It's almost noon when Christian Valdes blinks open his eyes. The muscular 32-year-old with short black hair and a goatee quickly realizes he's hung over. His head is pounding, and his mouth is parched. If he doesn't get water soon, he may puke. The last thing he recalls is stumbling home to his Sunny Isles apartment around 5 in the morning. At the club, there had been bottles of Hennessy, whiskey, Patrón. And a lot of girls.
He puts in his diamond grill, throws on some clothes, and gets in his Mercury Grand Marquis to go find something to eat. He has business in Broward, so he drives north on I-95. Though he's not selling as much weed these days as he used to, he still has a handful of clients to attend to. Besides, his golden rule is that deals are always done on the road, never at home.
Once he's on the highway, his phone rings. It's Eddie Madera, his closest buddy from growing up, whom he considers a cousin. He answers the call, unable to conceal the awful hangover from his voice.
But Madera doesn't make small talk. "Yo, man," he says, his voice urgent, "I just got a call. Joey is dead." Oh shit. "He overdosed. On prescription drugs."
Joey, or "J Nasty," was one of Valdes' oldest friends — a kid from the neighborhood and from his old crew. "You're lying," Valdes says. "No way."
He tries not to lose control of the car as his eyes flood with tears. He veers to the shoulder and screeches to a stop, then dials J Nasty's dad, who confirms the news. For an hour, Valdes sobs on the side of the highway.
It wasn't just the pain of losing his friend that day, November 20, 2011, that left Valdes a weeping mess. In some way, he felt responsible. He'd spent the past seven years managing a pain clinic, overseeing a shady drug operation that sold millions of pills to desperate addicts — the same pills that killed J Nasty.
"Man, that scared me straight," Valdes says today. "It was the first time it really hit home. So I made a vow that I couldn't be part of that madness anymore."
By now, most Floridians know the story of how their state became the epicenter of a deadly pill-mill epidemic. Between 2005 and 2010, lax state rules helped shady clinics peddle record amounts of narcotic painkillers, as deaths due to prescription drugs exploded by 12 percent each year in the Sunshine State; oxycodone-related fatalities spiked by 35 percent annually.
But few know the real story of the people who did the dealing, the legit drug hustlers like Valdes who lived a life of guns and women while making big-money oxy deals out of suburban strip-mall parking lots. Valdes' tale — told in a new self-published book, Pill Mill: My Years of Money, Madness, Sex, and Drugs, and backed up with public records and interviews with his family and associates — illuminates one of the darkest chapters in South Florida's drug-fueled history.
The story is more important now than ever, as addiction specialists grapple with a new heroin crisis, which many say came straight out of the crackdown on pills. From 2012 to 2013, heroin-related deaths jumped 39 percent. A 2014 survey found three out of four heroin addicts started by using prescription drugs.
"It's basically the same thing," says John Temple, a journalism professor at West Virginia University who has researched Florida's pill mills. "Addicts don't distinguish a great deal between the two. The only difference is that one is legal and one is not."
It took J Nasty's death to scare Valdes out of the game. But five years later, he's still adjusting to life on the outside. And it sure looks different now. After his friend's funeral, he went to see his girlfriend, Crystal. She was pregnant, she told him — with his daughter.
"I lost someone special that day," Valdes says. "And I gained an angel."
If it was Saturday morning, he was up and working for Papi. Every weekend, a 5-year-old Valdes would wake up before dawn to accompany his dad, Lazaro, to the gas station Lazaro owned on 79th Street near the I-95 ramp, north of Little Haiti. Lazaro, who grew up in Cuba, was serious and focused; Valdes helped him clean, organize, and assist customers. In return, at the end of the day, he would get $5 to buy candies or his favorite action figures. He especially loved Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Spiderman and all the cars and accessories that went with them.
Crime was high in the area, so his father kept guard dogs. But trouble always visited. There were murders in front of the shop and people trying to steal gas. His father would often run out and try to catch the criminals. Sometimes he shot at fleeing cars, Valdes remembers. Other times, he fought people.
