TAMPA — The long legal battle surrounding what police say was Tampa's largest pill mill culminated Friday in a circuit judge handing down 30-year prison sentences to the clinic's owners.
Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and Michele Gonzalez, the husband-and-wife team that owned 1st Medical Group, were convicted in March of drug trafficking and racketeering charges.
Prosecutors accused the couple of using their licensed pain clinic as a front to sell thousands of prescriptions to opioid addicts and drug dealers who traveled from faraway states where government regulations were tighter.
The case became known as one of the most successful local efforts to prosecute a pill mill's operators rather than its patrons. The trial, which took place over 41/2 months and five days of jury deliberation, was the longest in Hillsborough County's history. It was so long, Judge Caroline Tesche noted, that one of the jurors died during the trial.
On Friday, the Gonzalezes sat handcuffed in a courtroom, along with their former office manager, Maureen Altman, 58, of Lakeland, who was also given a 30-year sentence. As family members cried softly in the rows behind them, the three defendants appeared resigned to the drama of the day and the knowledge that their attorneys would appeal.
"I take responsibility for my actions," said Altman, the only one of the three to directly address the judge. "You hear that phrase about hindsight — maybe now it appears that I should not have taken that job, but I took the job so that I could pay my house payment, pay my electric bill, put food on my table."
Tesche fined each of the Gonzalezes $750,000 and Altman $500,000.
"First Medical was a very bad place, and these particular defendants profited on the backs of drug addicts, on those people who are collecting prescriptions to sell on the street," Tesche said. "This was an organized criminal enterprise."
The couple opened 1st Medical Group in a strip mall on N Dale Mabry Highway in 2009, at the height of Florida's prescription pill abuse epidemic. They had not been in business for long when they attracted the attention of the Tampa Police Department, which opened an investigation and, in July 2010, raided the clinic. Police seized hundreds of medical records and more than $220,000 in cash from the clinic and the couple's five-bedroom Odessa home. There, investigators found a briefcase with cash in Michele Gonzalez's closet.
A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge later forced the department to give the money back after finding that officers had thin evidence that the clinic was operating illegally. Attorneys for the Gonzalezes argued that they were running a legitimate pain management clinic, one overseen by physicians who made decisions about whether to prescribe opioids.
At trial, Hillsborough prosecutors relied on a handful of former 1st Medical Group patients, who were offered reduced sentences in exchange for testifying. They described a clinic where they paid in cash, where insurance was not accepted, and where doctors coached patients to say they were suffering from intense pain, meriting prescriptions for Xanax and OxyContin.
Free visits were offered to patients who recruited new business, and no one there questioned the hordes of out-of-state patients who traveled in groups from as far as Ohio and Kentucky.
Still, the case was not particularly easy to prove. Toward the end of the trial, Tesche rejected more than half the charges against the Gonzalezes and at times raised doubts about the strength of the state's case.
At the final hour Friday, she threw out one more count, vacating the three defendants' convictions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, known as RICO, based on double jeopardy.
That left the Gonzalezes and Altman with a long list of trafficking charges, many of which carry a minimum sentence of 25 years each. For Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt, 54, prosecutors proposed a sentence of more than 70 years.
Though the courtroom benches were packed, no family members or friends rose to speak in his defense. The 17-year-old son of Michele Gonzalez, who is 38, took the stand to beg the judge to return his mother home for his 18th birthday.
Half a dozen relatives and friends asked the judge for leniency for Altman, who, at 58, is facing a sentence that could mean spending the rest of her life in prison. The Maureen Altman they knew, they said, was a hard worker and a recovered alcoholic who coached others to escape addiction.
But prosecutors described her as Gonzalez-Betancourt's "right-hand man" and expressed incredulity that as a former addict, she did not know that the patients were abusing medication.
In the years since 1st Medical closed, Florida has increased its regulation of pain clinics and established a prescription drug monitoring program intended to curb pill mills selling prescriptions to drug dealers and addicts. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses are down overall.
"Doctors are much more carefully tracked, prescriptions are much more carefully tracked, and patients are followed much more carefully," Tesche said. "Perhaps the climate is changing."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.