By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
By late fall of last year, Michelle was becoming suicidal. Depressed and desperate to kick her alcohol addiction of many years, the Orlando resident picked up the Yellow Pages hoping to find a rehab program that would work this time. One of the first listings was something called "Aaron Alcohol Abuse Addiction Assessment Counseling." Michelle dialed the toll-free telephone number, and a sympathetic voice assured her the Sea Winds Healthcare Services in Miami was the place she'd been searching for. The residential treatment facility would even pay for her plane ticket to Miami. Once there, Michelle was informed, she would begin intensive therapy under medical supervision, all in a sunny setting with a swimming pool and fitness center on the grounds and the beach only a jaunt away -- as long as Michelle's insurance would pay the $400-per-day fee. All across the nation other equally messed-up addicts were calling the same number and deciding to check in to Sea Winds.
Michelle's insurance company agreed to pay, her boss gave her time off, and her husband was relieved. She eagerly settled into the program at Sea Winds, a complex of former apartment buildings on NE 88th Terrace just east of Biscayne Boulevard. Then Michelle discovered a few minor surprises: There was no fitness center, the pool was actually an algae-clogged hazard, and her insurance company was billed $1000 per day instead of $400. Still she believed none of that was as important as her recovery, and she impressed both counselors and peers with her determination. "I was like the alcoholic-patient poster child because I worked so hard," she boasted. "This is very important to me; staying sober is everything."
Just 35 days into her expected six-month stay at Sea Winds, though, Michelle abruptly left the facility. There are wildly conflicting explanations for her departure, some of them coming from her. In an interview a few days after leaving, Michelle accused Sea Winds owner Mohamed Ibrahim of mercilessly booting her into the street because she spoke out against some practices and conditions that had already prompted the resignations of Sea Winds' medical director and clinical director. "I had nowhere to go," she recalled. "I'm in Miami, I don't know anybody, I don't know where to go. I was flipping out, crying, sobbing, scared to death." Former employees and Sea Winds executives helped Michelle find lodging and psychological support and urged her to complain to state licensing authorities. She has since returned to Orlando.
But in a letter faxed to Sea Winds on February 13, Michelle claimed all those stories about her being thrown out were "not true" and were spread by disaffected former associates "out to get" Ibrahim, the facility's owner, who has no clinical or addiction treatment experience. (She also denied speaking to any reporter.)
As contradictory as Michelle's accounts may be, her ordeal has been just one among a growing number of bizarre developments at Sea Winds. Beginning this past December, three other clients, also out-of-towners, were summarily discharged by Ibrahim, against the clinical director's judgment; numerous key staffers were fired or resigned; a lawsuit was filed seeking Sea Winds' immediate closure; complaints poured in to city, county, and state authorities; and the ugly truth about the center emerged: Since its opening in June 2000, Sea Winds had been operating illegally, endangering the lives of its approximately 35 clients and flouting nearly every applicable zoning, permitting, and licensing requirement. So far the center continues to operate, having moved some offices to comply with zoning codes, while lawyers fight off attempts to close it.
It took less than seven months for conditions at Sea Winds to degenerate into a confusing mess, but anyone familiar with the background of Mohamed Ibrahim can't be surprised. A convicted felon and charming con man, Ibrahim's past is one long string of busted business deals, multiple bankruptcies and foreclosures, stiffed contractors, and bank fraud. Yet he remains remarkably unhindered by legal considerations and is constantly acquiring properties and embarking on new business ventures. Among his current enterprises are laundromats, convenience stores, a Montessori school, and rental properties. Ibrahim's foray into the potentially very profitable arena of addiction treatment is relatively recent, just within the past few years. Already, though, federal authorities are demanding that he reimburse Medicare more than six million dollars in overbillings during the operation of three mental-health centers he owns (or owned -- all have been shut down). Sea Winds, not surprisingly, accepts no Medicare patients, only those who have private insurance or pay cash.
"This guy needs to be stopped," warns one former patient who didn't want his name used because he fears for his safety. "He's a psycho, and he's putting the lives of vulnerable people in danger." That sentiment is echoed, often in stronger language, by a host of participants in and observers of Ibrahim's exploits.
The idea for Sea Winds began about a year ago, when three South Florida businessmen looking to open an addiction-rehabilitation center in Miami found out about Ibrahim's NE 88th Terrace apartment buildings. Although in need of extensive renovation, the five partially vacant structures appeared perfect for a residential facility. According to David Shurgin, Jonathan Huttner, and Agop Rustemoglu, Ibrahim promised to effect the necessary remodeling and obtain the pertinent licenses and permits. The four men formed a partnership in May 2000. Shurgin was to be Sea Winds' chief financial officer, Huttner the chief operating officer, Rustemoglu the marketing specialist. All have administrative experience in addiction treatment. Ibrahim was general manager of the limited liability company. His partners insist they had no idea then of the many problems with the property, some virtually unresolvable and complicated by the fact that the facility is located in two separate governmental jurisdictions, part in Miami Shores and part in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. One building in the county had been condemned in 1998 and was in foreclosure. Neither of these matters has been resolved yet.