A Santa Barbara doctor was arrested by DEA agents Wednesday, charged with trafficking drugs and prescribing copious amounts of addictive painkillers to patients who had no real need for the them. The opiates and sedatives prescribed and dispensed by Dr. Julio Diaz out of Family Care Clinic were often sold on the street, authorities allege, and led to a number of overdoses. Eleven of them were fatal and occurred between 2006 and 2011. The most recent took place in November 2011. That patient was prescribed 2,087 pills in the six weeks leading up to his death. Diaz, known to many as the “Candy Man,” is also accused of trading pills for sex.
The 63-year-old physician was taken into custody Wednesday morning at his Goleta home then transported to the clinic at 510 North Milpas Street where authorities seized files, computers, and boxes of evidence. (During the search of Diaz’s home, detectives discovered nearly a pound of marijuana and a revolver in his stepson’s room. Jose Trinidad, 27, was later arrested and booked into Santa Barbara County Jail.) Diaz was transported to Santa Ana where he’ll be arraigned in a federal court on the drug trafficking charges. If convicted, he faces decades in prison. It’s unknown at this point who his defense attorney is. The SBPD assisted with the investigation and arrest, but a spokesperson declined to comment on the case, directing all questions to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
According to the state medical board, Diaz has been licensed since 1981 and maintains a DEA registration, which lets him order and distribute controlled substances out of his office. He lists his specialties as pathology, geriatrics, and general practice, and has reportedly operated in the Santa Barbara area for decades. Despite the slurry of current allegations against him, he appears to have a clean criminal record and is in good standing with the medical board. Soon after his arrest this week, a clinic employee locked the location’s front door and taped a note to it that reads “OFFICE CLOSED TODAY.” As of press time, the clinic remains unoccupied. Calls made to the office and Diaz’s cell phone were not returned. Attempts to reach Diaz’s wife, who works at the clinic as a receptionist, were unsuccessful.
A 77-page affidavit unsealed this week by the DOJ lists the medications that Diaz reportedly over-prescribed most often: Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Norco, Fentanyl, and Methadone, to name some. Most of these drugs are taken to relieve moderate to serious pain. Many are habit-forming, and extended use increases a patient’s tolerance. The affidavit explains that numerous area health practitioners – physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, pharmacists – had written to the state medical board in recent years, expressing concern about Diaz’s prescribing practices and the frequency in which his patients would overdose, experience withdrawal symptoms, or have other issues with their medications.
In a letter dated October 26, 2009, three doctors and a nurse working at Cottage Hospital wrote to the board: “We have seen several patients who became addicted to large doses of narcotics prescribed by Dr. Diaz, and know of one fatality associated with overdose of narcotics prescribed by Dr. Diaz. He is often described as a ‘Doctor you can get anything from’ by patients. For example,” the letter goes on, “a recent patient was prescribed 120 Oxycontin 40 mg tablets, 150 Methadone 10 mg tablets, 120 Fentanyl 2 mg tablets, and 120 Xanax 2 mg tablets in a single month for menstrual cramps. We have previously raised concerns with the Medical Board regarding Dr. Diaz’s prescribing practices but are corresponding again because we continue to see patients who have become addicted under his care.”
Further outlined in the affidavit are three complaints logged with the medical board in 2009, written by parents on behalf of their children. The parents contend their children – teenagers and young adults – were told by friends of the medications’ easy availability and were enticed by the cheap prices the doctor offered for office visits. The parents also relayed that Diaz would increase their children’s dosage when they returned to him complaining the drugs’ effectiveness were waning.
On September 9, 2010, an investigator with the state medical board made an unannounced visit to Diaz’s clinic. After observing the patients and the waiting room for some time, she introduced herself and asked for specific patient files. As she was speaking with employees – one of whom had locked the front door for the lunch hour – a man in his 20s started banging on the door. According to the affidavit, “He appeared anxious and, when the nurse approached the door and yelled, ‘come back after 3,’ the man responded, ‘I need to see the doctor; I need pills.’ The nurse replied, ‘after 3.’” During an interview the next month with the same investigator, Diaz defended himself by describing many of his patients as “pseudo-addicts” who had become tolerant to pain medication but still experienced actual pain. They required a stronger dosages, he explained, and would start to buy the drugs on the streets if Diaz didn’t provide for them.
As the DEA continued over the last two years to look into accusations against Diaz, agents interviewed a number of health care professionals working at Cottage Hospital. One doctor noted that although he had treated Diaz patients from all walks of life, the majority were white men between the ages of 30 and 50. (Other sources, however, say Diaz’s patients were split evenly between white and Hispanic residents, and that many appeared college-age.) The doctor said he was certain the patients were selling their drugs as they wouldn’t survive if they took everything prescribed to them. Another physician stated he and his colleagues would contact Diaz with their concerns, and that Diaz promised to enroll his patients in pain management programs. Those promises weren’t fulfilled, the physician said. He noted one patient was given enough Dilaudid “to kill a horse.”
When confronted by other doctors, Diaz – the affidavit reads – would simply appear indifferent, stating he disagreed with their assessment. Eventually, some of the doctors created a spreadsheet to document how often Diaz’s patients arrived at Cottage for help. The hospital would also fax and call Diaz when one of his patients was admitted to the ER. Cottage physicians were able to spot one of his patients, they said, by simply glancing at the “cosmic doses” of drugs prescribed to them.
A Cottage therapist who specializes in chemical dependency revealed to DEA investigators that one of her female patients came to the hospital in severe withdrawal. The patient explained Diaz had “cut her off” because his wife allegedly found out about the woman and her friend receiving drugs from Diaz in exchange for sex. A set of twins in their 20s who went to see the therapist also said they would “do things” to receive pills, and that one of them was also denied medication when Diaz’s wife became aware of the relationship. Other similar stories were included in the affidavit.
A nurse said she often heard from patients that people came from all over the state to see Diaz. (The affidavit supports this claim, asserting some of Diaz’s patients crossed state lines.) Part of her patients’ treatment when they would complete detox or rehabilitation programs, the therapist went on, was to not return to Diaz’s office. In one case, however, a woman who finished a three-month rehab program outside of Santa Barbara died within three days of coming home and visiting Diaz.
In further interviews with many Santa Barbara area pharmacists, DEA investigators learned many of them “blacklisted” Diaz and his patients, refusing to fill prescriptions. The patients were often uninsured, the pharmacists said, and paid in cash. According to the affidavit, Diaz patients filled their scripts in 48 California cities in recent years, and would sometimes travel to other states as well.
While the majority of these complaints against Diaz reach back to 2008 — and spiked in 2009 and 2010 — one of his former employees was interviewed by the DEA in December of 2011 and spoke of the inner workings of Diaz’s business. Angelica Magana, a licensed vocational nurse, started working for Diaz in October 2011 after responding to an ad on Craigslist. She said Diaz often gave patients medication directly from the clinic, including those who tested positive for cocaine and methamphetamine. Urine analyses were delayed or not performed at all, she said.
Diaz’s wife, Socorro, scheduled appointments. Magana told investigators she would often witness Socorro interact with a patient in the waiting room, then go tell Diaz a patient needed a prescription. He would write one and Socorro would take it out to them. Magana said she saw Diaz give pills to friends of his wife free of charge, and that Socorro would bump patients who brought her gifts to the front of the line in the often-crowded lobby. Diaz’s favorite patient, Magana said, was a known prostitute who would sit on his lap during appointments. If the prostitute was Diaz’s last patient of the day, he’d send his employees home for the evening. Magana was eventually terminated from Family Care Clinic after she questioned Diaz more than once about his medical care and refused to follow his orders, the affidavit reads.