LAND O'LAKES — A sign in the clinic waiting room said no children allowed. Another said new appointments cost $300. Cash only. Still another warned patients to avoid certain pharmacies that were using a new database to "flag" prescriptions for narcotics.
All these served as red flags to Pasco sheriff's deputies, who raided the Harbour Medical Group on Tuesday and arrested three staff members, including Dr. William Crumbley, a Tampa doctor whose license was suspended in October for writing excessive prescriptions for powerful painkillers that may have contributed to a patient's death.
Dr. Daniel McIntyre and the clinic's director, Ronald York, also were arrested. All three men were led out in handcuffs as reporters and employees of a nearby hair salon watched.
"There's no difference between what these doctors did here than what drug dealers are doing in the street," said Sheriff Chris Nocco, who stood outside the clinic at 1930 Land O'Lakes Blvd. Suite No. 6 as narcotics officers filled a trailer with boxes of records taken during the raid. Deputies also seized a silver Mercedes sport utility vehicle parked out front.
The arrests followed a yearlong investigation of the clinic, which deputies said was actually a pill mill and was not licensed.
A loophole in state law had allowed medical clinics to operate without a license as long as they accepted only cash and do not bill private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. The Habour, which was spelled Harbor on the door sign, was listed as a "physicians clinic" in county tax records. Records listed the owner as Kenneth W. McGill II, and said the clinic opened Feb. 6, 2009.
Nocco said the agency was able to shut down the clinic thanks to county commissioners, who gave him the money for new deputies despite a tight budget year.
"This is a legal substance, so it takes a long time (to investigate), he said. He thanked the residents who have called to complain about the Harbour and other suspicious clinics.
"I promise you we will hunt them down like a wolf pack," he said. "No longer will Pasco be No. 1 in the state of Florida for babies being born addicted to prescription pills."
Health Department records show that in 2010, 147 babies in Pasco were born addicted to drugs, compared to just 50 two years earlier. The Pasco newborns represent more than 10 percent of the cases of neonatal drug withdrawal across the state.
The data follow the trend of Pasco having one of the highest per capita rates of oxycodone deaths in Florida and Pasco.
Narcotics investigators told of an operation that likely handled "hundreds of patients on a daily basis." Carloads of people came from as far as Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.
Deputies used undercover operatives but wouldn't give details.
"This is an ongoing investigation," said Lt. Chuck Balderstone. "This is not the end."
York and Crumbley face charges of operating a pain clinic without a license. McIntyre faces a charge of morphine trafficking.
"Dr. Crumbley has been a thorn in the side of Tampa Bay," said Sgt. Bill Davis.
The Florida Board of Medicine has long been aware of concerns about Crumbley's practices. In 2007, he was fined $12,500 for inappropriately prescribing narcotics and other drugs. His medical license was suspended after he failed to comply with the terms of his discipline.
In ordering his license suspended, state health officials cited the case of a 37-year-old man who came to see Crumbley for arthritis pain and anxiety. Over several visits, Crumbley prescribed large quantities of oxycodone and Xanax without reviewing the patient's medical history, records show.
In March, Crumbley discharged the patient, identified as D.G., after receiving a tip that he was abusing the medications. Several weeks later, the patient died from problems including a cardiac condition associated with long-term drug abuse.
Health officials also faulted Crumbley for increasing another patient's regimen until he was being prescribed 795 pain pills, including 495 oxycodone tablets, in a single visit to the doctor.
"Everything against him so far has been administrative in nature," Balderstone said. "We have gone after him criminally."
The arrests drew cheers from the stylists at Hair House several doors down in the strip mall who came outside to snap photos of the men being led away in cuffs.
"We'd see some pretty weird stuff," Hair House owner Cindy Smeltzer said. She said carloads of people would drive up and wait, often in sweltering heat, while one person went inside the clinic.
Some could be seen nodding off in cars. Others would ask to use the salon's rest rooms, prompting staff to post a sign that the salon's facilities were not public.
Staffers said before the raid, they noticed a shredding truck parked outside the clinic.
At the Lutz Pharmacy a couple of doors down, owner Vinod Mehra said he was glad the clinic was shut down. Patients would come to his store in search of syringes, prompting him to put up signs saying they were available only with prescriptions.
"All our patients are established patients," said Mehra. "We work primarily with assisted living facilities."
This report includes information from Times files.