Judge keeps indictment in pill mill conspiracy
Negligent? Absolutely. Sinister? Not by a long shot.
So ruled U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra C. Poplin on a foul-up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that led to the destruction of evidence — nearly 2,000 patient files — in what authorities say is one of the largest and deadliest pill mill operations in East Tennessee history.
“While the court is critical of the DEA’s handling of the records, the court cannot conclude, based on the evidence presented, that the DEA agents acted in bad faith in destroying the records,” Poplin wrote.
“Although the court observes that the DEA was negligent, perhaps even grossly negligent, in failing to preserve the records, there is no evidence that it acted in bad faith.”
The ruling comes in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, or RICO, conspiracy case filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville against businessmen Luca Sartini, Luigi Palma and Benjamin Rodriguez, grandmother Sylvia Hofstetter and a slew of alleged minions charged in a massive pill mill operation that began in South Florida and — when authorities there started cracking down on opiate prescriptions — relocated to East Tennessee in 2011.
South Florida hotbed
Sartini, Palma and Rodriguez — dubbed “the Italians” in undercover recordings of workers in the clinics — funded the operation, authorities say, and Hofstetter ran the clinics.
The case has its roots in a series of raids by the FBI in 2015 of pain and urgent care clinics in Knoxville and Lenoir City. The FBI alleged the clinics were nothing more than cash-for-opiates operations that generated $21 million in profit in four years, put millions of prescription painkillers into the hands of addicts and left a trail of dead patients.
But the FBI believed the East Tennessee operation was merely a spinoff from the trio’s highly profitable and
highly deadly Urgent Care and Surgery Center network of emergency clinics, walk-in clinics and pain clinics in South Florida, according to records.
As it turned out, DEA agents had raided one of those clinics — the Hollywood Clinic in Hollywood, Florida — in December 2010 and seized nearly 2,000 patient files.
Dana Doklean, a detective with the Hollywood Police Department assigned to a DEA task force at the time, has since testified South Florida was a hotbed for pill-seekers at the time because of a lack of regulations.
She said hundreds of pill mills had sprouted up, overwhelming law enforcement and prosecutors.
“She explained that at that time, the state of Florida did not have a prescription monitoring program, so there was an increase in the number of pain clinics within our jurisdiction in a period of just a few years,” Poplin wrote.
Doklean pitched the case against the Hollywood Clinic to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fort Lauderdale for prosecution, but prosecutors declined to bring charges despite proof more than 20 patients had died from overdoses.
“Doklean testified that the case was not accepted for prosecution because the U.S. Attorney’s Office was overwhelmed with cases,” Poplin wrote.
By July 2015, Doklean was struggling with her own woes. Her husband had abruptly died from a heart attack, leaving her with two young children. She began transitioning off the DEA task force as a result, records show.
“She was ‘in survival mode,’ as she was going through a ‘very traumatic period personally,’ ” Poplin recounted.
‘Close this case out’
In November 2015, eight months after the East Tennessee raids, Kris Mynatt, a detective with the Roane County Sheriff’s Office assigned to an FBI task force at the time, contacted Doklean to get the evidence in the Hollywood Clinic case to use in the Knoxville RICO conspiracy case.
“Mynatt testified that Doklean was very cooperative and excited that we might have an interest in this case because apparently it wasn’t prosecuted in her district due to just the sheer volume of clinic cases they had there at that time,” Poplin wrote.
What Mynatt didn’t know — and Doklean failed to tell him — was that the Hollywood Clinic case had been transferred to Florida DEA agent Timothy Wroblewski, and his boss had ordered him to close the case and destroy the patient files.
Wroblewski testified he never talked to Doklean and didn’t know Mynatt wanted the files. In January 2016, he started the destruction paperwork and — by March — the patient files had been destroyed.
“He stated that his boss, Paul Toner, told him to ‘close this case out’ because it had been five years,” Poplin wrote.
But Wroblewski didn’t tell Mynatt the files had been destroyed — even after Mynatt reached out to him directly in June 2016 and said he planned a visit to the DEA’s Miami office to review the investigative file. In fact, Poplin wrote, Wroblewski destroyed more evidence in the case after Mynatt called him.
“When asked on cross-examination the reason for that, he replied, ‘I guess my boss wanted the case closed, so I closed it out,’ ” she wrote. “Mynatt later rotated off of the prosecution investigative team and, at some point, learned that some of the Hollywood Clinic files had been destroyed.”
Judge: Indictment stands
Hofstetter’s attorney, Chuck Burks, cried foul and wanted Poplin to toss out the indictment against her. He said the files might very well have proved her innocence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Stone countered there was no proof the files — never reviewed by Doklean or Wroblewski before they were destroyed — contained anything but incriminating evidence.
Stone told Poplin at an earlier hearing that Knoxville agents have since amassed similar evidence, including patient files, through alternative means and turned those over to the defense.
The question for Poplin was twofold: Did the DEA know or believe the files might contain information of Hofstetter’s innocence when it destroyed them, and did the DEA act with sinister intent?
She ruled no on both counts and is refusing to toss out the indictment.
“With no one having fully reviewed the records prior to their destruction, there is no evidence that the records were materially exculpatory (helpful to the defense),” she wrote. “At best, the records may have offered only potentially useful evidence for the defense.”
Burks likely will appeal the ruling to U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan. Trial in the case is set to begin in October.