- Lawrence Mower Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
On April 1 this year, a woman sat down with investigators from the FBI, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Palm Beach police and told a startling story.
She’d been held against her will, she said, for prostitution. And several other women were victims, too.
The man responsible, she said, was Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman, an ex-felon and the founder of a Broward-based drug treatment facility and operator of several sober homes in Palm Beach County.
But instead of helping the women recover from addiction, the woman said Chatman was using one of the sober homes to keep them “in a state of impairment in order to ‘pimp’ them out,” the PBSO detective wrote in his report.
Addiction treatment has become big business in Palm Beach County. It’s now the county’s largest industry after construction, tourism and agriculture.
Chatman, with just one drug treatment facility, called Reflections Treatment Center, and several sober homes, is a bit player in the billion-dollar industry. But may have taken it in a different direction: human trafficking, according to police reports.
A sheriff’s office report from this year called Chatman, 45, of suburban Boynton Beach, a suspect in “possible human trafficking and health fraud criminal activities.”
Police and the FBI have been investigating him but he hasn’t been arrested. Instead, his business is thriving. The Reflections corporation paid $1.1 million for a palatial home in a gated community southwest of Florida’s Turnpike and Hypoluxo Road in September and is soon opening a new drug treatment center on Military Trail in Lake Worth, called Journey to Recovery.
Chatman said he’s not even involved in sober homes, though. Anything to the contrary is gossip, he told The Post in two brief phone interviews and a written statement.
“If you know anything about this industry, people say a lot of stories and make up things along the way,” he said in a December interview.
He did not directly respond to allegations of prostitution, saying only that Reflections provides services to prostitutes as it does anyone else.
“I would never, knowingly put any of the clients of Reflections Treatment Center or any other vulnerable young person in harm’s way,” he wrote. “Allegations to the contrary are unfounded and harmful.”
He said he only helps people.
“I’m here trying to help the sick and suffering. That’s what my passion is,” he said. “If you need help … give me a call. I’m that friend that could help you.”
Drugs in sober homes?
Police reports, official records, court filings and the ruined lives left in his wake tell a different story.
After Tina Pekar’s 27-year-old son overdosed and died in one of Chatman’s homes near Boynton Beach last year, she vowed to him: “I am not going to stop until I find out what you’re doing and shut you down.”
Four former clients and someone who oversaw one of the houses told The Palm Beach Post that they witnessed drug use in his sober homes.
The incidents in his halfway houses apparently were serious enough to prompt Reflections’ medical director to resign abruptly last year.
“Due to information I received about serious irregularities at the housing affiliated with Reflections and also the operation of Reflections Treatment Center, I have no choice but to resign my position,” the doctor wrote in his resignation letter, obtained by The Post.
Chatman and his businesses also have been on the radar of The Florida Association of Recovery Residences, which provides guidelines for sober homes. The Florida Department of Children and Families recently picked FARR to certify sober homes statewide under a new state law.
Although neither Chatman nor his homes have sought FARR certification, Lehman said the organization has received many complaints about Chatman.
“We’ve received numerous complaints of various different natures,” Lehman said. “In the case of Mr. Chatman, it’s an endless stream.”
Lehman said earlier this year Chatman’s lawyer sent him a “cease and desist” letter for making “false and defamatory” statements about him. Lehman denied making false statements and said he forwarded some complaints to law enforcement.
The woman who contacted PBSO and the FBI with prostitution allegations earlier this year said that Chatman, with the help of another man, took photos of the women and posted them on a website, according to the police report. She named the man, the website and the general area of the home.
The man named in the report denied knowing Chatman to The Post. Both PBSO and the FBI declined to discuss the case.
Chatman’s name also surfaced in another PBSO report this year.
Deputies were called after a woman disappeared from a Chatman sober home on 48th Street in Mangonia Park. After the woman’s parents spoke to WPTV NewsChannel 5, PBSO said it had received an anonymous tip that the woman was being listed on Backpage.com as an escort, according to the report. Escorts post advertisements on the site.
PBSO couldn’t verify the complaint.
Two days later, Chatman found her, he said, wandering high in a Pompano Beach park, the woman’s mother told PBSO, according to the report. She told police Chatman took her daughter to Reflections in Margate just a few minutes away.
Chatman said in his December interview that he did hear about a missing woman, but had no involvement in her disappearance and denied speaking to anyone’s mother about it.
“I found a young lady in the park and I brought her back to Reflections?” he asked, after being told about the police report. “I don’t know anything about finding someone in a park. … I don’t recall any of that.”
