids major meds and they are overdosing!!!! she wrote.
My son is one of them!!! Please someone help.
A man with a stack of prescriptions from the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre walked into David's Pharmacy sometime in late April. He handed the prescriptions to Carmen M. Cartaya.
Cartaya, 61, and her husband, David, have owned the pharmacy on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard for 35 years. Since the pain clinic moved in across the street, she had seen lines of people snaking out its front door. Her anger simmered.
She looked at the man's prescriptions: 300 oxycodone, 120 OxyContin, 90 Xanax, 90 Soma, 60 Mobic and two stomach-soothing medications. All high-dose pills.
She copied the prescriptions, faxed them to police.
She told the man she would not fill them. She pointed to the sign on her door:
WE DO NOT CARRY OXYCODONE.
The day care
One recent evening, Chad LoCicero, 36, stood in the parking lot of his day care, A Today's Child. Parents were arriving from work and picking up their kids. Here is what they saw:
Two pain clinic patients — one wearing yellow, the other green — running toward LoCicero, stopping traffic.
Behind them, an old man running with four concrete rocks in his arms, one arm cocked and ready to throw.
Behind the old man, a woman in medical scrubs, screaming.
LoCicero braced himself. "Get off my property!" he yelled.
Out of nowhere appeared a police car, lights flashing. Out jumped two undercover officers. The old man dropped his rocks.
The woman in medical scrubs arrived panting. The old man with the rocks was the pain clinic janitor, she explained. He had asked the man in yellow to move his Ford Expedition because it was blocking the driveway. The man in green had then smashed the janitor in the jaw.
As she spoke, the janitor moaned and collapsed on his haunches. Blood trickled from his mouth.
LoCicero fumed. He had called every police agency and the DEA to complain about the human anthill across the street. "This is horrible for my business," he said. "My parents keep asking me if there's something I can do. They're scared. They see the kind of people across the street. The Legislature has to do something about this. It's killing me."
Dr. Ronald Heromin no longer works at the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre. He admits that what happened there was more circus than medical practice. "It was run like a big nightclub," he said.
Heromin, 54, used to be an orthopedic surgeon. But several years ago he had car accidents that left him hunched and in pain, unable to stand for very long. He can't operate anymore.
He was disciplined in 2007 for operating on the wrong knee. By the time he joined the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre, he had lost everything in a bad amusement park investment, filed for bankruptcy and was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
"More has happened to me in the last year than the whole rest of my life," he said. "Jeepers, creepers."
He started at Tampa Bay Wellness Centre in January. He said he told the owners he would see no more than 25 new patients and 50 followups a day. But they were always trying to get him to see more. They charged $300 for a new patient, $150 for a followup. Cash only.
Patients asked for large numbers of pills. He refused. He said he would lift his shirt, show them the scars from his surgeries, tell them they didn't know real pain. He said he doesn't take prescription drugs.
Toward the end, he saw people arriving in groups from out of state. One person would pay for the entire group.
"I'd say 'Read my lips, I don't want to see you scum daddies in my clinic. Tell all your buddies to stay away from Heromin.' "
He said the people at the front desk would take cash to put some patients ahead of others. They treated the patients like cattle, filtering them through the office in lines.
"I was so naïve," he said. Patients offered him money all the time, but he said he didn't take it.
"I said 'All the money in the world couldn't buy that from me. I'm a doctor. You guys are all drug dealers. Get the hell out of here.' "
He left in late April, he said, after someone began forging his prescriptions. "I was absolutely livid," he said. "That's when I knew to protect my license. I had no choice but to go to the DEA. I wish I knew enough to get out of there earlier. But I felt an obligation to so many patients."
He says he did not write the prescription for the Dobbins' son, the one that landed him in the hospital. He would never prescribe such a large amount of pills. It had to have been a forgery.
As he spoke, his phone rang and rang. He has moved on to a new office on Memorial Highway, his fifth or sixth office this year. The pain clinic business creates nomads. He's moving again soon. The building manager kicked him out a week ago after the parking lot filled up. He says he's seeking his own pain clinic license from the state. He said he will operate the office responsibly, with appointments and insurance and Medicare.
In the meantime, he's struggling.
"I have so much responsibility with my family," he said. "Sometimes I pray to the Lord to take me, because I'm worth more dead than alive."
The DEA raided the Tampa Bay Wellness Centre May 20, just before lunch. Officers strung police tape around the clinic and closed it down. It has not reopened because it was not registered with the state.
Both Dr. Heromin and a woman who helped out behind the front counter, Gloria Fernandez, 62, name Marco A. Beltran as one of the owners. Beltran, 40, is listed on paperwork filed with the state in May incorporating a Tampa Bay Health Center at the same address. Beltran has a criminal record that includes organized fraud, forgery and theft. He could not be reached for comment.
The day the DEA raided the pain clinic, Ryan Cragun was in his office at the University of Tampa, helping a graduate student. He got a call from a neighbor.
"It's going down right now," the neighbor said
"Yay," Cragun said, "finally something happens."
The day the DEA raided the pain clinic, the day care owner was outside the clinic, cheering. "Will they shut it down for good?" was all he wanted to know.
The day the DEA raided the pain clinic, the parents were at their dining room table talking to a reporter about their son's pill addiction when one of them received a text about the raid. "Wow," said the stepmother, "that's great."
The day the DEA raided the pain clinic, the pharmacist's wife arrived to find people lined up against the fence, being frisked by police. She walked into the pharmacy and smiled at her staff. "I told you they would be caught."
The day the DEA raided the pain clinic, the doctor was moonlighting at another clinic on Waters Avenue, prescribing pain medication to more patients.
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.