PALM HARBOR — It didn't take Sherri Lynn Ventresca long to start paying her bills with money that was supposed to purchase cancer patients' chemotherapy drugs, authorities say.
But it took Dr. Anda Norbergs of Palm Harbor's Tampa Bay Area Cancer Consultants nearly eight years to realize that she had been bilked out of several million dollars.
Norbergs, who said her life has been ruined as a result of Ventresca's actions, was at peace Thursday after her former employee was arrested in Marion County.
"I'm very pleased," Norbergs said. "I've been suffering in financial ruins while she's been running around with millions. The drug companies came after me. They cut me off so I can't get any pharmaceuticals. I have one company I get medicine from and I have to pay c.o.d."
Ventresca, 50, of 1074 Greywood Ave., Tarpon Springs, was arrested early Thursday morning and faces first-degree fraud and theft charges. She was in the Marion County jail in lieu of $2.2-million bail.
Ventresca will likely be brought back to Pinellas County.
Pinellas County sheriff's Detective Mitch Reed said that he can account for a little more than $2-million missing from the clinic. "We suspect it's a lot more, but that's what we can prove," Reed said Thursday.
Ventresca was hired by the cancer center in 1999 to keep the books. Reed said she "almost immediately from the time they hired her started embezzling money."
Reed said Ventresca initially was paying her personal bills with the center's checking account and because she was in charge of the books, she would make it look like the money was going other places.
Reed said a few months after she was hired, Ventresca came up with the scheme to open fictitious companies with names similar to the companies that were supplying the cancer drugs.
For Priority Healthcare, she set up a company named Priority Home Construction, Reed said. For Cardinal Health, he said Ventresca had a company simply named Cardinal. And for McKesson Drug Co., she had a company named McKesson, Reed said.
"She would write a check to Priority and take it to the doctor to sign," Reed said. "They thought they were paying pharmaceuticals bills, but she would take the checks to the accounts of the fake companies. "
Reed said the checks were in the $9,000 to $10,000 range and that this went on for about eight years.
A year and a half ago, Norbergs was informed by a pharmaceutical company that the center hadn't paid an $18,000 bill. She called the company and was told that the company hadn't received a payment in six to eight weeks.
Norbergs said she then went to sunbiz.org, a site operated by the Florida Division of Corporations, and discovered the fictitious companies that Ventresca had set up.
Norbergs went to the police.
Norbergs is still managing to treat cancer patients, but says it has been tough.
"It's hard in the practice of oncology," she said. "I'm underwater on all my drugs. I had to do a personal bankruptcy to save my house. I lost all my savings and had a divorce in the process."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com.