"That was the way I learned how to settle a score," Valdes says. "Don't fuck with me and I won't fuck with you. But if you try to do harm to me, I'm going to have to deal with you."
It was an attitude he'd take with him throughout his life — one that would get him involved in countless brawls, arrested, and kicked out of school. And it would prepare him perfectly for his full-time job: selling drugs. He was damned good at it.
Valdes grew up in North Miami Beach, right behind a Toys R Us. His parents had arrived separately by plane from Cuba in the '70s and met in New Jersey. Job opportunities brought them to Miami, where they had two boys. Christian, the younger, was born in May 1979. As a kid, he loved "normal boy stuff" like comic books, but his home life was unstable.
"There was violence in the house — and a lot of rules," says his mom, Sara. "I think Chris had a lot of anger from that."
His parents divorced when he was 6, and Valdes moved to Broward with his mom, where she began working as a cop. His dad stayed in Miami with Valdes' older brother. Sara married a fellow police officer. Valdes wasn't immediately supportive of his new stepdad, but they built a friendship playing basketball and football and going on fishing trips. Valdes was a decent student and even enjoyed school.
But in high school in Pembroke Pines, trouble became his specialty. Valdes wanted to be independent, so he tried working at McDonald's. But $6 per hour wasn't cutting it. So in ninth grade, he started selling weed. He and his friends were already smoking it every day anyway. He'd occasionally also sell roofies, acid tabs, and coke, but he didn't like how those customers acted. He preferred marijuana. Eventually, he started selling to the mailman, and then to the mailman's son, Joey, who soon earned the nickname J Nasty. Their other best friend was Madera, who went by Roberto back then, his rapper name.
Along with 30 other guys, J Nasty, Roberto, and Valdes — then known as "Nino Breezy" — formed the Smoking Blunts Crew. The tenets of their group were simple: girls, hanging out, smoking weed, and making money.
And everyone in the crew began to amass his fair share of arrests. Valdes was caught smoking pot at school, shoplifting, and skipping class. His mom sent him to live with his dad in Miami, but he only lasted there five months. Back in Pembroke Pines, he fought and had car accidents and even robbed someone's house. "I was really stupid," he says.
"Every time my beeper went off, it had to do with Chris," Sara says. "My head was always spinning, thinking, 'What did he do now?' It was a nightmare."
In 1997, he was expelled from school for fighting. And in February 1998, a 19-year-old Valdes was arrested on a felony drug charge. Police found him in the Arbor Green neighborhood in Pembroke Pines in a car with "a strong smell of burnt cannabis." Cops found ten grams of pot and plastic baggies. Valdes was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute but got off with probation and a withheld sentence.
He finished high school online. And by then, his weed business was getting big enough that he could afford to move out. So he and a friend moved into a three-bedroom house and rewired the cables to steal electricity to grow weed. After about six months, just as authorities might wonder about the high energy usage, they moved and started over. For six years, they skirted the law, growing 20 pounds at a time and selling it for $4,000 a pound. That meant about $40,000 in his pocket every three months.
Valdes bought a $4,000 diamond grill for his bottom teeth. He started getting more tattoos: "Hustler," a money bag, and "OG" on his neck; "Fuck the world" on his chest; and a bunch of fake bullet holes on his back. He also got a dog, a 130-pound Rottweiler Mastiff mix named Oso — or "Bear" in Spanish.
Eventually, business was so straight that he decided to get another part-time job to keep entertained, as a veterinary technician at a high-end Puppy Boutique. One day, a well-dressed man walked into the store looking to buy his new Chihuahua some goodies. Valdes couldn't help but notice his expensive designer clothes: a Louis Vuitton suit and Gucci glasses, plus plenty of expensive jewelry. When the man bought a $30,000 dog collar, Valdes was intrigued.
The man came to the store a few more times and eventually left his business card with Valdes' colleague, a young girl. He worked at a pain management clinic.
A few months later, when Valdes grew sick of the puppy store, he called the number on the card in search of work. The office manager who answered told him to come right in — they were actually looking for additional help. Valdes didn't know what medical management was, but he figured for the first time in his life, he might have a chance to work in a legitimate business. The office was even located in a nice building in Fort Lauderdale. It was a no-brainer.
