7 People Accused Of Operating Deadly 'Pill Mills' That Generated Millions In Revenue

By Paul Gaita 01/24/18

The defendants allegedly operated urgent care and surgery clinics that prescribed and distributed oxycodone and other opioids to patients.

hands holding pain killer prescription opioids and another hand handing over three hundred US dollar bills

Five United States residents and two individuals from Italy have been charged for their alleged roles in a drug trafficking scheme that may have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

The Justice Department announced on January 19 that the seven defendants allegedly operated urgent care and surgery clinics that prescribed and distributed $21 million in oxycodone and other opioids to patients; the clinics also received money from unnecessary drug screenings through Medicare.

Approximately 700 clinic patients are dead, and according to the Justice Department, a "significant" number of those deaths were caused by narcotics prescribed by the clinic's providers.  

Luca Sartini, 58, and Luigi Palma (or "Jimmy Palma"), 51, both of Rome, Italy, were arrested on January 19 by Italian authorities, and extradition is being sought by the United States for both individuals.

The five U.S. defendants allegedly involved in the pill mill operation are Benjamin Rodriguez, 42, of Delray Beach, Florida, who is expected to self-surrender, and four Knoxville residents—Sylvia Hofstetter, 53; Courtney Newman, 42; Cynthia Clemons, 45 and Holli Womack, 44—who are all charged in a third superseding indictment. 

The defendants are charged for their alleged roles in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) conspiracy and drug trafficking conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, oxymorphone and morphine, maintenance of drug-involved premises, distribution of oxycodone resulting in death, conspiracy to defraud the United States through the solicitation and receipt of illegal healthcare kickbacks, and money laundering.

As the Justice Department announcement noted, the charges in the indictment are allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

According to the indictment, Sartini, Palma, Rodriguez and Hofstetter, along with an unnamed co-conspirator oversaw the Urgent Care & Surgery Center Enterprise (UCSC), which operated a network of opioid-based pain management clinics, from two locations in Florida and Tennessee from April 2009 to March 2015.

Medical professionals with Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registration numbers were hired to allegedly prescribe high doses of the opioids—substances described by the Justice Department as "highly addictive and potentially deadly controlled substances."

The prescriptions distributed by the clinic, which did not accept insurance, reportedly generated at least $21 million in income, while additional money was received by unnecessary drug screenings through Medicare. Shell companies were also reportedly established to launder the proceeds. The indictment also claimed that patients would travel considerable distances to receive prescriptions from the clinic. Reportedly, groups of patients were also dispatched to obtain prescriptions for drug dealers, who would then reward them with a portion of the narcotics.  

The indictment alleged that approximately 700 UCSC patients have been reported dead, and a significant number of those deaths were reportedly caused, either directly or indirectly, by overdosing on narcotics prescribed by the clinics. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that "the illegal and unconscionable mass-distribution of prescription opioids through the operation of illegal pain clinics has taken a heavy toll on our citizens, families and communities. This sort of profiteering effectively trades human lives for financial riches. The U.S. Department of Justice is determined to stamp out the operation of illegal pain clinics by all legal means, including finding and arresting those responsible wherever they may be in the world."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.