MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When a police officer knocked on the door of Dr. Kevin Denny's home around 9 one morning in 2009, Denny opened it barefoot and bleary eyed, wearing a terry cloth robe. Cars were being broken into in his Pinellas County beach neighborhood, said the officer. Could Denny come out and check his?
Within seconds, a dozen federal and local cops swarmed around the doctor who had once treated the powerful and prominent, guns aimed.
He was under arrest, they told him, for illegally prescribing pain pills.
The 55-year-old doctor's fall was long, hard and spectacular: An internist with sterling credentials and a successful practice in St. Petersburg for more than a decade, Denny lost it all to his own cocaine and alcohol addictions. To fuel his $125-a-day crack habit, he embarked on a new career: pill mill doctor, writing illegal prescriptions for OxyContin to addicts he met over a beer at a chicken wing restaurant.
Denny, who once led his fellow residents at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, ended his medical career in the fellowship of doctors who enable addicts to get legal narcotics. Unlike street drugs, the prescription trade requires doctors to keep it going. It is considered deadlier than traffic in heroin and cocaine, killing an average of seven people a day in Florida.
Yet even in the Sunshine State, widely considered ground zero for the illicit prescription narcotic trade, relatively few doctors are even arrested, let alone convicted. Because these drugs do have a valuable medical purpose — controlling severe pain — and are legal if properly dispensed, it is tough to stop a pill mill doctor.
What kind of doctor gets into the business of harming and possibly killing people?
Many pill mill doctors didn't make much of a mark in medicine and have retired. "These doctors often have few opportunities in their later years,'' said state special prosecutor for prescription drug trafficking, Dave Aronberg. "But what they do have is a license to prescribe — a very viable commodity."
When law enforcement moves in, the common reaction is for doctors to say they were railroaded, said Christine Brown, an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County.
Then there's Kevin Denny — skilled practitioner and deeply repentant.
"Except for Denny, I don't know of any cases of doctors immediately admitting guilt and apologizing,'' said Dan Zsido, narcotics detective for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.
After his May 2009 arrest, Denny pleaded guilty, went to rehab, and started his 70-month prison sentence in October 2010.
"The last thing I wanted to do was hurt people. But I did,'' he said in a three-hour interview at the federal prison on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.
He says he is grateful he was stopped after a few months of scribbling prescriptions for addicts. He knows what could have happened.
"Thank God nobody died," he said of his "patients.''
But Denny believes he came close to killing himself.
• • •
In his earliest memory, Kevin Denny wanted to be a doctor.
He was 4, standing by his dying grandfather's bed. The old man moaned in pain. Denny's mother wept. The child made a promise to help the suffering.
No one in his family had ever made it beyond high school. His dad was a punch card operator, his mom a housewife.
They were strict Southern Baptists, and for Denny and his two sisters, their modest Kansas City home was a "serious place," he said. He remembers his parents worrying about his tie-dyed T-shirt and his hair growing over his ears.
He was smart, athletic, good looking and determined. In the National Honor Society, and an all-conference athlete in four sports, he was on track to achieve his dream: getting into a program at the University of Missouri where he could earn both his bachelor's and medical degrees in just six years.
His parents helped with tuition and he loaded boxes at Sears to earn money.
There were cracks in the success story. He got his girlfriend pregnant during senior year of high school, and the couple married. His parents divorced when he was 18. He tried LSD — once.
"But the feeling of escaping to an alternate reality was something I'd later crave," he said.
In medical school, he made an impression.
"Kevin Denny stood out," said emeritus professor Dr. Marjorie Sirridge, "because he was so genuinely caring."
Sirridge recommended him for a residency at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, where he was assigned the nerve-racking job of leading the Code Blue resuscitation team. Fellow doctors so respected his calm focus under stress they elected him chief resident.
After four years, he got another sought-after position, studying heart transplant techniques at McGuire VA Hospital in Virginia.
He was recruited by St. Petersburg Medical Clinic in the late 1980s as an internist and specialist in vascular medicine. He loved the work and his patients. He also loved weekends of diving, fishing and Jack Daniels.
"I worked hard; I played hard — I lived to extremes," he said.
• • •
By the early '90s, he was living with his second wife and their three children in a big waterfront house in St. Petersburg.
Gene Patterson, retired editor of the St. Petersburg Times, said Denny became his and his late wife's doctor around that time, after one of the head physicians at the St. Petersburg clinic retired.
"That doctor recommended Kevin Denny as 'the best we've got,' " said Patterson.
For six years, Denny cared for Mrs. Patterson, who had heart disease. Patterson counted 26 times that Denny met them at the emergency room. He made frequent house calls too, sitting by the dying woman's bed for hours to comfort her.
"What made him stand out as a doctor was his great patience and sensitivity," said Patterson.
