Two women overdosed hours apart last week in a seedy Florida home billed as a “sober living” house linked to a convicted conman getting rich off America’s opioid crisis.
Alison Flory, 25, died of an apparent heroin overdose at approximately 8 a.m. last Friday. Nicole De La Pena, 22, overdosed just hours later, but survived and was hospitalized for a week.
Both were living at a place called Open Arms. The supposed sober living house has no website and does no advertising of any kind. Inside were carpets stained with dried blood, bare mattresses, and trash was strewn throughout, an eyewitness told The Daily Beast.
There was also no staff at hand to help Nicole when she overdosed, according to her mother Johanna De La Pena. The two spoke hours before she collapsed.
“She was slurring her words and not making any sense,” De La Pena told The Daily Beast.
Fearing the worst and living in El Paso, Texas, De La Pena asked a friend in Florida to go and check on Nicole.
What she saw was a disturbing yet all-too-common scene in South Florida’s booming addiction treatment industry.
“Everyone there was high,” said the woman, who chose to remain anonymous, describing the interior as that of a flophouse. Mountains of cigarette butts formed on the front porch where she said Jordan Braaten, said to be Alison’s boyfriend, was glued to a couch, in and out of a nod with a lit cigarette in hand. Braaten also lived in Open Arms, as the house was a co-ed. Mixing gender in these homes is traditionally frowned upon.
De La Pena’s friend found Nicole unresponsive and dialed 911. The same Broward County EMTs who responded to Alison’s fatal overdose arrived at the house once again. Nicole was taken by ambulance to Florida Medical Center in Ft. Lauderdale.
“She had no idea how she wound up in the hospital,” said De La Pena, adding she landed in Florida the next day and went straight to her daughter’s bedside. There, the doctors told her that Nicole may suffer from memory loss after being unconscious for too long. It looked like her brain suffered mini strokes, they added.
Nicole and Alison never paid Open Arms to live there. Instead, their families’ insurance providers were billed by a nearby intensive outpatient program called Reflections.
De La Pena’s Blue Cross Blue Shield was billed for over $4,000 for drug tests by Reflections while Nicole lived in Open Arms. De La Pena also said she saw numerous charges for allergy tests and said that Nicole has no history of allergies.
Jennifer Flory said her daughter was enrolled in Reflections at the time of her overdose. Vans from Reflections would pick up residents at Open Arms and bus them to Reflections for the day, she said.
Alison’s ex-boyfriend at the time of her overdose, Braaten, said he also received $350 a week to be a house manager while living at Open Arms and enrolled at Reflections. When asked who was paying him at a sober-living house with no staff, he answered, “Reflections did, through our insurance.”
Ted Padich, an investigator with the Florida State attorney’s office, was described what Refelections is allegedly doing and said it sounds illegal.
“That’s inducement,” he said. “When a facility offers free rent, cigarettes, gift cards—it’s all illegal under the patient brokering statute.”
It should come as no surprise that this apparently illegal scheme is run by Reflections, a strip-mall operation founded by its three-piece suit donning founder Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman. He’s a controversial player in South Florida’s addiction game, and no stranger to bad press.
Chatman was arrested in 2008 for stealing credit card information and served seven months in prison. Court files obtained by The Palm Beach Post show Chatman asked a waitress to steal credit card information using a swiping device he gave to her.
The Palm Beach Post also uncovered documents that show Chatman is the subject of an ongoing 2015 investigation alleging human trafficking, overseeing prostitution, and health care fraud. The report alleged Chatman actively pimped out women, gave them drugs, and enlisted them on a local prostitution site. One of the women in Chatman’s alleged scheme, according to the police report, was kept against her will.
He denies all allegations as mere rumor.
There is no regulating body in Florida that bars a person with a history of fraud and numerous pending allegations from running a treatment center.
While police and the FBI investigate Chatman, Reflections flourishes.
The company, registered in his wife’s name, Laura Chatman, recently paid $1.1 million for an opulent home in a gated community with views of an “equestrian center.” He’s also expanded his operation to a larger location and recently purchased a $505,000 home that neighbors say is being used as a sober home, according to The Palm Beach Post.
Chatman denied ever hearing of Open Arms during a brief phone conversation with The Daily Beast. He said he had no knowledge of the two women who overdosed. He also denies any connection to sober houses.
But Flory said she saw Chatman drop off residents of Open Arms at her daughter’s memorial on Wednesday night.
“He drove a van load of kids to the memorial,” she said. “They all know Kenny.”
The Daily Beast found the owner of the home that calls itself Open Arms to be one Dulcy Riddick, a 64-year-old woman who is a live-in nurse.
Riddick said she rents her home to her neighbor’s son, Jordan Brooks.
“Jordan told me a few people who he said are ‘in recovery’ live there,” she said, not thinking much of it at the time. Both De La Pena and Flory said they had briefly spoken with Brooks over the phone to discuss Open Arms.
Riddick was unaware that Brooks dubbed her house Open Arms. She was also unaware that two young women overdosed at the house. Upon learning that one of the women died in her home she said, “In my house? Oh mercy!”
Prior to learning of the overdose incident, Riddick said she saw Brooks to collect rent. She said that Brooks told her everything was fine.
“He told me had to kick a few people out who were giving him trouble,” Riddick said, then quoted Brooks telling her, “Everything is fine, I just need to pick my clients this time and not just who they give me.”
While Riddick said she didn’t have a clue what he meant, it appears Brooks was saying he receives clients from a facility like Reflections that in turn bills the insurance of the residents at Open Arms. Brooks declined to comment on his business after several requests.
Riddick said Brooks is still renting her house and has clients there.
South Florida’s addiction treatment industry operates far outside the bounds of mainstream medicine, ran by shady operators in Wild West fashion.
The opioid crisis killing an estimated 78 people everyday sends a steady stream of young clients like Nicole and Alison to South Florida. While most tend to be dependent on heroin, more important for treatment operators is dependence on their parents’ insurance.
“Palm Beach County has hundreds of rehab facilities and thousands of unregulated sober homes within our communities,” said state attorney David Aronberg, at a press conference on Tuesday to announce the arrest of two treatment operators charged with patient brokering like offering inducements to get clients.
This practice is rampant among the hundreds of treatment facilities and sober homes competing with one another throughout Florida. The arrangement with the best perks and fewest rules attracts the most clients. Word of what perks a facility offers spreads at self-help meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Bussing clients to AA or NA meetings is common practice among treatment facilities.
But as the opioid crisis swells, and frantic parents are sold on sunshine and clean living, more and more young people from around the country will wind up in the unregulated and deadly South Florida treatment industry.
It’s unlikely this scheme would have come to light had it not been for Alison’s death and Nicole’s overdose. But this is just one house, and there is no tally of how many private residences are converted to “sober houses” paid off with insurance money.
Investigator Padich said investigations are ongoing but could not specify whether or not he has Chatman in his crosshairs.
Chatman has not been arrested or charged with any crime. But he is breaking ground on a new treatment center in Lake Worth.
Just last week, Florida’s Department of Children and Family granted Chatman’s new set up, Journey to Recovery, a license to operate.