HOUSTON - A 14-month long investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration shut down a southwest Houston clinic that was writing tens of thousands of prescriptions for opioids and other drugs.
DEA agents shared with KPRC the details of an investigation they said is an example of what is fueling our country’s opioid crisis.
Surveillance video from the government’s investigation shows throngs of people waiting every day for the doors to open at the Gulfton Community Health Center.
“Typically we saw about 30-to-40 people on foot, sometimes 20, 30, 40, 50 cars,” said DEA agent Wendell Campbell. “They would make a beeline for that front door.”
More DEA undercover video shows a constantly packed waiting room with a line stretching into the lobby. Campbell said people would wait as long as four hours to get a prescription. DEA officials said the clinic was owned by Shane Faithful and the doctor writing prescriptions was Dr. Gazelle Craig.
“They were trying to guard themselves as much as they could about being detected by law enforcement,” said Campbell.
According to investigators, those safeguards included armed security guards checking IDs, along with multiple signs reading no backpacks, purses or electronics of any kind were allowed in exam rooms. Campbell said the staff would only accept cash and was told to only serve those who'd been prescribed opioids in the past. In fact, one undercover recording captured Faithful chastising his staff for not always doing these checks.
“If you screw up, up here, it puts her in jeopardy back there,” DEA officials said Faithful said to his staff.
"Her," according to the DEA, was Craig. Craig was accused of writing nearly 34,000 illegal prescriptions for the opioid hydrocodone and the muscle relaxant carisoprodol, which typically goes by the brand name Soma. Part of the DEA’s case focused on “exams” that lasted as little as 58 seconds before a prescription was written. The DEA pointed out it didn’t matter what a person’s age or physiology was, almost every person was given the same prescription for 100 hydrocodone pills and 70-90 muscle relaxant pills. The DEA said there are no health benefits from this “drug cocktail.”
In all, the DEA said in just over a two-year period, the clinic wrote prescriptions for 2.1 million units of hydrocodone and 1.3 million units of carisoprodol.
“What it shows is the damage one person can do,” said Campbell.
“Was it a mix of those who were addicted to opioids or those who were coming here to get pills they could sell on the street?” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“What we saw was both happening,” said Campbell.
Campbell said so-called crew chiefs would round up several people and take them to the clinic to get prescriptions. Once the prescriptions were filled at various pharmacies the “chiefs” would then sell the pills on the street for an average of $10 a pill.
“Some of these crew leaders were collecting as many as 5,000 pills on a monthly basis,” said Campbell.
Will Glaspy, special agent-in-charge of the DEA’s Houston office, said clinics like this one continue fueling a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose.
“It is probably the worst drug epidemic, the worst drug problem we have ever had in this country,” said Glaspy.
Glaspy said Houston has become a hub for prescription pills.
“Drug traffickers from Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and other states, (are) coming to Houston,” said Glaspy.
Even though the DEA shut the Gulfton clinic down, the ripple effects from millions of pills flooding our neighborhoods are unknown.
“How many parties does it go to? How many clubs does it go to? How many lives does it impact? There's just no way to track all that,” said Campbell.
Faithful and Craig were convicted in March on one count of conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances and three counts of unlawfully distributing and dispensing controlled substances. Both were sentenced to 35 years in federal prison last month.
The Houston case even drew the attention of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“This conviction will not only help stop the diversion of prescription drugs, it will send a message to every would-be fraudster in America,” Sessions said following the convictions.
Sessions mentioned the Houston case previously when talking about the Department of Justice’s “National Health Care Fraud Takedown.”
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