He showed up reeking of pot after a day spent handling marijuana plants at his apartment. But the manager, a 22-year-old, hired Valdes immediately.
"A hard-looking dude covered in tattoos walks into a medical clinic smelling of marijuana and instantly gets a job," Valdes says. "I should have wondered what the hell was going on, but I was just happy, I guess. I had no idea what I was getting myself into."
On his 29th birthday, in 2008, Valdes rented out the Lion's Den, a VIP room at one of his favorite strip clubs, Tootsie's Cabaret. He invited all his friends and dozens of girls and strippers, and they shared bottles and drugs, dropping thousands of dollars and getting good and crunk.
Around 4 a.m., the crowd started thinning. Valdes and Madera were the last men standing. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Valdes saw a familiar face. It was a patient from his clinic. Earlier that day, the guy had been slurring his words and acting aggressive, clearly high on pills. So Valdes had thrown him out.
Now it seemed he was there for revenge — or maybe to try to snag some late-night oxys.
Valdes grabbed Madera and went outside, where they found the patient and 12 of his friends — a bunch of "white dudes with tattoos." Valdes drunkenly grabbed his gun and fired a shot into the air. The guys scattered, but the patient stayed. So Valdes pistol-whipped him in the head a couple of times, then fled before the cops came.
By 2009, such fights with patients had become routine. The stakes were higher, addicts were streaming in, and there were thousands to be made. And Valdes was the king of his castle. He never would have guessed he could make even more money legally dealing drugs than he did with weed, but life as a pill-mill kingpin was lucrative indeed.
When he was hired in 2004, Valdes was told his job would involve managing an increasingly busy office — receiving patients, managing files, and keeping general order. But it took just a few days to realize these were not normal patients.
"When these patients started getting aggressive with me, it dawned on me why I got my job," he says. "It was actually because I was a drug dealer. And when you come to me, you better back up."
He was doing what he had done for the past ten years on the street, but in a professional office. And despite being legal, the product, he soon learned, was far more dangerous. Valdes estimates that maybe 15 percent of people who came to the clinic had legitimate pain. The rest were addicts or dealers. Often Valdes wondered: Was this stuff any safer than heroin?
A hundred years earlier, heroin had actually been perfectly legal too. It was created by boiling morphine and was considered a less addictive alternative to other pain medicine. By the early 20th Century, the American Medical Association had approved it for general use.
Hundreds of thousands were soon addicted. Oxycodone was developed in Germany as an alternative, but until the '90s, the drug and other similar opioids were considered a last-ditch solution. In 1986, though, the World Health Organization started encouraging doctors to prescribe stronger opioids. Pharmaceutical companies saw potential.
In late 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved Purdue Pharma's OxyContin. By 2001, Purdue was spending $4.6 million a year on ads. Sales skyrocketed, going from $44 million in 1996 to $1.5 billion in 2002 and then $3.1 billion in 2010.
And nowhere could pain clinics proliferate and flourish like in Florida. Florida did not have a statewide prescription drug-monitoring program. And anyone, not just doctors, could own and operate a Florida pill mill — even felons. Many clinics dispensed narcotics directly to the public. Patients would often come in and leave ten minutes later with 1,200 pills — a lethal mix of oxys, Roxicodone, Percocet, Xanax, and more.
Valdes' clinic had opened in 2003 in Oakland Park. There was always a handful of doctors working, but everyone wanted appointments with one in particular. Valdes watched closely at the way that doctor worked. He was a quiet, respectful older man who didn't waste time on conversation.
Dr. Thomas J. Weed had gotten his medical degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965. Weed was diligent about getting patients in and out quickly. He took some 70 patients per day, for five-minute appointments, with no physical exam. Soon, he became the star of the clinic. He was even on a late-night commercial.
The profits the clinic generated were huge. Patients came in, paid $300 cash for a visit (no insurance, no checks, no credit cards) in a steady stream all day, every day. They paid more — sometimes up to thousands of dollars — for prescriptions filled at the clinic's in-house pharmacy.
