- John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When Dr. Johnny Clyde Benjamin heard one of his homemade fentanyl pills disguised as oxycodone killed a Wellington woman, he retorted that she was just another “page in a large stack,” according to court documents.
The Vero Beach spinal surgeon “did not seem too concerned about the death caused by the pills,” according to a special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Benjamin — described by his attorney as a “pillar of our community” — heard of the death from an unidentified person who helped him distribute fake opioids in Florida and up the East Coast. The go-between ended up wearing a wire for the DEA and recording the orthopedic surgeon discussing his side business.
The Florida pill mills reportedly are a thing of the past, but the DEA reported Benjamin buying supplies on eBay and from China, pressing his own pills and slinging them through drug dealers. One found its way into the hands of Margaret “Maggie” Crowley, newly married and recently promoted to managing an Outback restaurant in Royal Palm Beach.
The 34-year-old died of an overdose of fentanyl on Sept. 1, 2016. She was one of 590 opioid deaths in 2016 in Palm Beach County, a record high. The number of people dying from fentanyl in their system rose to 310 from 91 a year before.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine. The Palm Beach Post last year published Heroin: Killer of A Generation detailing the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths.
Joseph DiVita said his daughter suffered from back pain.
“She ran out of money and couldn’t get to the doctor. One of the guys at work said, ‘I have a doctor, I can give you a couple,’ and that is what happened.”
The DEA affidavit, though, states that a former felon sold Crowley the drug.
DiVita’s Facebook photo shows him holding his daughter when she was an infant. His wife’s Facebook page has a photo of Crowley when she just turned 1 year old with a birthday hat on her head. Her husband, Shaun Crowley, has a photo of himself sitting alone on the beachside bench dedicated to his wife of one year near her childhood home in New Jersey.
“As the sun rises, you will always be in our minds and in our hearts,” the inscription reads on the bench.
The family said they didn’t want her photo used for this story because it would be associated with the man who the family considers her killer.
“She was a very conscientious girl. She was a very loving girl,” her father said. “Her family was number one. Needless to say, everyone in the family is devastated by her loss — her two sisters and her brother especially.”
When DiVita read what Benjamin had said when told of his daughter’s death, “I wanted to fly down there and find the guy. He did this with absolutely no care for any result.”
Hailing from Houston, Benjamin practiced in Vero Beach. His website said he was the past chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Indian River Medical Center.
Attorney Andrew Metcalf , who has represented Benjamin, told TC Palm: “Dr. Benjamin has a stellar reputation in our community and frankly statewide as a fine physician. He’s a pillar of our community, well known in Indian River County.”
In 2007, The Palm Beach Post quoted Benjamin on the issue of African-American women and the risk of diabetes.
He isn’t the only physician of late who is accused of turning to drug dealing. In 2012, Pompano Beach osteopath Dr. Donald Willems was arrested on charges of illegally providing oxycodone and pushing out blank signed prescriptions at a pill mill. His license remained clear until he was arrested in December on health care fraud charges as medical director of one of notorious sober homeowner Kenneth Chatman’s treatment center. Willems was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in the Chatman case.
Boynton Beach Dr. Peter Katz was charged in April unlawful prescribing of a controlled substance. It took seven months from his arrest for the Department of Health to suspend Katz ’s license.
On Wednesday, Benjamin’s license, for anyone who checked online, remained “clear/active” without a blemish, though he remains in jail with no bond facing up to 40 years in prison on two trafficking counts.
“An arrest or waiting for trial is not evidence of wrongdoing and our statutes recognize this by providing that only a conviction or plea is actionable,” said Health Department spokesman Brad Dalton. “In Florida, a professional license is considered a property right so before licensees can be deprived of their license, they have a constitutional right to due process.”
He said any time a licensed practitioner is arrested, the Health Department monitors the situation for a conviction and looks into the action that led to the arrest to ascertain if the state has any regulatory authority to act.
Investigators worked backward from Crowley’s death to catch Benjamin, finding her supplier and then the man working with the surgeon to obtain and distribute the counterfeit fentanyl. Both suppliers, one with an extensive record and one with none at all, cooperated with the DEA in building a case against Benjamin.
The furanylfentanyl, the highly potent derivative of fentanyl that killed Crowley, came in a counterfeit pill stamped with a 30 above the centerline. A subpoena issued to eBay resulted in records showing an M30 mold for a tablet press, die and other materials purchased and delivered to addresses associated with Benjamin.
The second confidential informant who was wired for sound to record Benjamin told investigators that the doctor purchased a pill press about 2013 and was receiving substances overseas through the mail.
Benjamin was caught on recordings, according to the complaint, negotiating a purchase of 4,000 opioid pills for $4 a piece that would contain fentanyl, telling his go-between that he could sell them in New York and Philadelphia where “no one could connect the dots.” He also said he could get rid of 40 to 50 pounds of marijuana a week, the DEA stated in the affidavit.
The agents saw the informant hand over the pills — which were really made of sugar — to Benjamin behind his Pro Spine Center in Vero Beach where he placed them in his two-door Mercedes Benz. He told the informant he would be delivering the pills to drug dealers in the Northeast who if caught wouldn’t talk because “if you don’t go sit down, we’ll do something to your family,” according to the DEA agent’s affidavit.
Benjamin then tried to transport the pills by air at Melbourne International Airport where they were confiscated by police. The doctor said he was treating himself for neck cancer and even returned to the airport with a prescription he wrote himself for the pills sold to him by an informant.
A federal magistrate in West Palm denied Benjamin bond when he appeared in court last week.
DiVita said he couldn’t imagine why Benjamin would be so desperate or greedy to turn away from a lucrative medical practice for alleged drug dealing.
“The detective told me this guy made such perfect pills they had a hard time distinguishing them from the real thing,” the father of the deceased said. “I mean, you took an oath to protect people and you do this?”