The slaying of Florida firefighter Jerry Perdomo — who Maine State Police say was shot in the head over drugs and dumped in the woods of Newburgh last month by a man who owed him $3,000 — has put the spotlight on drug running along Interstate 95 between Florida and Maine.
The National Drug Intelligence Center has for years called I-95 the “East Coast drug transportation corridor,” connecting Miami to Houlton and all points in between.
Drug runners have long used the route, but the drugs hidden in trunks or wheel wells have changed from cocaine and crack cocaine in the 1980s to diverted prescription pills now, according to Florida Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks, the division chief for the State Attorney’s Office in Tampa who prosecutes drug cases.
Prescription pills — especially the painkiller oxycodone in recent years — are the drug of choice for many drug runners, and doctors in Florida have been giving them out like candy, said Dirks, the assistant state attorney for Hillsborough County.
“Every 28 days you can get 280 pills,” he said, referring to the maximum number of painkilling pills that can be prescribed to a person per month under existing Florida law. “You can buy them for a few dollars and take them back to wherever you came from and sell them for considerably more. Do the math.”
Lucrative drug market
Daniel Porter, 24, of Jackson has been charged with murder in the death of Perdomo, of Orange City, Fla., who was a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the Seminole County Fire Department. Porter is claiming self-defense in the shooting death.
Bangor resident Lisa Gould, a friend of Perdomo who called the Bangor Police Department to report him missing on Feb. 16, told police that he had visited her once a month for the previous 10 months in order to transport and sell narcotics — mostly prescription pills.
She told detectives he was selling up to 1,500 pills per month in Maine.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency director Roy McKinney said the street price for diverted oxycodone is $1 a milligram, so a 30-milligram tablet that cost between $1 and $4 in Florida would sell for about $30 in Maine.
“The legitimate cost of these medications compared to their street value is night and day,” McKinney said. “Even legitimately prescribed pills diverted to the black market can fetch quite a dollar amount.”
The easy access to drugs in Florida and Mainers’ appetite for painkillers — especially oxycodone — makes drug running attractive, McKinney said.
“If I have a friend in Florida, how easy would it be to walk into a pain clinic” and get a supply of pills and send or drive them to Maine, he said. “I just think it’s the Maine-Florida connection. It’s always a matter of connections.”
The MDEA seized roughly 10,000 doses of controlled prescription drugs in 2009, more than 44,000 doses in 2010 — nearly half of which came from one pharmacy burglary — and in excess of 18,700 doses last year, McKinney said.
“Those are just the MDEA numbers and do not cover what other law enforcement [agencies confiscated],” he noted. “Oxycodone has been a very big one, and was one coming up extensively from Florida, Georgia and California.”
Perdomo’s female friend from Bangor told police he left her house Feb. 16 with a .45-caliber Glock handgun and two cellphones and said that he was going to see someone who owed him money, according to a Maine State Police affidavit.
Porter, who told police that he and Perdomo had exchanged threats of violence and each had handguns, was arrested on Feb. 28 at his father’s rented house in Jackson, where police say he killed Perdomo on Feb. 16 by shooting him in the head.
Perdomo’s body, wrapped in blue tarps, was found on Feb. 29 by a Maine game warden and his dog about half a mile from Dahlia Farm Road in Newburgh on property near the home of Porter’s grandmother.
Porter drove the Florida man’s rental car to the Bangor Walmart and then dropped Perdomo’s two cellphones into the trash at the nearby Hannaford grocery store, the state police affidavit said.
The Maine State Police investigation indicates Perdomo was bringing drugs to Maine to sell and the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office also is looking into the matter and has started a drug-running investigation, public information officer Heather Smith said Thursday.
“We’re going to see if that is true,” Smith said. “We just began looking into it.”
Seminole County is located between Orlando and Daytona Beach, Fla.
Bangor defense attorney Jeffrey Silverstein, who has been retained by Porter, said Wednesday that everything he knows indicates that Perdomo was a drug runner.
“I think it’s easy down there to get this stuff through prescription channels — unlike what happens up here, where people are illegally bringing it across the border from Canada,” Silverstein said.
Dealers and addicts have had relatively easy access to prescription drugs in the Sunshine State from pain clinics, dubbed “pill mills,” filled with unscrupulous doctors willing to hand out pills to just about anyone with cash, said Dirks.
But he said a new state law slowly is changing things for the better.
“Before the law was passed we experienced an epidemic,” the Florida prosecutor said. “Well over 90 percent of all opiates prescribed in the United States were prescribed in Florida.”
Florida “was a destination for people from all over the country to take advantage of our lack of monitoring of prescriptions,” he said, adding that Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott called the practice “narcotourism.”
“It was relatively simple to obtain a large quantity of opiates very quickly,” Dirks said. “It was a very lucrative business. We had plenty of pain clinics with doctors who were willing to compromise their ethical principles for the right amount of money.
