Law enforcement officers zeroing in on a growing prescription drug problem in the Las Vegas Valley recently snared 12 residents accused of acquiring and conspiring to distribute painkillers illegally.
"This has become a big problem," said Michael Flanagan, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency office in Nevada. "Illegal pharmaceutical sales on the streets are like you would think of cocaine and methamphetamine. A lot of dealers are now selling OxyContin and Percocet."
The 12 indicted earlier this week range in age from 22 to 31 years old and include three members of the same family.
According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the men and women used advanced technology to create bogus prescriptions that included legitimate security features and sensitive physician information. They forged at least 100 prescriptions to obtain oxycodone, Percocet and Lortab with a total street value of about $700,000.
Typically, dealers forge prescriptions, steal doctors' prescription pads or rob pharmacies to make a quick buck.
"You can pay $25 or more on a single pill. It can be quite expensive depending on what kind of drug it is and how strong," Flanagan said. "That's quick money,"
The Southern Nevada residents arrested are: Chloe Telles-Gaches, 23; Daniel Lugo, 22; Ray Lugo Jr., 23; Angelina Maria Lugo, 23; Sidney James Franklin, 29; Keith Arlando Burwell, 31; Zachary Michael Knighton, 23; Jessica A. Tritt, 25; Breanna M. White, 20; Natasha Georgina Edwards, 22; and Rickey Ray Roche, 24. One person who has not yet been identified also has been charged in the case.
Authorities said the group used the bogus prescriptions at 30 different pharmacies across the Las Vegas Valley to obtain more than 19,000 pills. Most of the pills, 17,280, were oxycodone. They also are accused of acquiring 1,000 Percocet, 920 Lortab and 180 Roxicodone pills.
When properly prescribed, the pills are dispensed for medium to intense pain.
Investigators caught on to the scheme because of the quantity of tablets and the abnormally frequent prescriptions for the drugs.
"The quantities of controlled substances acquired by Ray Perry Lugo, Jr. and the time frame in which he acquired them preclude the possibility of personal use as the sole purpose of the defendant," according to the indictment of Lugo, who was arrested after filling a prescription at a Costco store. "Additionally, the use of the same kinds of fraudulent prescriptions among the eleven additional individuals in his organization attests to the conspiracy to illicitly distributed these controlled substances."
After Lugo's arrest on Oct. 17, 2008, he told police that he, his mother and his brother's girlfriend went to Costco intending to acquire oxycodone with the fake prescription, according to the indictment unsealed Thursday. The scheme dates back to February 2008.
Flanagan said a new task force was created in Southern Nevada two months ago to target pharmaceutical drug dealing. The task force works off tips from parents or pharmacies. They target not only patients, but also doctors.
In November, the Board of Medical Examiners stripped Dr. Kevin Buckwalter of his authority to prescribe controlled substances after concerns over the amount of prescriptions he dispensed and the death of at least one of his patients.
Authorities are not only concerned about adults, but teens too.
"Kids are having pill parties based on prescriptions parents and adults have in their medicine cabinets," Flanagan said. "So now we have kids becoming addicted too. It's a huge problem, not just here in the valley, but everywhere."
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.