Valdes soon learned that the clinic's executive director, Steven Siegel, was loaded. At a lavish party at Siegel's house on the Intracoastal, he showed off more than just his fancy dogs — he had a pool and Jacuzzis, Jet Skis, and electronic toys.
Valdes wondered where his slice of the pie was. He was making $13 per hour even as his responsibilities kept piling up. He had to be on call 24 hours a day, in case patients wanted pills in the middle of the night. Plus, he felt he was putting his life in jeopardy. He started bringing a gun to work, which he used to break up fights and drug deals gone bad. He tucked the gun under his scrubs.
Unlike some of the other clinic employees, Valdes had already decided never to take the pills himself. One night in high school, he had a bad experience after taking two Xanax pills with alcohol. When he'd woken up a day-and-a-half later, his wallet was gone, and he had no idea what had happened. From then on, it was strictly weed.
In 2005, Valdes found his way into the game after he was given his own clinic to manage in a Lauderhill strip mall next to a Joe's Crab Shack. A patient asked if he could buy a blank prescription from the doctor's pad for a couple of hundred bucks. Why not? Valdes thought. He told the patient to fill the script in the evening, when Valdes would be on phone duty. When the pharmacy called to verify the patient, Valdes answered, and voilà: The guy had his pills. That was the start of his side business.
"I built my own operation inside their operation," he says. "Why are they gonna have birthday parties for their dog when I'm left dealing with all the scumbags for no money?"
Valdes charged $300 for a blank script and thousands more for the whole pad. He even offered fake MRIs and clean urine tests for a couple of hundred dollars. It was easy to build a dedicated network of buyers — namely strippers. At his peak, he was clearing close to $20,000 a week.
"They had no idea I was using their phones and laptops and forging scripts to help my side business," he says, "using their office as my personal drug hole."
He even started getting his friends jobs, starting with Madera. "We sold drugs our whole lives, so we knew how to deal with those personalities," Madera says.
The money train was on the tracks, and Valdes was enjoying the ride. He was juiced up on steroids, going out to strip clubs in North Miami until 4 or 5 a.m. every night. His arsenal of tattoos kept growing. And girls would do anything to get some of what he was selling. Even in the clinic, he'd often get blowjobs or sex in exchange for pills.
"It was total insanity," he says. "We were pissing money in those years. It was money, sex, and partying, 24/7. And everyone got what they needed out of it."
During the Smoking Blunts days, Valdes had lost touch with his father, who was bewildered by his son's lifestyle and couldn't stand to look at his tattoos, which had expanded all the way down to his fingertips. Time and again, his dad refused to bail him out of trouble. They didn't speak for seven years.
But when Valdes started to rake in the money, his dad was impressed. By all accounts, his son was working in a professional, well-paying job. After getting back in touch, Valdes and his father took the trip of a lifetime together. For two weeks in 2006, they traveled to Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica.
When their plane landed back in Miami, Valdes was greeted at the airport by the girl he was seeing at the time. Before even saying hello, she handed him a newspaper. "Doctor Saw 9 Who Died of Overdose," it read.
It was an article about Dr. Weed. According to the Sun Sentinel, Weed's heavy hand with pills had killed nine people in just two years at the clinic. All of the patients had histories of abusing prescription drugs, the paper reported: "Several had been in rehab. Two previously had attempted suicide. One drove 300 miles round-trip from Cocoa, on the Space Coast, to get prescriptions from Weed."
While Valdes was gone, the DEA had raided the office, taking folders and computers. Weed had already left to open his own clinic in Boca Raton a few months earlier.
Weed's downfall was the beginning of the end of Valdes' oxy-dealing days — a harbinger of the death and tragedy that would force state crackdowns and drive Valdes and hundreds of others out of the opioid-slinging game.
When a patient died, it was Valdes who'd deal with it. And it always went the same way: The coroner's office would call, saying the bottle found next to the victim's body showed the clinic's name and information. Valdes would have to verify the patient in the clinic's database. Sometimes, family members would come in angry, looking for answers. After a while, he became numb.
