BROOKSVILLE — Authorities announced Friday that they have shut down a large prescription drug trafficking ring in Hernando County as part of "Operation Oxy-Blues," a nearly four-month investigation that resulted in the arrests of 23 people.
Sheriff Richard Nugent said narcotics detectives are still searching for eight other people involved in the ring, including one of the alleged organizers, Brian Copenhaver, 35, of Spring Hill. Copenhaver and the others are wanted on active warrants on charges including conspiracy to traffic in oxycodone and driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Copenhaver "knows we're looking for him," said Lt. Tom Garcia, head of vice and narcotics for the Sheriff's Office. "He was supposed to turn himself in but he changed his mind."
Nugent said the ring created phony prescriptions for narcotics on a computer, and then went to pharmacies throughout the Tampa Bay area where the prescriptions would be filled. Then the ring would sell the drugs on the street for about $7 to $10 a pill, authorities said.
Authorities began tracking the organization's transactions in February with the help of doctors and pharmacists and then started making arrests in April.
Nugent said most of the doctors were unaware that their names were being used on prescriptions. Six of the doctors are based in Hernando, while 25 others are in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Over the course of the investigation, narcotics detectives recovered 145 fake scripts from a total of 31 doctors and more than 2,100 pills with a street value of up to $21,000. The ring also tried to obtain another 1,000 pills worth more than $10,000.
"This is the biggest (ring) we've seen as far as fabricating scripts," Nugent said. "It's getting really easy to create realistic-looking scripts for pharmacists on laser printers."
Authorities also said they recovered a couple of laptop computers, a printer and nearly $11,000 in cash, among other items, from an April 16 search of the home of the ring's primary organizer, Troy Bracewell.
Bracewell, 40, of 7043 Corliss Road in Brooksville, has been charged with continuing criminal enterprise, trafficking oxycodone, sale and possession of oxycodone, possession of altered and blank scripts, possession of altered drivers' licenses and possession of paraphernalia.
He remains in custody at the Hernando County Jail. If convicted of the charges, Bracewell could face life in prison.
Bracewell has a lengthy criminal history, including three trips to state prison for charges including kidnapping and grand theft.
Copenhaver, who remains on the loose, also has a record. He is currently on probation for forgery and drug possession.
Nugent said the investigation was part of the agency's renewed effort at curbing prescription drug abuse across the county. At the news conference announcing the arrests, the Sheriff's Office also released a chart showing that seven people died from an overdose of prescription medications in March — an unusually high number.
Officials also noted that more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) during the past 3 1/2 years in Hernando.
If the trend didn't stop, Nugent said, Hernando was on pace for nearly 50 overdose deaths in 2010.
"If you sell drugs to someone and it causes their death," Nugent said, "we're going to come after you."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120. You can follow Joel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ jandersontimes.