Addiction recovery usually follows three core steps: detox, rehab and intensive outpatient treatment, known as IOP.
All three are crucial steps on the road to recovery. Detox and rehab helps wean addicts off their addiction to drugs or alcohol, and the patients usually live on-site.
IOP helps reintroduce addicts to the outside world. The treatment can include therapy sessions, prescription medication and drug testing.
While going to IOP, patients usually live in sober homes, also known as halfway houses. Well-run sober homes are highly structured, often with strict curfews and zero tolerance toward drug and alcohol use. Poorly run homes can be chaotic nuisances that are the bane of neighbors and police.
Insurance is the lifeblood of the addiction treatment industry, since the companies are required to pay for care, including IOP and the drug-testing that goes with it.
And drug-testing is the most lucrative part of the business. Absurd charges for urine tests have attracted the FBI. The Post found one bill for nine months of tests at a treatment center not owned by Chatman topped $300,000, for example.
Chatman’s Reflections Treatment Center in Margate provides IOP.
Chatman says on various sites online he’s Reflections’ founder and director of operations, and he is widely considered by clients and employees to be the true owner.
“The owner, Kenny Chatman, has really helped me through a lot,” a woman identified as a client says in a Reflections video on YouTube. “I’ve known him for two years before the treatment center was even established and, I mean, I call him at 2 in the morning, he picks me up. He’s given me a lot of chances.”
Secret Service arrest
Officially, the company is in the name of Chatman’s wife, Laura.
That’s probably because Reflections never would have been approved by the state had Chatman himself applied.
The state does background checks on owners of drug treatment centers. Chatman is a felon, having served seven months in federal prison in 2009 for skimming credit cards. He had asked a waitress to steal credit card numbers using a device he gave her, court files show.
The Secret Service, which handles financial crimes, arrested him in 2008.
Chatman also was charged with assault, harassment and menacing in 1996 in New York City, where he grew up.
It’s unclear how or why he got into the addiction treatment business, but he was running sober homes at least as early as 2012, police reports show.
By 2013, he opened Reflections in a Broward strip mall with Shannel Escoffery, who now works for another treatment center. Chatman’s wife, Laura, had a 70 percent stake in the company and Escoffery 30 percent, according to a lawsuit filed by Escoffery against Laura Chatman.
The lawsuit claims Chatman and his wife forged Escoffery’s signature on documents so they could cut her from the business. It also claims that Chatman took money out of the company’s coffers to pay for personal expenses, including cruises.
Name appears 17 times
Chatman flatly denies that either he or Reflections owns or operates sober homes.
In his written statement, he said Reflections provides transportation to and from its business and sober homes, but “we do not operate or set policy for any of those facilities.”
Nonetheless, his name appears in 17 sheriff’s office reports for incidents affiliated with halfway houses.
West Palm Beach records leave no doubt, for example, that Chatman rented and operated a sober home at 3401 Westview Ave. in West Palm Beach’s Northwood Hills neighborhood this year.
“This property has been rented to Reflections Treatment Center and Kenneth Chatman. We are aware this is a sober home,” a real estate agent wrote to a city employee in August, after a Reflections employee filed records with the city.
His chain of sober homes are known as the Stay’n Alive homes, according to PBSO reports.
While investigating a robbery and battery between two housemates at a Lake Worth sober home in 2013, both the victim and the house manager told a deputy the house was known as “Staying Alive.”
“I then met with Ken Chatman, treatment facility manager,” the deputy wrote in his report. “Chatman knows all of the patients in his care and assigned to this house.”
Chatman told The Post that Stay’n Alive was a gym where he was a general manager until it closed in 2012.
He also said he’s never talked to an officer at a sober home, although in 11 PBSO reports involving sober homes, deputies noted they either spoke to Chatman on the phone or in person.
In some of the reports, Chatman was the one who contacted police, usually reporting vandalism by someone in the home.
Chatman told The Post, “I can assure you, I’ve never spoken to a police officer at the scene of a sober home.”
Denies ‘flop houses’
Chatman could want to distance himself from the sober homes to avoid legal liability for what happens inside them.
Four former clients and a person who oversaw one of his houses told The Post that they witnessed drug use in his homes, even though sober homes are meant to be drug-free.
“There was drug use, needles, syringes all over the place,” Vincent Patterson, who oversaw a home near Boynton Beach, said. “Any given day you stick your hand under the couch, you’d find a rig.”
A rig is slang for anything used to inject drugs.
