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Tampa pill mill operators found guilty

TAMPA — A jury on Thursday convicted the operators of a lucrative Tampa pain clinic of drug trafficking and racketeering charges, vindicating years of effort by police to prove the clinic illegally sold millions of prescriptions for painkillers to customers who came from as far as Ohio and Kentucky.

After a 41/2-month trial and five days of jury deliberation, First Medical Group owners Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt, 53, and Michele Gonzalez, 37, were found guilty of dozens of charges, including trafficking in oxycodone, conspiring to traffic in oxycodone and racketeering.

The clinic's manager, 58-year-old Maureen Altman of Lakeland, was convicted of charges that included racketeering and conspiring to traffic oxycodone. Dr. Kimberly Daffern — a West Point graduate accused of single-handedly prescribing 1 million oxycodone pills at the clinic over three months — died in 2011 before the case went to trial.

The investigation of First Medical began at the height of Florida's prescription pill abuse epidemic. Authorities said the clinic was a major destination for addicts and drug traffickers seeking to exploit loopholes in Florida's medical regulations. Up to 100 patients a day flocked to its storefront in a strip mall on N Dale Mabry Highway, many paying for their prescriptions in cash, according to police.

Yet a series of reversals for law enforcement — including a dim assessment of the evidence against the clinic by a civil judge and another judge's rejection of more than half the charges against the Gonzalezes toward the end of the trial — had at times raised doubts about the strength of the state's case.

"You always prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Tampa police Sgt. Rich Mills, a lead investigator on the case, said Thursday. "I was always confident that the case that we put together was the best case we could have presented to the jury."

Most of the charges against Altman and the Gonzalezes carry maximum sentences of 30 years in prison, giving Hillsborough Circuit Judge Caroline Tesche wide latitude to impose hefty sentences on the trio at a hearing scheduled for next month.

As the verdict was read, Gonzalez-Betancourt, a balding, tanned man wearing stylish eyeglasses and a charcoal suit, stared at the table in front of him. Gonzalez, a raven-haired woman in a black sweater, looked toward family members seated in the gallery, her eyes welling.

Along with Altman, they were handcuffed and led by bailiffs from the courtroom.

"Man's law is fallible, and God is divine," Elizabeth Berg, a cousin of Gonzalez-Betancourt who lives in Tampa, said outside the courtroom.

"I am from a foreign country where you see this a lot," said Berg, originally from Panama, criticizing what she saw as heavy-handed police tactics. "I never imagined I would see any of this in the United States of America."

Attorney Michael Laurato, who represents Michelle Gonzalez, said the defendants would appeal.

"It's a miscarriage of justice," Laurato said. "An innocent lady went to jail today."

The investigation of First Medical was in many respects a case study in the obstacles to prosecuting pain clinic operators before the establishment of Florida's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a regulatory scheme intended to curb "pill mills" dealing prescriptions to drug dealers and addicts.

While Florida's jails and prisons have overflowed in recent years with pain pill addicts charged with petty crimes, few investigations have netted the people making sometimes staggering sums of money by supplying prescriptions for drugs such as oxycodone, OxyContin and Xanax to those without legitimate medical needs.

According to Tampa police, the Gonzalezes — who inhabited a stately, five-bedroom home in Odessa — were the beneficiaries of the customers who sometimes lined up in the street outside First Medical. At the time, Florida's lax prescription drug controls made it a mecca for out-of-state buyers.

Police raided the clinic in July 2010. But later that year a civil judge ordered police to return $221,898 seized from the Gonzalezes, ruling that there was no probable cause to believe they had committed a crime.

Earlier this month, Tesche granted a defense motion for acquittal for more than half of the 86 charges lodged against the Gonzalezes and four of the 17 charges against Altman after prosecutors finished presenting evidence in the criminal case.

Despite these setbacks, Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks said the evidence collected by the Tampa police — including an analysis of clinic records and testimony from dozens of the clinic's former customers — was strong enough to convince the jury.

"It was just a reflection of the great job done by the Tampa Police Department," Dirks said after the verdict. "The jury saw the evidence for what it was."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Tampa pill mill operators found guilty 03/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014 11:36pm]
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