At home, Denny was another man entirely, said son Stephen Denny, 36, the child from Denny's first marriage. What started as a fun evening would usually end with his drunken father becoming verbally abusive over some perceived slight, the son said.
"My dad at work was a different person from my dad at home," said Stephen Denny.
"I had become Dr. Jekyll at the office and Mr. Hyde at home," his father agreed.
In 1994, he divorced for the second time, agreeing to pay about $10,000 a month in alimony, child support and other costs. As the pressure mounted to meet his obligations, Denny said, he escaped into alcohol.
• • •
Wife No. 3, Lorrie Harris, said Denny would come home from work and head straight to the fridge to guzzle four tallboy beers while he stood there with the door open. Then, he'd start in on the Jack Daniels.
"I begged Kevin to get help, but he was afraid if he did he'd lose his medical license," she said.
"I was afraid I'd lose my practice,'' Denny agreed.
"But I was also afraid I'd have to stop drinking and face what a bad problem I had."
Meanwhile, he was rated one of the top cardiovascular specialists in the Southeast by Best Doctors in America, which asks doctors to rate their peers.
"He eventually ran into a lot of trouble,'' said a former patient, retired Pinellas Judge Robert Beach. "But, for years, he was an excellent diagnostician — one of the best doctors I've ever had."
After his divorce from Harris in 1997, Denny said he got heavily into snorting cocaine, smoking marijuana and hanging out at strip clubs. Up all night partying, he would be too tired to go to work. He had formed a professional partnership with three colleagues. But as his life unraveled, his partners and administrators at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg were concerned for him and angry that he was letting his patients down.
At their urging, he called a referral service for doctors with substance abuse problems. When the counselor said his medical license might be suspended, Denny hung up, he said, and never called back.
• • •
Megan Denny used to spend every other weekend with her father after her parents divorced at his 4,000-square-foot, Tudor-style home in Tierra Verde, across the street from the gulf.
But after her father married a fourth time in 2006 and retreated into crack cocaine, the house became "home to the living dead" and she quit visiting, said Megan, now a senior in college.
"I was numb," Denny said. "Nothing made me feel good."
By 2007, his work habits were so erratic, he was fired from his practice and lost his contract with St. Anthony's.
Still, said Cindy McCormick, a retired Pinellas County court magistrate, Denny saved her life because he diagnosed her auto-immune diseases and quickly got her to specialists.
"I vacillate between being furious at Kevin for not getting help sooner and having my heart broken,'' she said.
"Because he was such a great doctor who was throwing everything away."
He was years behind in alimony and child support and owed more than $100,000 in back taxes. His wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His children wouldn't speak to him. His house was in foreclosure.
"Game on. Slow suicide," he said of this time.
By late 2008, Denny didn't expect to live much longer. He was having trouble breathing and his legs were swollen, both results of the booze and the crack, he said.
For Christmas, he gave his children his prized possessions: a collection of first edition books, an expensive tennis racket. And the doubled-edged razor his grandfather carried through the trenches of France in World War I — the same grandfather by whose bed a young Denny had stood, pledging to ease suffering.
"Despite all of the terrible things I've done, I hope someone will remember the years I kept that promise," he said.
• • •
In early 2009, he was approached by the manager of a pain clinic on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa and offered a job — $300 on the days he worked — which was enough to feed his crack and booze addictions.
"It was a pill mill. The people who came in were addicted. I was addicted. It was a nightmare," he said.
"But I was too far gone to care."
A few months after he wrote the prescriptions at the wing restaurant, police came to his house.
"They saved my life," he said.
His lawyer, Jeff Brown, who has defended other doctors and pain clinic owners, said Denny is unique.
"He actually welcomed prison," said Brown. "The only thing Kevin wants people to realize is that addiction is a disease — a disease that's treatable, which means you can recover and perhaps shouldn't lose your medical license for the rest of your life."
But Denny did.
In prison, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and sweeps and mops the floors. Afternoons, he mows the long grass on the side of the road. He is tanned and muscular now, his blue eyes clear. He has been clean and sober for two years.
• • •
Before he started his sentence, Denny was at home. A white SUV pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a dark tie and white shirt knocked on the door and handed him a paper to sign.
It began, "Kevin Mark Denny, MD hereby voluntarily relinquishes his license to practice medicine."
"Crushing," Denny says sitting in a broken chair in the prison. He was emotional telling his entire story, dabbing his eyes occasionally. But this was the first time he wept openly.
An inmate walking by inquires: "You okay, doc?"
The former doctor nods.
Maybe, he says, when he gets out in 2016 he'll find a way to work with addicts. Or maybe he'll get some kind of job with a medical charity in a third-world country. He knows he'll never practice medicine again, but believes he can still contribute.
"Just something to keep the promise I made all of those years ago."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.