The woman who went to PBSO and the FBI with prostitution allegations called Chatman’s sober homes “flop houses,” which the detective described in his report as “a drug rehabilitation house which is failing at providing services.”
Chatman, in denying responsibility for sober homes, added that the places often are unduly labeled “flop houses.”
“If I had a dollar for every time somebody said a sober home was a flop house, I’d be a millionaire by now,” he said.
Wouldn’t let her leave
Police reports reflect a chaotic environment in the homes, with PBSO deputies responding to calls over fights, robberies, break-ins and vandalism. In one incident at a Lake Worth house last year, a cab driver called police after a patient failed to pay a fare. Multiple deputies responded and found the man hiding in a shed behind the house.
In several reports, patients claim that Chatman took their phone or other belongings without returning them.
In 2012, a woman called police on Chatman, claiming he wouldn’t let her leave a sober home in Royal Palm Beach and wouldn’t return her belongings. When her boyfriend showed up, Chatman parked his car behind the boyfriend’s car, blocking him in, they told police.
A PBSO deputy resolved the situation.
“I met with Mr. Chatman and advised him that he could not force (the woman) to stay at this home without a court order,” the deputy wrote in his report. “I further told Chatman that he had to permit (the woman) to go with her property.”
Chatman chalked up his documented links to sober homes to rumors and gossip.
“I hear a lot of stories about myself,” he said. “I can’t stop people from saying my name for whatever reason.”
Chatman leaves a limited paper trail, renting the homes and, in at least two cases, has Reflections employees file paperwork with the city for approval.
But when Chatman was months behind on rent at a Royal Palm Beach home, the owner filed paperwork in court to evict him in 2013.
The owner also called PBSO when he saw the condition Chatman left the place.
“He saw broken glass throughout the house, numerous trash left on the floor, holes in the walls, ceiling fans broken, rugs in the toilet, light fixtures broken, closet doors broken and other items broken,” a deputy wrote in his report.
Ryan Pekar came to Florida in 2013 with two of his brothers, all three of them Ohioans with a mission to get clean. His two brothers went back after a few months of successful treatment.
But Ryan Pekar struggled, said Tina, his mom.
He went into rehab multiple times, eventually ending up in one of Chatman’s sober homes near Boynton Beach.
His girlfriend, also an addict, shared a room with him in the four-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot home.
On Sept. 14 last year, the girlfriend bought heroin in a nearby grocery store parking lot. That night, she went to their room, used it, experienced a rush she never had felt before, and passed out, according to PBSO reports.
The house manager, Patterson, took her into a shower to revive her.
An ambulance came to get her and Pekar was distraught that paramedics wouldn’t let him go with her. He wanted a ride to the hospital, but Patterson told him to call Chatman first, according to the PBSO report.
Chatman told him to pack his things and leave, Patterson told deputies. Pekar went to his room and locked the door.
After a while, his roommates knocked on the door and got no response. They alerted Patterson, who told police he went to find a key and unlocked the door.
Pekar was slumped over the table in his room, blue in the face. He would never wake up, and an autopsy later would reveal he died of an overdose.
When Pekar’s mother called Chatman, she said he seemed genuinely upset. She asked him to send her son’s clothes, and he agreed.
“I wanted to smell them, to see if they still smelled like him,” she told The Post. “That was one of the biggest mistakes I could have made.”
The clothes arrived in a box. Nearly all of them were unrecognizable. Some were women’s clothes, she said.
Also in the box: her son’s needles.
She wonders if they were deliberately included.
“My husband wants to believe nobody would be that cruel,” she said.
When she called Chatman about a month later, looking for answers, she said he acted like it had never happened. He denied ever having a sober home at that address, too.
“I had called him back and he said, ‘Ryan who?’ And then he tried to say he never talked to me,” she said.
Shortly after Pekar’s death, Chatman moved the residents to a new house, Patterson, who oversaw the home, told The Post.
Chatman said he had nothing to do with it.
“I heard about that and my condolences to the family,” he told The Post. “That has nothing to do with me at all.”
Tina Pekar believed her son was doing well. He hadn’t been kicked out of the house and she said Chatman told her he had been passing his drug tests.
In her last conversation with Chatman, she vowed to him that she would take him down. But she since has learned that there’s little oversight of sober homes, and even fewer ways to make sure parents are sending their children to a safe place.
“Something has to be done with these halfway houses,” she said. “The parents think these places are fine and they’re not.”
Her son’s ashes are now in an urn, wrapped in his baby blanket.
It makes her wonder.
“How do you send your son away on a plane and he comes back in the mail?”