Black marker spelled out warnings on the tattered alley fence. ''Keep off.'' They climbed anyway. People filed in and out of the filthy shack at all hours. Complaints poured into the police department. • It wasn't your average drug hole. • It was the clinic of Dr. Craig Bammer, D.O., whom Pinellas sheriff's detectives called "a sequoia in this forest of drug trafficking." Authorities said Bammer was part of a growing epidemic, a major supplier of prescription drugs to dealers and addicts. But a Times investigation shows Bammer could have been stopped long ago.
Overwork turns into an overdependence
The beginning of Craig Bammer's career looked promising 30 years ago.
He graduated from the Chicago Osteopathic School of Medicine at Midwestern University in 1978.
Three years later, he was licensed to practice medicine in Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
By the mid 1980s, Bammer was the emergency room director of Ohio's Bellevue Hospital, a slower-paced rural outpost.
"Patients loved him," said Michael Winthrop, Bellevue's president.
Still, the 24-hour shifts proved demanding and Bammer stretched his around-the-clock schedule into double shifts, Winthrop said.
In a jailhouse interview with the Times last summer, Bammer said he turned to drugs and alcohol to keep from crashing.
Records show he admitted to a substance abuse problem in 1986. He had abused cocaine, alcohol, amphetamines and the painkiller Demerol.
Ohio's medical board allowed him to keep practicing, provided that he not prescribe narcotics.
He also was ordered to seek drug counseling, abstain from alcohol and submit to random drug screenings.
However, he later was allowed to write prescriptions again.
"It does occur with physicians who have impairment problems," said Joan Wehrle, executive staff coordinator with Ohio's medical board. "Dr. Bammer's problems kept coming back."
He was disciplined again in the 1990s for writing himself illegal prescriptions for Stadol, a painkilling nasal spray.
Like the decade prior, Bammer was subjected to more testing and counseling.
He had to surrender the federal certificate allowing him to prescribe narcotics. Had he played by the rules, he could've kept practicing in Ohio.
Instead, he left for St. Pete Beach.
Coming to Florida proves lucrative move
Florida's medical board knew he had substance abuse problems when he arrived here in 1998 .
He was put on probation and ordered to continue treatment with the state's Physician Recovery Network, a group aiming to rehabilitate doctors rattled by addiction.
What they didn't know — and what Ohio records would later show — is that Bammer had surrendered the federal registration allowing him to prescribe narcotics in Ohio. He had gotten a bogus one here by forging a renewal form.
Just like that, he was back in business.
"Florida didn't recognize, thank God, Ohio's actions," Bammer said.
Records show he was earning money. He paid off one mortgage and applied for another. Construction was slated to begin on a Pass-a-Grille beachfront home.
While Bammer's business boomed in Florida, he permanently surrendered his license to practice in Ohio.
Banned in one state but practicing in another, Bammer renewed his medical license every two years as required by state law.
Although they acknowledge his disciplinary history, Florida Department of Health officials say Bammer's license was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits revoking licenses for illnesses, including chemical dependency.
Bammer's former attorney has a different explanation.
He said it's possible the Florida Board of Health simply overlooked the paperwork a decade ago.
"Why Florida didn't act on his revocation is beyond me," said Steven Ballinger, a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer who oversaw Bammer's entry into Florida. "I think what happened, frankly, is Florida dropped the ball."
By 2003, the pre-existing probation against his Florida license expired. Bammer said he was offering his services in walk-in clinics in New Port Richey, Hudson and St. Petersburg.
In 2006, he moved his business into a vacant flower shop on Gulfport Boulevard. City officials there say he never was issued an occupational license.
At some point, Bammer said he tried the painkiller OxyContin "by mistake."
He said the drug is as "dangerous as they say it is," and plummeted him into the throes of addiction.
In his jail interview, Bammer detailed how he had battled addiction, then began using his practice to supply pills to other addicts.
He doesn't find anything wrong with that.
"I never wrote a bad script in my life," he said.
Within months, he was broke, divorced and living in a shack behind his illegal clinic. Despite his personal troubles, business at the clinic still was brisk.
Sheriff's officials say he was routinely pocketing cash for writing fraudulent prescriptions.
"One of a doctor's responsibilities is to dole out drugs in a responsible manner," said Florida Board of Health prosecutor Blake Hunter. "He basically gave out drugs for money."
Arrested twice on drug trafficking charges
Undercover detectives infiltrated the clinic in January 2007, a year that would see more than 500 people in Tampa Bay fatally overdose on prescription painkillers and antianxiety drugs — a problem Pinellas sheriff's narcotics Capt. Michael Platt said is exacerbated by "pill mills" like Bammer's clinic.
Posing as a patient, one detective came to the office, quickly discovering the unkept, ramshackle building had no power.
The detective told Bammer he could help get the power restored in exchange for a prescription.
The doctor complied, prescribing the detective 370 pills: 120 Roxycodone, 90 Xanax, 90 Soma, 60 Hydrocodone and 10 Viagra.
Detectives swooped in a month later and arrested Bammer.
Their investigative notes offer a glimpse into the annals of underground prescription trafficking: names disappeared from paperwork, fake injuries were accepted with a wink and a nod, prescriptions were easily doubled.
Bammer was charged with drug trafficking. He spent three days in jail and posted bail. One local pharmacy quit filling his prescriptions.
Two months later, he wrote another undercover agent a 120-pill prescription for painkillers. He was arrested again.
This time he couldn't afford to post bail.
The Florida Board of Health revoked his medical license in June 2007.
If convicted, he faces mandatory 25 years
The state has since shored up its entrance requirements for incoming physicians, but authorities say cases like Bammer's are far too common.
"We need to tighten up this filter to look at both sides, the patients abusing this and the doctors enabling it," said Platt, the Pinellas Sheriff's Office narcotics captain. "Illegitimate doctors … have no fear from this system."
Bammer had been scheduled for trial July 22, but it was delayed after his lawyer withdrew from the case, citing irreconcilable differences.
He is facing nine charges of trafficking in drugs like oxycodone (OxyContin), Hydrocodone, Xanax and amphetamines.
If convicted, he faces a minimum-mandatory sentence of 25 years in prison for each trafficking charge.
Bammer's case will be watched closely by sheriff's officials.
They arrested a chiropractor in 2006 on a drug trafficking charge, but a plea deal reduced the charges to drug possession.
Though the chiropractor ran a clinic linked to at least three fatal overdoses, the plea deal saved him from prison.
He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and now works in construction.
Bammer's medical career also is over.
His clinic is long gone.
It's been renovated into a florist shop. Work crews said they found a broken crack pipe inside.
"This smears good doctors," Platt says.
"It's ugly. There's not a good side to it when a doctor goes bad like that."