Police raid South Florida pill mills

Narcotics agents across South Florida descended on more than a dozen pain clinics Wednesday, arresting at least 20 people -- including five doctors -- in the most dramatic effort yet to curb the region’s booming business of illegal prescription narcotics.

The raids from Miami to West Palm Beach were the culmination of a two-year investigation by a task force of federal, state and local investigators, an operation dubbed “Operation Pill Nation.” Undercover agents were dispatched to storefront pain clinics to buy potent painkillers such as oxycodone without any medical justification for the pills, investigators said.

Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti called Wednesday’s raids a new front in a “new kind of drug war”: A war on the massive trafficking of prescription drugs through pain clinics operating with the outward appearance of legitimacy -- though inside the clinics, doctors hand out pills without taking medical exams, and armed guards patrol the lobbies.

“Nowadays, the drug dealers are operating out of strip malls,” Lamberti said at a press conference announcing the busts.

These clinics have exploded all over South Florida in recent years -- in Broward alone, the number of clinics grew from four to 130 in less than four years -- making the region the prime supplier of illegal pills in the eastern United States. The clinics attract drug couriers posing as patients who travel from Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, where an oxycodone pill can sell for 10 times the price charged by a South Florida doctor.

In the first six months of 2010, the amount of oxycodone sold in Florida was nine times more than the oxycodone distributed in the rest of the United States, said Mark Trouville, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami field office.

Some of the doctors arrested Wednesday attracted the attention of investigators for prescribing eye-popping amounts of pills. Among them: Dr. Zvi Perper, charged with trafficking from a Delray Beach clinic. In the first six months of 2010, Perper prescribed 387,000 oxycodone tablets, making him the 22nd-most prolific prescriber of the drug in the United States for that period. Perper is the son of Dr. Joshua Perper, the Broward County Medical Examiner.

Also arrested Wednesday: Vincent Colangelo, 42, a convicted heroin dealer from Davie who ran a network of seven pain clinics in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, luring would-be patients with ads posted on some 1,600 Internet domain names. According to a federal indictment, Colangelo’s clinics distributed more than 660,000 oxycodone pills in a two-year period, helping Colangelo and his partners reap more than $22 million. Investigators believe the scheme brought in $150,000 a day.

“I don’t know where else you can go for a higher profit margin than that,” Trouville said.

Colangelo is charged with drug trafficking conspiracy and money laundering. Also charged are five of his employees and partners: Nicholaus Thomas, 28, of Fort Lauderdale; Rachel Bass, 27, of Pompano Beach; Michael Plesak, 26, of Plantation; Wayne Richards, 45, of Lighthouse Point; and Jeremiah Flowers, 31, of Fort Myers. Flowers remained at large on Wednesday.