The investigation started last summer.
Detectives uncovered a sophisticated drug syndicate that dispatched hundreds of "runners" into pharmacies to use forged prescriptions to get pills.
Over the course of several months, deputies obtained arrest warrants for 94 people as they sought to bring down an organization responsible for trafficking at least $4 million in pills.
But by the time they started arresting people in a sweep on Tuesday, five of the people they were looking for had died.
Pinellas deputies said all five deaths appear to be prescription drug-related and are another indication of how dangerous the prescription drug abuse problem has become.
"This speaks volumes," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. "Here we are, having these persons on a list as a suspect in a case … and along the way they died of the very issue we were going to be arresting them for."
Anthony Lindsey, 24, was one of the five who died before authorities could arrest him. After struggling with an addiction to painkillers, he stayed with his mother for five weeks in Fort Myers, then returned to Palm Harbor sober, said his grandmother Donna Weldon, 77. Three days later, Lindsey was found at a friend's house dead of an accidental overdose of oxycodone and Xanax. A medical examiner's report showed that Lindsey's friend had a prescription filled the night before. Of 210 oxycodone and 90 Xanax pills, only 70 of each were left.
The Sheriff's Office said Tuesday that four of the five died of possible prescription overdoses, though the St. Petersburg Times had previously reported that one of those named — 41-year-old Karen E. Boggs — was killed in a hit-and-run accident in October. The discrepancy could not be accounted for Tuesday.
The others, besides Lindsey, said to have possibly overdosed were Herman Allen, 36, of New Port Richey and Diane Calico, 38, of Hudson. Autopsies for them are pending. The fifth death was Ryan Jones, 21, of Holiday, who shot himself after writing a note that indicated he could no longer cope with his addiction, sheriff's officials said.
Nearly 2,500 people died of prescription drug overdoses in Florida in 2009, the last year data is available. Nearly 700 of those deaths occurred in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
The alarming increase in deaths has prompted law enforcement agencies to launch investigations like the one announced Tuesday.
Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the sheriff's narcotics division, said two or three people ran the scheme by creating fake prescriptions that were distributed to a handful of other people, who recruited others to fill the prescriptions. More than 700 people may have been involved in all.
Outside of the five deaths, the sheriff's Diversion Task Force had found 49 of the 94 people they were seeking to arrest. They were still looking for 40 people late Tuesday. The majority are accused of passing fraudulent prescriptions. The arrests were the culmination of an investigation dubbed Operation No Appointment Necessary. Detectives identified 27 doctors whose names were being used by the drug ring, Alfonso said. The doctors, who had their prescription pads stolen or fraudulently duplicated, cooperated with investigators.
The crackdown came just a day after a federal agency announced Florida distributed more than a half-billion doses of oxycodone in 2009 — twice as many as the next closest state, Pennsylvania, and up 25 percent from the previous year.
Law enforcement officials say a prescription drug monitoring program could slow pills from flowing into the wrong hands. Last month, Gov. Rick Scott called on the Legislature to repeal a 2009 law mandating a monitoring program that was set to begin in December but has been hampered by delays. Advocates say the program could help decrease the number of overdoses by curbing the supply on the street.
Weldon said she didn't know about the state's prescription drug problem until she looked it up on the Internet after her grandson died. "I was floored," she said. She experienced another wake-up call at his memorial service when the pastor asked if any of his friends were also struggling with addiction. "Fifteen kids went up after the service and said they needed help."
Times staff writer Ileana Morales contributed to this report.