A federal prosecutor said Friday investigators are working to link oxycodone overdose deaths to the operators of South Florida pain clinics already charged with illegally dispensing hundreds of thousands of doses of the powerful painkiller.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Benhke said at a hearing that if deaths can be conclusively traced to the clinics, primary owner Vincent Colangelo could face a mandatory prison sentence of no less than 20 years if convicted.
Colangelo, 42, was arrested along with at least 20 others last month in a series of pain clinic raids led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Investigators are examining overdose deaths in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and elsewhere for links to the half-dozen pain clinics Colangelo either owned or in which he had a controlling interest. All have been shut down since the Feb. 23 raids.
"We believe we are going to find individuals who have died as a result of the oxycodone," Behnke said.
At the hearing Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra denied bail for Colangelo on grounds that the potentially lengthy prison sentence was a strong incentive for him to flee. Colangelo did not speak at the hearing and has not yet entered a plea, mainly because he's not sure he has money for a lawyer. The government has frozen his substantial assets and moved to seize property including real estate, dozens of exotic and vintage cars and $22 million in cash.
"Anyone in your circumstances, that is an incentive not to appear in court," Bandstra told Colangelo. "The allegations here are strong and detailed."
If Colangelo cannot pay for his own lawyer, a judge will appoint one at taxpayer expense.
According to a grand jury indictment, Colangelo used some 1,600 Internet domain names that captured searches for pain medications to direct people to his Florida clinics. Between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2010, those clinics dispensed at least 660,000 oxycodone units, the indictment says.
The February "pill mill" raids came after undercover agents made at least 340 purchases painkillers at 40 clinics over the past year. Florida is the epicenter of a mushrooming prescription drug problem, providing 85 percent of all oxycodone sold in the U.S., state law enforcement officials say.
According to new DEA data, between January and June 2010 medical practitioners in Florida purchased nearly 41 million oxycodone doses, dwarfing the 927,000 sold to practitioners in Ohio, which had the second-highest number. Authorities say both addicts and drug dealers flock to Florida for oxycodone, in part because the state is among a minority that have no monitoring system to track possible misuse of prescription drugs.
Colangelo, who previously served more than four years in state prison on heroin and cocaine distribution convictions, and five others involved in his pain clinics are charged with drug distribution conspiracy. Some in the group are also charged with money laundering. ___
DEA Pill Mill tip line: 888-954-4662 or via email at Florida.Pill.Mill.Tips(at)usdoj.gov