'Oxy-Blues' investigation nets 23 arrests
BROOKSVILLE - It was one of the most organized prescription drug rings in recent memory for Sheriff Richard Nugent and his vice unit. The perpetrators reproduced numerous fake scripts to acquire pain medications by the thousands, he said. Hernando County Sheriff's detectives first learned during their investigation the suspects used the name of a physician and rehabilitation specialist in Tampa and used different patient names. The dealers hit a snag because they chose a doctor who rarely signs oxycodone prescriptions, Nugent said.Red flags were raised in February and by Friday, most of the 31-person crew, including the ringleader, were arrested. Nugent called the ongoing prescription drug issues in Hernando County and elsewhere across the Tampa region "an epidemic." "It's really ravaging this part of the state," he said during a media conference Friday morning. He stood with six undercover deputies donned in black suits and masks. In front of them were tables covered with bags of pills, loose cash, fake prescriptions, handguns and computer hardware. All of it was collected during the investigation, which was coined "Operation Oxy-Blues." It lasted four months. The head of the drug operation was Troy Bracewell, who Nugent said "has an extensive criminal history." He has been out of prison for a year, the sheriff said. His second-in-command, Brian Copenhaver, remains at large. Detectives spoke to him over the phone recently and asked to meet with him. Knowing an arrest was imminent, Copenhaver fell off the map, said Lt. Tom Garcia, supervisor of the Hernando County Sheriff's narcotics unit. "We actually made contact with him," Garcia said of the last couple phone calls his department made before he fled. "He told us, 'I know you're looking for me. Good luck,'" Garcia said. Copenhaver was last seen in West Pasco County, according to the sheriff's office. Eight out of the 31 suspects have outstanding warrants. Nineteen remain behind bars. Four have been released on bail. Most were charged with trafficking or conspiracy to traffic oxycodone. Several more were charged with possession of various drugs. Bracewell, if convicted, faces a life sentence based on the felonies he's violated and the size of his network, Nugent said. He has been charged with continuing a criminal enterprise, which according to state law requires an organizer to have three felony charges and at least five subjects under his control. A search warrant was conducted April 16 at his home at 7043 Corliss Road in Brooksville. Among the items recovered were two laptop computers and a printer, all of which were used to make the fake scripts, deputies said. Also collected were several scripts, 191 pills (oxycodone, methadone, methamphetamine, Fioricet and clonazepam) and more than $10,700 in cash. The case took a major turn in April when a confidential informant purchased pills from someone in the organization, according to the sheriff's office. The suspects used the name of Dr. Naomi A. Abel, of the University of South Florida Health, on some of the scripts. She was contacted in February by local authorities when one of the scripts was found. She said she didn't have a patient by the name used on the prescription, which turned out to be fake, according to the sheriff's office. She also told detectives she rarely prescribes oxycodone, the drug purchased from a local pharmacy in her name, authorities said. Abel declined to comment when contacted over the phone Friday. More doctors also were used by the suspects, all of whom were victims in the case and were never involved in the criminal enterprise, Nugent said. The average selling price per pill was between $7 and $10. In all, more than 2,100 pills were obtained illegally. Suspects also were in the process of acquiring another 1,030 pills before authorities shut them down, records showed. All of the suspects were drug users themselves, so there wasn't much leftover cash, Nugent said. "This was the biggest in (terms of) organization," Garcia said, comparing Bracewell's enterprise to others he has worked. "This group was definitely more organized." Hernando County is part of a region that has seen the greatest spike in prescription drug deaths in the state, the sheriff said. Three people recently have been convicted in Hernando of distributing prescription drugs to victims who have died from overdoses. One of them was a father who showed his son how to crush them into powder and snort them, Nugent said. "If it causes a person's death, we've gone after those folks and have been successful with every person we've gone after," said the sheriff. He said in 2006, there were 29 local residents who fatally overdosed on prescription medicine. So far this year, the county is on pace for 50 deaths, Nugent said. From 2006 through early 2009, more people died of overdoses compared to traffic fatalities, according to the sheriff's office. "With the advent of laser printers ... it's so easy now to create realistic scripts," said Nugent during the media conference. "It looks legit to (pharmacists). "They learn, just like anyone else," he said of drug criminals. "It's a learned behavior."
Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.