Sandy Hinkle of Troy boarded an airplane for the first time last month to travel to West Palm Beach, Fla., but this was no vacation.
Hinkle was among five moms who attended the sentencing of the man they hold responsible for the death of their children — addicts recruited by a South Florida rehab program who never got the help they needed and eventually overdosed.
The operator of that program, Kenneth Chatman, pleaded guilty to conspiracies to commit health care fraud, money laundering and sex trafficking, and was sentenced to 27 years in prison — small solace to the mothers who lost their children.
“She was absolutely my best friend,” Hinkle said of her 23-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Cruea, who went to Florida from Ohio in hopes of kicking her addiction to heroin. “She would always tell me she loved me. Her Facebook messages were almost daily.”
Cruea died in February 2016 while in Chatman’s care at his “Reflections” sober living home, one of several he operated. Prosecutors said Chatman was the architect of a multi-million-dollar scheme to recruit desperate addicts into his treatment centers and bill their insurance companies for treatment they never received. It is called patient brokering.
“My job was to bring patients to their facility,” said Elizabeth Moody, a Massachusetts woman who said she was offered money to recruit addicts with insurance. “I was told $500 a person.”
Moody said she soon found the patients were not really getting treatment.
“It was just not humane,” Moody said. “They were sold a dream that became a nightmare.”
Prosecutors say Chatman admitted forcing some female patients into prostitution at the sober living homes he controlled and at local motels. He advertised the women on Craigslist and Backpage.com and used drugs and threats of eviction to control them, according to prosecutors.
South Florida is known for its state-of-the-art treatment centers, but it is also home to an increasing number of less reputable sober homes or halfway houses, where treatment occurs in out-patient facilities. This change was supposed to make treatment more available and cheaper, but authorities say a lack of regulation and controls have made patient brokering increasingly common.
“The most basic way that I can explain it is; people are pretty much selling people suffering from the disease of addiction,” Det. Nicole Lucas of the Delray Beach Police Department said.
She compared patient brokering to human trafficking.
“So the facilities hold their meds, they hold their cell phones. They hold their car keys if they actually drove in and they have nowhere to go. They’re trapped, and that’s where it becomes human trafficking,” Lucas said.
‘I heard things’
Hinkle now believes that is why her daughter overdosed and died in a motel room. She said all of Cruea’s clothing and personal items were gone and police found her laptop in a dumpster behind the motel.
“I heard things down there that nobody, especially a mother, should ever have to hear,” said Hinkle. “It was bad, real bad.”
The opioid crisis has many parents sending their children away from home for treatment. The first time Cruea overdosed, Hinkle said she researched treatment centers in Florida because they had a good reputation and she wanted to get her daughter away from bad influences at home.
“I confronted her and told her that I wasn’t going to bury one of my kids,” Hinkle said. “She was hesitant at first, but she did it.”
Cruea went to a rehab center called “Palm Partners” and made progress. eventually graduating from the program. The trouble began in after-care, when Cruea ended up in one of Kenneth Chatman’s sober living homes, Hinkle said. When she flew home for Christmas in December 2015, Hinkle said her daughter appeared to be struggling again.
“I had tried to convince her to go somewhere else. I still wasn’t aware of Kenny Chatman or any of his business, but I just thought she should have been farther along than what she was,” said Hinkle. “When it was time to go to the airport, she begged me not to make her get on the plane. One of the last things she said to me before she got out of the car was, ‘please don’t make me go. I’m afraid I’m never going to see you again.’”
Cruea was dead from an overdose of fentanyl and cocaine two months later.
A review of medical examiners records shows 833 people overdosed and died in Palm Beach County in the last two years, many from outside the state. At least 20 were from Ohio, the records show.
Mikaya Feucht of Columbus was one of them. Her mother, Michelle Curran, said her daughter was also in treatment at Chatman’s Reflections sober home last July when she overdosed and died in a motel.
“He is indirectly responsible for her death because he never provided the treatment he should have been giving her all along,” Curran said. “So therefore, she was not given the resources to recover. Mikaya wasn’t worth anything to him sober. He saw dollar signs because she had good insurance. The longer he could keep her high and the more times she relapsed, the more money he made.”
Curran said Feucht’s insurance was billed $608,000 for the treatment, with a single bill for $10,000 from one lab. Curran was so concerned about that bill she asked her daughter why they were doing so many lab tests.
“She didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Curran, adding that her daughter told her she gave just two urine samples that week.
Prosecutors say some testing laboratories kick back a portion of the insurance money they receive to the home that gave them the referral, and Chatman himself paid kickbacks and bribes to other sober home operators for their referrals to his center.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said changes in federal law are needed to stop patient brokering, including better defining what a sober home is. Federal law designates sober living homes as housing for the disabled, which prevents local authorities from regulating them, he said.
“You could open up a sober home today,” said Aronberg. “You just turn your house into a sober home.”
Authorities said all of Chatman’s sober homes are closed and they have shut down other operations and made close to 30 arrests.
But Curran said Ohio is still one of the states where operators from Florida actively recruit addicts with insurance.
Lake Worth (Florida) City Commissioner Andy Amaroso sent a chilling message to families of addicts here.
“The clear message would be to stop sending your loved ones to South Florida because we’re sending them back in body bags,” he said.
Hinkle remains haunted by her decision to send her drug-addicted daughter to Florida.
“I should have been there to protect her and save her and I wasn’t,” she said. “What did I miss? That’s always going to haunt me.”
Both Hinkle and Curran are raising the sons their daughters left behind. And although Chatman received a lengthy prison sentence, Curran isn’t convinced the punishment fit the crime.
“Even though Kenny Chatman is in prison, he will still get to see his children, ” she said. “My daughter won’t see her children ever again.”
Contributing to this story were Jason Solowski of WFXT-TV in Boston and Lawrence Mower of the Palm Beach Post.