For immediate release
Gary Davidson, Public Information Officer,
Volusia County Sheriff’s Office (386-736-5989)
David Melenkevitz, Special Agent – Public
Information Officer, DEA Miami Field Division
Heather Smith, Keith Kameg or
Mike Morrison, FDLE PIO Office,
TWO DOCTORS ARRESTED IN PRESCRIPTION DRUG FRAUD PROBE
arrested a Central Florida doctor and his office manager Tuesday
morning and closed down their two clinics, accusing the pair of
operating a pill mill where virtually unlimited amounts of
prescription narcotics were routinely dispensed to anyone who walked
through their doors. Tuesday’s arrest of Dr. Ralph Chambers, Jr.
along with his business manager and the practice’s counselor, Dr.
Neil Stringer, capped off a massive, five-year investigation
prompted by numerous complaints from patients as well as pharmacists
alarmed at the volume of drugs being prescribed by Dr. Chambers.
Agents also have filed charges against 10 of Dr. Chambers’ patients,
the culmination of an investigation dubbed Operation Script Writer
that was launched in May 2005. The multi-agency Volusia Bureau of
Investigation initially launched Operation Script Writer, in part
due to concerns following the drug overdose deaths of several of Dr.
Chambers’ patients. A few months later, the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida
Department of Health and the Florida Attorney General’s Medicaid
Fraud Control Unit joined in the investigation.
operations at the New Hope Health & Wellness center in Orange City
and the New Hope Family Care center in Sanford showed the classic
signs of a virtual pill mill. The centers accepted either cash only
or Dr. Chambers would file Medicaid claims. Patients who complained
of pain were barely examined or not examined at all before large
doses of powerful narcotics -- most frequently Oxycodone -- were
prescribed. Oxycodone is a heavily-abused narcotic pain reliever
that has been determined to be a contributing cause in many fatal
drug overdoses. Agents raided the clinic offices last year along
with two pharmacies and seized patient records as part of the
investigation. On Tuesday, the Florida Attorney General’s Office
ordered the Orange City and Sanford clinics to close.
board-certified internist from Ohio who also is an associate
clinical professor of medicine and an expert on pain management,
addiction and controlled drug prescribing who was brought in to
review the clinical records concluded that most of Dr. Chambers’
prescriptions were issued for illegitimate and non-medical reasons.
“This is dangerous, and demonstrates clinically reckless disregard
for the health and safety of the patient,” the doctor concluded.
After reviewing one patient’s file, he told investigators: “If
medications taken as directed, there are several times in the course
of this patient’s management where the prescribed medications should
have threatened the health, and even life of the patient.”
interviewed numerous pharmacists where Dr. Chambers’ patients went
to get their prescriptions filled. One said he believed that Dr.
Chambers was creating drug addicts. After the pharmacist started
calling Dr. Chambers’ office regularly to verify prescriptions,
patients said that the doctor told them to find another pharmacy. At
just two pharmacies in Sanford, Discount Rx and Tru-Valu Drugs, Dr.
Chambers issued prescriptions for more than 190,000 pills in a
three-month period. While there were other narcotics involved,
Oxycodone was by far the most frequently-prescribed drug.
During the course of the investigation, agents also sent
confidential informants to Dr. Chambers eight different times to see
how easy it was to obtain a prescription. In some cases, Dr.
Chambers never examined them, or just had assistants conduct cursory
exams by weighing the patients and taking their blood pressure
before the doctor wrote the prescriptions. In one case, an informant
claimed to have pulled a back muscle and was no longer experiencing
pain, but liked the effects of the drugs. Dr. Chambers gave the
informant another prescription.
prescriptions were for 200 or more pills a month. One patient told
investigators that Dr. Chambers said he was prescribing the maximum
amount allowed and suggested the patient get pills on the street if
she needed more. The patient said she
attempted to commit suicide with her prescription medicine and then
went to see Dr. Chambers the day she was released from a
detoxification program and that he prescribed more pills, but the
pharmacy refused to fill the prescription. Another patient said she
asked Dr. Chambers for a sleep aid for her grandmother and that the
doctor wrote out the prescription on the spot without seeing,
talking to or examining the grandmother. And yet another patient
said that when she told Dr. Chambers she was running out of pills
before she was supposed to, the doctor increased the number of pills
for the next prescription refill. Additionally, investigators who
ran background checks on some of Dr. Chambers’ patients discovered
that many had been arrested before on drug charges.
Dr. Chambers, age 61, and Dr. Stringer, age 51, were arrested
Tuesday morning at the Sanford clinic. The following seven people
also are in custody in connection with the investigation:
Craig Anderson, 36, New Smyrna Beach
Jeanette Carman, 51, Ormond Beach
Jeannine Madden, 43, Ormond Beach
Scott Mehalko, 29, Deltona
Tara Otway, 38, Deltona
Connie Wood, 37, currently incarcerated
Timothy Williamson, 39, currently incarcerated
All of the
defendants have been charged with conspiracy to traffic in opiates
28 grams or more. Additionally, Dr. Chambers is charged with
Medicaid fraud. Meanwhile, agents have warrants for three more
patients who are being charged in the investigation.
VBI is a
multi-agency task force that pools resources from 10 local, state
and federal law enforcement agencies in order to target mid- and
upper-level narcotics traffickers as well as racketeering and
organized crime. Participating agencies include the Volusia County
Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the
Attorney’s General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution, Daytona Beach
Police Department, Daytona Beach Shores Department of Public Safety,
DeLand Police Department, Port Orange Police Department, New Smyrna
Beach Police Department, the U.S. Department of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives. VBI also is part of the Central Florida High Intensity
Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, which is a multi-agency task force
established by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy to
combat drug trafficking along the seven-county area hugging Central
Florida’s I-4 corridor.
additional information about this case is asked to call VBI at (386)
Update: 09/30/10 - 4:30 p.m.
Arrest warrants have been issued for
the final three defendants in this case. The warrants charge all
three with conspiracy to traffic in opiates 28 grams or more.
All three are still at-large and are being sought by law
enforcement. Their names are as follows:
Sherwood Christopher Hewett, 45,
Christopher Dale Rickman, 37,
Michael David Stewart, 25,
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the defendants is
asked to call Crime Stoppers of
Northeast Florida, toll-free, at (888)
277-TIPS. Residents can also text a tip by texting “TIP231
plus the message” to CRIMES. Tipsters who provide information to
Crime Stoppers will remain anonymous and can qualify for a
reward of up to $1,000. Anyone who prefers to talk directly to a
law enforcement officer can call the Volusia Bureau of
Investigation at (386) 274-3470.
However, only callers to Crime Stoppers will qualify for a