When he saw the newspaper's report, Valdes' heart raced. He was sure that the clinic would be shut down and that he'd be out of a job.
But by the next week, it was as if nothing had happened. The same steady stream of people lined up in front of the clinic. Actually, in spite of a growing and staggering number of deaths from prescription pills, the scourge would continue to grow to epic levels at clinics across South Florida.
Abuse was flagrant: Clinics gave out commissions for bringing in new customers. Some offered coupons; others had discount days or other incentives. Billboards covered the state. "It actually started to get scary," Valdes says. "The patients were zombies."
People would snort or shoot the pills in the clinic. One day, a guy in a trench coat came in for a urine test and ejaculated in the cup instead. People would fight and bite each other.
"The saddest part was seeing people come in for the first time in a nice fresh suit and tie and then three months later it was ruined, with stains and cigarette burns all over it," Valdes says. "I felt bad."
In 2008, pain-pill overdoses killed 15,000 people in the United States. In 2009, seven people died every day in South Florida from pills. And doctors in Florida prescribed ten times more oxycodone pills than in every other state in the country combined.
But no one seemed to care. In those years, the Florida Department of Health would inspect the clinic once a year. After making sure everything was up to code and clean, they would ask Valdes to pull some patient charts at random. He had everything perfectly organized so he could always hand them the legit charts. He claims he even had DEA agents who agreed to give him a heads-up on a DOH visit, for $10,000 a pop.
"I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I'm not proud of it," he says. "But the system was being abused by everybody, and nobody seemed to care. So I was like, 'Why should I? I'm the drug dealer here.'?"
Around that time, J Nasty came to Valdes looking for work. He'd just gotten a second DUI and was struggling to make ends meet. After he begged a few times, Valdes agreed to let him take on a small bit of side work, but he warned him not to take any of the medicine. He should have known J Nasty wasn't going to listen.
"Six, seven months later, he was making money, but I found out he was really involved in the drugs," Valdes says. "He had so much hurt in his life, and he always tried different things to cope."
Pain pills' free reign came to an end in 2009, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill creating a statewide prescription database. With the new system, pills would be tracked electronically, cutting down on fraud. New Gov. Rick Scott, elected the next year, stymied the system, but business still dropped at Valdes' clinic from 100 patients a day to 25. The DEA started tracking how many pills came into dispensaries and pharmacies. And the DOH started to come in every two months as opposed to once a year.
Dr. Weed's own pill-slinging also came to a screeching halt in 2010, when the Florida Board of Medicine found him guilty of "excessive and inappropriate prescribing" of pain medication between 2003 and 2010 at the clinic and in his own practice. The numbers were staggering.
In one case, Weed prescribed more than 80,000 tablets — of methadone, Xanax, Valium, Roxicodone, and OxyContin — to two patients, a couple, over four years. Of those, 34,000 were OxyContin pills. The DOH also found that in many cases, Weed hadn't conducted physical exams or given urine tests and didn't make efforts to help patients who were clearly addicted. In October 2010, a 71-year-old Weed voluntarily gave up his license. But he wasn't charged with a crime.
By then, everyone at the clinic was on high alert. Already Valdes had been forced to cut back substantially on his side hustles. The new restrictions made it almost impossible to make money. Valdes was even getting sick of constant partying, wondering if he was ready to settle down.
A friend told Valdes he knew a girl he might like. So one night, they all went out to play pool. Crystal, a pretty blond, was sweet and down-to-earth. He asked for her number and invited her out to dinner. She was working at the time in medical billing.
"When I found out he was in a similar field, I thought, 'Oh wow, we have a lot in common,'?" she says. "But then when he told me they only collect cash, I looked at him like, 'What? No legit doctor's office only takes cash.'?"
Valdes felt differently about Crystal than other girls, but he still struggled to leave the game. "I got addicted to that lifestyle and to having whatever I wanted," he says.
Soon, tragedy would force him to stop. One night, Valdes and Madera found J Nasty passed out and unresponsive from pills — a close call that left Valdes anxious. And then a few months later, Madera's phone call left Valdes gutted. J Nasty's death was the last straw.
