Drug-dealing doctor facing life in prison

A federal magistrate was introduced to two sides of Dr. Johnny Benjamin six months ago as he contemplated whether the surgeon, facing felony criminal drug charges, should be granted pretrial release.

There was the Vero Beach physician held in high esteem by his neighbors and peers, a respected community member with no children of his own who once offered to help pay for a high school valedictorian’s college education after hearing about her financial struggle.

And then there was the debt-stricken doctor who abused his privilege and profession for personal and monetary gain. This man took advantage of America’s opioid addiction and supplied toxic painkillers to users on the street with little regard for human life.

Benjamin had “guns galore” at his island home on Painted Bunting Lane, federal prosecutors alleged, as the doctor stood across the courtroom from them weeks after his Oct. 12 arrest wearing blue prison scrubs and shackles. A woman is dead because of this doctor’s poisonous trade, they said. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go home.

The judge, calling the case that day one of the most tragic in his career, agreed, remanding Benjamin to the custody of U.S. Marshals as his attorneys prepared for the long trial ahead.

Last Friday, a jury of 12 sealed Benjamin’s fate. At the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, jurors took less than four hours to find Benjamin, 52, guilty of five of the seven felony counts brought against him. He faces 20 years to life in prison.

The charges he was convicted of include conspiracy to possess and distribute the fentanyl-laced painkiller which caused the death of 34-year-old Maggie Crowley and other drug-related crimes.

Crowley’s 2016 death prompted a year-long, undercover investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Fentanyl is a powerful, addictive narcotic often used as a cutting agent by illicit drug dealers. Misuse and over-prescription of the synthetic opioid has become a serious problem in the United States resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

Agents worked with informants to secretly record Benjamin discussing large purchases of “blues” and “trees,” code words for oxycodone and marijuana. The doctor was caught on tape accepting thousands of counterfeit oxycodone pills that he said he would deliver to buyers in the northeast.

When he was later stopped at the Melbourne airport with the product, he claimed it was medication for his cancer.

“I felt that he lied,” said juror Shane Kelly, 26, as he walked out of the federal courthouse alongside another member of the panel after the seven-day trial.

Benjamin said it wasn’t his voice on the recorded line, Kelly recalled. His testimony wavered. He cried as the lawyers made closing arguments, but other than that he showed no remorse.

It was terribly sad hearing testimony from the victim’s friends and family, the juror explained. Benjamin’s reference to Crowley’s death in the recording as just another “page in a large stack” is heartbreaking, he said.

“I wouldn’t want him to be my doctor. I wouldn’t want him to be my neighbor.”

Jurors were shown hundreds of pieces of evidence including a scale covered in fentanyl found at a storage space the doctor rented in Gifford. There were more than 20 guns, boxes of ammunition, and pages and pages of documents.

The government’s case hinged on the testimony of Kevan Slater and Zachary Stewart, two DEA informants who claimed to sell the doctor’s pills on the street. Both men pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution at Benjamin’s trial.  “These two individuals made extremely serious mistakes that resulted in the tragic death of a young woman,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John McMillan. “The difference is they have fully acknowledged what they did and tried to make amends and seek the mercy of the court.”

This case shows the U.S. government’s commitment to ending the opioid crisis, McMillan continued. “The jury’s verdict after listening to the evidence clearly expresses their outrage with the conduct of a medical professional who abused his gift.”

Benjamin stood silently between his lawyers as the verdict was read. Unlike during his detention hearing, the doctor was now dressed in a pressed white collared shirt and navy jacket. The shackles, however, hidden under his khaki pants, remained.

Throughout the trial, West Palm Beach defense attorney Donnie Murrell reminded jurors of his client’s stature as a medical professional and surgeon.

The informants, he said, were the real criminals. They are drug dealers. They are only here because they want to avoid prison. “Lying is what drug dealers do every day.”

Benjamin’s head dropped as the first guilty charge was read out loud. Rows behind him, members of Crowley’s family gasped. They touched each other’s hands and pushed tears from their eyes.

“I feel very happy,” said Shaun Crowley, 38, after the trial. “I feel justice was served.”

Crowley said his wife hurt her back at a country music concert and was prescribed oxycodone for pain relief.

When the family moved to Florida years later at the height of the state’s pill mill epidemic, however, she had trouble filling her prescription, he explained.

She then started getting pain pills from Slater, her coworker at an Outback Steakhouse restaurant.

Slater, who called Cowley “a beautiful soul,” spoke somberly as he described accidentally selling his friend the fatal dose. “I thought she needed them for pain relief,” he said. “I believed she was in pain.”

Slater testified Stewart had given him the pills to test out a new market, research price points and find customers. Stewart, he said, was working for a doctor in Vero Beach.

“[Benjamin] was using humans as guinea pigs,” said Louis DiVita, Maggie Crowley’s uncle, who traveled from Stuart to Fort Lauderdale for the trial.

“There are no words,” he said after the verdict. “She’s dead. He’s going to jail.”

Benjamin was acquitted of two gun-related crimes. It wasn’t clear he used the weapons to bolster his drug sales, jurors said afterward.  That he committed a serious crime, however, was never in doubt.

“All the jurors came to the same conclusion,” Kelly remarked.

Benjamin’s mother and sisters sat quietly behind the defense table on the final day of the trial. They quickly excited the courthouse after the verdict was read.

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