“It was ugly,” he said.
Before the new state law, addicts and drug dealers looking to make a fast buck would go to Florida, hit the “pill mill” complaining of pain, and after a quick examination, they could walk out the door with a month’s worth of pills in their hands, if they had cash.
The state still attracts senior citizens — including “snowbirds” from Maine who head south when the weather turns cold — who like the cheaper prescription drug prices.
In June of last year, Scott signed a new law that bans most doctors from dispensing painkillers, toughens penalties for those who overprescribe narcotics and also requires them to use tamperproof prescription pads.
A new prescription drug database also was created to stop addicts and dealers from getting drug orders filled at more than one pharmacy, Dirks said.
“Before the law was passed, there was no connection between pharmacies in the state of Florida,” Dirks said. “People were coming down from Maine and … they would hit one or two of the pain clinics and nobody would understand what you were doing. Now you just can’t show up and do that. There is a sharing of information.”
In Maine, a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program was put online in July 2004 and paid for with federal funding. The goal was to stop “doctor shopping” and help curb the alarming jump in the illicit use of prescription drugs. All transactions for narcotics at pharmacies are electronically updated to a database maintained by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.
Both Maine and Florida have seen dramatic increases in drug overdoses in the last decade, but Florida’s figures jumped considerably starting about five years ago, according to that state’s 2010 Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report.
“The drugs that caused the most deaths were oxycodone,” the Florida report said.
Sixty people died in drug-related deaths in Maine in 2000, but by 2009 that number had increased to 179, according to data collected by Marcella Sorg, a University of Maine forensic anthropologist and lead investigator in two major studies that looked at drug-related mortality patterns in Maine.
“The biggest game in town is prescription drugs,” she has said.
Oxycodone, methadone and benzodiazepines are the primary drugs causing fatal overdoses in Maine and Florida, said Sorg, who is the state’s anthropologist and works in the state medical examiner’s office.
“The pattern of drug deaths is very, very similar between the two states,” she said Friday. “It’s interesting.”
Most of the drug overdose deaths in both states involve people mixing more than one drug, Sorg said.
An average of seven people a day die in Florida by overdosing on diverted prescription drugs, Keith Kameg, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said Wednesday.
The new law is making positive changes, but the problem “didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to end overnight,” he said.
The Florida death rate from oxycodone alone increased by 265 percent between 2003 and 2009, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the number of overdose deaths involving diverted prescription drugs is four times higher than deaths associated with street drugs.
The good news in Florida is that “everybody has kind of jumped in on this pill mill issue,” Kameg said.
Over the past year, “there have been 2,150 arrests, which included 34 doctors, the seizure of 449,339 pills, 58 vehicles, 391 weapons and $4.7 million,” he said. “But probably most impressive is that 27 clinics have been closed.”
One factor that caused Florida law enforcement and lawmakers to take notice was when other states — including Kentucky and West Virginia — started to contact them about problems they were having that were linked directly to the pill mills, Kameg said.
“It was getting out of hand,” he said.
Disrupting the connection
Enforcement is a key to fighting the war on diverted prescription drugs, said Dirks and McKinney.
“I’m really tired of dealing with people charged with trafficking that are from out of state,” said the Tampa assistant state attorney, whose office handled more than 500 drug-trafficking cases last year. “The only connection they have to this area is they made a trip” for drugs.
Maine also has had several people arrested recently, locally and in Florida, for drug trafficking after receiving diverted pills through the mail.
Darrell Crandall, MDEA division commander for northern Maine, has said he has arrested people who purchased oxycodone from pain clinics in Florida.
Disrupting the East Coast connection is the only way to stop the northward flow, but it’s not easy, McKinney said.
“These organized groups, or gangs, recognize there is money to be made with diverted pills,” the MDEA director said. “Maine has a market.”
Another side effect of prescription drug abuse and trafficking is that other crimes — thefts, burglaries, robberies and now homicide — in both states have increased, Dirk and McKinney said.
Pharmacy robberies in Maine were virtually unheard of just six years ago, but nowadays such robberies are commonplace, McKinney said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a daily occurrence, but it is increasing,” the MDEA director said. He did not provide numbers.
There have been more than 30 stories in the Bangor Daily News about pharmacy robberies in Maine since early last year.
One of the biggest problems is that people often don’t consider the use of diverted prescription drugs to be as serious as the use of illegal street drugs — because they are prescribed by doctors and found in most medicine cabinets, according to Guy Cousins of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, a sentiment echoed by McKinney and Dirks.
“Families and friends are typically the place where people obtain [diverted drugs],” Cousins said. “Access to medications is one of the reasons this is such a huge issue.”
Users “all tell you you have no idea how fast it can get you,” Dirks said. “They take it for back pain and the next thing you know they’re hooked. They’re crushing them, snorting them, injecting them, and then … someone is dead.”
To view a map of drug transportation corridors in the United States, click here.