Saturday, August 24, 2002

Cash seized from doctor

$82,950 found in ex-coroner's home, clinic

By Tim Bonfield,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The FBI has seized $82,950 in cash from former Clermont County coroner Dr. Nico Capurro under forfeiture provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

        According to a legal notice published Sunday, the FBI seized $70,150 in cash on June 21 from Dr. Capurro at his Pierce Township home.

        The agency said it also seized $12,800 in cash the same day at a rehabilitation clinic in Manchester, Ohio, in Adams County, where Dr. Capurro worked despite his full-time position as Clermont county coroner.

        The legal notice was published several weeks after news emerged that a federal search warrant was executed June 21 at the Manchester clinic.

        No charges have been filed against Dr. Capurro, who referred questions Friday to his lawyer, R. Scott Croswell III. Mr. Croswell did not return phone calls seeking comment.

        The civil forfeiture provisions of the Controlled Substances Act allow the FBI to seize cash (and any other property) without filing charges as long as they have reason to believe the cash was linked to illegal drug activity, said James Turgal, FBI spokesman.“The facts against a particular piece of property are specific to that property. Other things may take a while to get done in the actual case against the individual,” Mr. Turgal said.

        Mr. Turgal said he cannot predict when the FBI would ask a grand jury to consider an indictment against Dr. Capurro.

        “An indictment is certainly what we're working towards,” he said.

        Mr. Turgal said details of the FBI's case remain under federal court seal, including the contents of an affidavit filed by investigators to obtain the search warrants used to search the Manchester clinic and Dr. Capurro's house.

        “Until the court unseals those documents, I can't talk about them,” Mr. Turgal said.

        Dr. Capurro, 75, resigned July 26 as coroner after it was revealed that the Adams County clinic, where he had worked in May and June, was under federal investigation. He had been the coroner since 1971.

        Dr. Capurro also worked last year at a medical clinic in tiny Hanging Rock, Ohio, that was under local and federal investigation until an arsonist burned it down. Before that, Dr. Capurro worked briefly at a medical clinic in Chillicothe that authorities said they were preparing to investigate.

        In three interviews last year, Dr. Capurro said he did nothing wrong working at the Hanging Rock and Chillicothe clinics.

        From mid-April to mid-August 2001, Dr. Capurro regularly traveled about 116 miles from his coroner's office in Batavia to Hanging Rock, a village of 300 residents along U.S. 52, a few miles east of Ironton, Ohio.

        He worked in a pain control clinic that charged patients $200 cash for their visits, did not take appointments, and did not accept any checks or medical insurance, according to Lawrence County Prosecutor J.B. Collier Jr. and Hanging Rock Police Chief Robert Dillon.

        Within days of its opening, local police asked the FBI and other agencies to begin investigating the Hanging Rock clinic.

        “It's obscene what was going on there,” Mr. Collier said. “There were lines and lines of cars from all over the Tristate (Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia). We were certainly involved in looking at their operations. We've had a federal as well as a state investigation into this and that investigation is ongoing. It's an ongoing investigation into corrupt medical practices in Southern Ohio.”

        Dr. Capurro resigned from the Hanging Rock clinic Aug. 17, 2001, the day after he was asked by The Enquirer about his role there. Dr. Capurro said he resigned over his concerns about the trashy conditions of the clinic.

        Police say the Hanging Rock clinic closed Dec. 22, after someone climbed to the clinic roof, poured gasoline down a vent, then dropped a match, causing severe damage, said Capt. William Long, of the Hanging Rock police.

        A few days later, employees of the clinic handed out flyers with directions to the clinic's new location in Jackson, Ohio. It has since moved to a location on U.S. 93, a few miles north of Ironton, about 150 miles from Cincinnati, police say.

        Dr. Capurro said that while working at the Hanging Rock clinic, he conducted physical exams, and when symptoms appeared severe enough, he wrote prescriptions for painkillers.

        He said patients were typically prescribed Lorcet, a drug listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule III narcotic, which means it can be addictive. He said he did not prescribe any OxyContin, a controversial and much-abused painkiller.

        Dr. Capurro would not say how much he was paid to work in Hanging Rock and said he was unfamiliar with the financial end of the business.

        He said he worked at Hanging Rock because he had retired in 1998 from his surgical practice and needed to keep busy.

        “I climb the walls staying home,” he said.

        Dr. Capurro said he worked a varying schedule in Hanging Rock, sometimes one day a week, sometimes several days. He said he saw 10 to 30 patients a day.

        Neighbors of the Hanging Rock clinic criticized the behavior of the crowds of young people the clinic attracted. Cars from as far as West Virginia, Michigan and Illinois packed the lot, said John Barnett, a next-door neighbor.

        Sometimes, the patients blocked access to Mr. Barnett's drive. Sometimes, they crossed onto his property to sit at a picnic table and smoke marijuana, he said.

        “They'd be spaced out of their minds and wouldn't move. I'd have to go get my pistol to run 'em out,” Mr. Barnett said.

        Authorities never issued a search warrant as part of the Hanging Rock clinic investigation, Mr. Collier said, because each time officials sent in informants seeking pills, the doctors performed physical exams.

        “It's very frustrating. To prosecute a doctor for prescribing pills, which he has a license to do, is very difficult,” Mr. Collier said. “These guys have got some guts. They know people are looking at them.”

        Before Hanging Rock, in early 2001, Dr. Capurro also was among doctors working at a medical clinic in Chillicothe.

        “We received a lot of complaints concerning that business ... a lot of people hanging around outside ... a lot of out-of-county cars. But before we could start a major investigation, they moved out of our jurisdiction,” Chillicothe police chief Jeff Keener said.

        Dr. Capurro said he worked in Chillicothe for about a month.

        Dr. Capurro said there was nothing illegal going on at the clinics where he worked.

        “Medicine is not always black and white. If a patient says they hurt, I have to believe them,” he said. “If there was anything illegal going on, why would I talk to you?”

        Clermont County officials are considering ways to make Dr. Capurro repay part of his salary because he had private employment.

        Dr. Capurro sued the county commission in late 2000 to force them to give him full-time pay. As a result, his salary more than doubled from $43,676 as a part-time coroner in 2000 to $102,000 this year.

        As part of the dispute, Dr. Capurro wrote a letter in Nov. 2000 stating that he “shall no longer engage in the private practice of medicine.”


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