For J Nasty's funeral, in Ocala, Valdes paid for two urns — the least he could do — and split the ashes with J Nasty's sister, half in one, half in the other. He tucked J Nasty's license into his wallet, where it remains today.
"Having to make those decisions, what to do with the body, what kind of service to have, I've never had to do anything like that in my life," he says. "It was horrible."
After J Nasty's funeral, Crystal sat with Valdes on the couch and comforted and kissed him. He apologized for his stupid mistakes and told Crystal he wanted to be with her. This time for real.
"When I told him I was pregnant, he started crying even more and smiling and hugging me," Crystal says. "He was so happy. I don't think I had ever seen him that happy."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Valdes sits in the living room of his Sunny Isles apartment with the lights dimmed. Behind him, the wall is filled with large decals of Thor and Captain America. The wall to his left is lined with stacked boxes of Marvel bobbleheads. "I'm a giant kid," Valdes says.
He spent the morning with his 5-year-old daughter, Nadia, studying ABCs and the days of the week. Now she's at school, and his 5-month-old son, Roman, is napping in his arms.
"I was someone who used to have money all the time, always going out," he says. "But it's not like that anymore. I got a real dose of reality."
While Valdes wrestles with the demands of fatherhood, the nation continues to grapple with the impact of the pill frenzy. Some 20 percent of the opioids prescribed and sold in the United States during those years came from Florida, and the vast majority likely wound up being used by addicts. The crisis still kills an average of 44 people a day across the country.
For a decade, opioid dependence has confounded and challenged drug treatment centers. Online forums provide a space for thousands of people seeking help for their habits. Whole communities are caught in the stranglehold of opiate addiction. Celebrities like Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman have put a public face to the epidemic.
In 2014, Weed filed for bankruptcy. An attorney for Siegel, who no longer works at the clinic, declined New Times' requests for comment. Weed could not be reached for comment. The fact that neither was ever criminally charged isn't unusual, experts say.
"There are a whole lot of doctors walking around still practicing who worked at pill mills in Florida," Professor Temple says. "It's really tough to make criminal cases against doctors. You have to prove the doctor knew the patient complaining of pain was not actually in pain. And that's hard to do."
Meanwhile, Florida has continued to crack down on the worst clinics. In May, Dr. Lynn Averill was arrested and charged with selling oxycodone to addicts and drug dealers with the help of seven others in 2010 at a Real Care Medical Group office in Plantation. Eight people died as a result, prosecutors say. Averill was charged with eight counts of manslaughter and is awaiting a February hearing.
But the crackdown has had a side effect. Addicts suddenly went from having easy access to pills to a dry supply. Meanwhile, Mexican cartels have expanded their networks, selling cheap heroin to the same people. Officials in Mexico and the United States say Mexico's opium production rose an estimated 50 percent in 2014. According to the CDC, people who are dependent on prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to abuse or be dependent on heroin.
"Once you've created an addict, that doesn't just go away," Temple says. "When you have an active addiction to opioids, there's no length you won't go to to get it."
Valdes didn't leave behind the pharmaceutical world altogether. Madera, his best friend, is now a pharma salesman, dealing with asthma drugs and making a good salary. Last year, he helped Valdes get a job, but that didn't stick. Valdes sometimes wonders if his tattoos turn people off.
"My body is full of all the stupid shit I did in my life and that happened to me, like a remembrance," he says. "Sometimes I think people look at me like I'm a punk."
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Crystal's the breadwinner now, while Valdes stays home to care for their kids. He's thought about becoming a personal trainer or working in medical marijuana if it becomes legal in Florida. He's pushing sales of his book. Madera also has kids and doesn't party anymore, so their families often hang out.
"I just avoid putting myself in situations where anything could happen," Valdes says. "It pops up in my head, but I've already done everything out there, so I'm good."
Roman begins to rouse, whimpering, and Valdes rocks him softly.
"There's just nothing more important to me than these kids," Valdes says. "Home is where my heart is now."