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Authorities round up 41 in daylong prescription-drug sting

NEW PORT RICHEY — The phony prescriptions were printed out on a home computer and passed out to "runners" who got them filled at local pharmacies.

Then the pain pills were divvied up: half for the runner to keep, half for the drug dealer to sell at street prices that, in some parts of Florida, are up to 30 times what they cost at a pharmacy.

Authorities said that's how more than 400,000 30-milligram oxycodone tablets got into the wrong hands during a nine-month span beginning in October 2009.

On Monday, several local law enforcement agencies launched a multi-jurisdictional effort to arrest some of the members of a sophisticated Tampa Bay area drug trafficking ring.

"These criminals don't know any boundaries and neither should we," said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.

By day's end, officials had located 41 of the 72 people sought in the second phase of Operation No Appointment Necessary. Some were already in local jails; others were arrested in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. The first phase, which began in March, has so far netted 66 of 94 suspects. And investigators had previously made about 140 other arrests in connection with the case.

Monday's sweep was a joint effort between the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Countywide Diversion Task Force, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the New Port Richey Police Department.

Officials say those being arrested as part of both phases of the operation were mostly low-level offenders, accused of passing the fake prescriptions or doctor shopping. The top tier of the organization has already been "dismantled," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Capt. Robert Alfonso.

Those people are facing federal charges, but Alfonso declined to identify them, citing the ongoing nature of the large-scale investigation.

During the investigation, detectives identified 27 doctors whose names were being fraudulently used by the drug ring. The doctors, whose prescription pads had been stolen or duplicated, cooperated with investigators.

Monday's sweep came just a few weeks after a state report revealed that the number of people fatally overdosing on prescription drugs in Florida went up nearly 9 percent from 2009 to 2010.

According to the report, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's district led the state in 2010 in deaths from all six of the most lethal prescription drugs — oxycodone, alprazolam (Xanax), methadone, hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and diazepam (Valium).

And addiction is at the heart of the matter, officials said.

"A lot of people get involved because of addiction situations," Alfonso said. "They are addicted to these painkillers and they have to feed their addiction by going out and getting these pills and then they sell them as well as using them."

Oxycodone pills that cost about $1 apiece at a pharmacy are going for $8 to $15 on the street in the Tampa Bay area, Alfonso said. In more rural areas of North Florida, they can bring as much as $30 a pill.

Detectives estimate the value of the pills received through the fraudulent prescriptions in this investigation at more than $4 million.

The number may seem staggering, but it's only a drop in the bucket, Alfonso said. "This is only one organization of many that are out there," he said.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Authorities round up 41 in daylong prescription-drug sting 09/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 11:26pm]
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