Last summer, a pharmacist grew worried.
He discovered a fake prescription at his store from someone living in Spring Hill. And lately, he noticed more and more prescriptions coming from a doctor there. So he called the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Detectives and the pharmacist culled through pharmacy records. They found more bogus prescriptions coming from the same doctor.
The doctor didn't write any of them, he told detectives. And he didn't know any of the patients.
It set off a yearlong drug investigation called Operation Spring Hill. Narcotics detectives started making arrests July 5. So far, they have arrested 29 people and are looking for 37 more. It amounts to 127 charges of obtaining oxycodone, Xanax and methadone by fraud.
The suspects, who live in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, used the names of 26 doctors to forge prescriptions on a computer. Warrants have been issued for their arrests.
"If they get stopped for running a red light or stealing a pair of shoes from T.J. Maxx, they're going to get caught," said Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the Sheriff's Office narcotics division. "It's just a matter of time."
One pharmacy that filled hundreds of fake prescriptions, Seminole Drugs, has since closed on the heels of an unrelated Medicare fraud case. Officials are not identifying the other pharmacy, other than to say it's in Pinellas County. No doctors or pharmacists have been arrested.
Many drug rings work like a pyramid scheme, said Alfonso, who explained it like this:
Someone is at the top. In this case, detectives haven't said who yet.
The people under him are "recruiters." In this case, two main recruiters were Darren Mooney, 31, and Marcy Bragdon, 46, according to the Sheriff's Office. They have not yet been arrested.
Recruiters look for addicts, homeless people, anyone who needs a buck. They go to a pharmacy with a fake prescription. When the pharmacy worker calls the phone number on the slip, someone on the other end poses as a doctor.
Recruiters let their gofers keep 10 percent of the pills, then split the rest with the boss. So if an addict picks up 240 pills and keeps 24, he could come away with enough to get through the week. Or, he could sell them.
Pills that cost a dollar at the pharmacy go for $15 to $20 apiece on the street here, and $30 in parts of North Florida.
"We live in a society that likes instant gratification," Alfonso said. "There are a lot of people out there who have fallen through the cracks."
The latest case is significant, but it's a tiny piece of the bigger picture.
Last week, a study released by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy showed more people than ever need help to get off painkillers. Pinellas and Pasco counties had the most oxycodone deaths in the state last year.
Tampa Bay doctors have reported a sharp rise in babies born addicted. And at least two teenagers from Palm Harbor University High School are suspected have having succumbed to pills.
"They're high school students," Alfonso said. "That's unprecedented here in the area, even if you go back to the crack epidemic."
Pinellas County devotes heavy manpower of 16 detectives to its pharmaceutical drug unit. But Alfonso, a narcotics veteran of 17 years, has also seen a shift in thinking. On top of catching bad guys, agencies now consider education and treatment options.
"We've never really put much thought into treatment," he said. "But the only way to really solve the problem is to take the comprehensive approach."
That also means planning ahead. When the pipeline of synthetic drugs is closed, prescription addicts will seek the same kind of high elsewhere.
"Heroin is next," Alfonso said. "We'll see a resurgence. That's why the community has to get on board."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.