SEBASTIAN — "I'm just trying to save my brother."
That was Ritter Cyphers' plea when he called the Stuart Pain Management Center Inc. in Vero Beach on Feb. 10, according to records of wire taps released by local, state and federal officials this week.
He was calling on behalf of his big brother, Forrest Cyphers, 34, who was prescribed morphine but had fallen ill, he said. Ritter, 27, said he thought the doctors at the clinic were taking advantage of his brother by prescribing him addictive medications.
"We can't take anonymous calls," said pain clinic owner Bruce Karlin, according to the transcript. "Put a letter in the mail. Thank you."
One month later, Forrest Cyphers was found dead at a friend's home. The state Medical Examiner's Office ruled the cause of death as an overdose of morphine.
What the Cyphers family didn't know at the time was several law enforcement agencies were conducting an undercover investigation into Karlin's clinic for approving highly addictive medications for people. Conversations by Karlin of Delray Beach about Forrest Cyphers were recorded, leading authorities to charge him and Dr. Roger Lee Gordon of Plantation with manslaughter in the Sebastian man's death.
The two men were among 14 people charged this week as authorities conducted the largest pain clinic raid ever in the state. Karlin surrendered to authorities Friday and was being held at the Indian River County Jail in lieu of $1,080,000 bail.
Ritter Cyphers, 27, of Sebastian said the March 7 overdose ended the life of a man who wanted to get back to work and had a lot to share with people.
"He loved working on cars," the surviving brother said Friday. "He knew a lot about them. He'd been reading car magazines from the time he was 8. I wish he was still around so he could teach me."
After the overdose, Ritter said detectives interviewed him about his brother's addiction.
"They mentioned they were building a case against Dr. Gordon," he said Friday. "I'm happy about that. Put him behind bars."
The brothers grew up in Sebastian while their parents ran the Hootin' Owl North, now under a different owner as the No Name Bar on U.S. 1 south of Riverview Park. After selling the business, Forrest Cyphers and his father created a painting business.
"Forrest was a one-man working crew," said his mother, Dorene Cyphers, 57, of Sebastian.
Forrest Cyphers managed to do the physical work despite a lingering injury. When he was 21, he was the passenger in a car crash, his mother said. He broke a thigh bone in the accident, she said. But it didn't slow down Forrest Cyphers' painting.
"The business ran well for 15 years," his mother said. "Construction was booming."
Then came the housing market crash about five years ago. Steady work dried up for Forrest Cyphers, she said.
"He was so depressed about not being able to work," said his mother. "He had a girlfriend for a while, but she dropped out of the picture. He would always tell me, 'I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself.'"
Besides fighting depression, his family said, Forrest continued to fight the pain from the leg injury. And he had several run-ins with law enforcement for various driving and drug violations. One incident placed him in jail for three weeks before Christmas one year, his mother said.
"Many of his friends were in jail," Dorene Cyphers said. "These were guys he knew for years. He even made the comment one day that he may as well go back to jail because that's where his friends were."
For years, Forrest Cyphers used Lortab for his leg pain, family members said. When he began seeing Dr. Gordon at the clinic, which opened in 2010 in Vero Beach, he was given prescriptions for morphine and oxycodone.
"It's a big leap to go from Lortab to those drugs," Ritter Cyphers said.
Hours before his death, Forrest Cyphers had gone out to dinner with friends when they noticed he wasn't eating and was profusely sweating, family members said. His friends took him to a local hospital, where a doctor determined he was suffering from dehydration and released him, according to the Cyphers.
Hours later, Sebastian police contacted Dorene Cyphers to say they needed to meet with her about her older son. Meanwhile, friends attempted to reach Ritter Cyphers.
"Before we met with the police, I told my mother to say a prayer for Forrest," his younger brother said. "I held her hand and she started crying."
They learned the 34-year-old was dead and later confirmed the overdose was the cause. Authorities participating in Operation Pill Street Blues said they listened to a call between Karlin and a clinic staff member the following day.
"Did you kill someone?" Karlin asked the staff member at the start of the phone call, according to the transcript.
Karlin recalled the conversation he had with Ritter Cyphers in February, referred to him as an idiot and said there was no proof the call ever happened. Karlin said he was confident he would not be found liable
"The state ... might ask for the records," Karlin said during the phone call. "We know we did nothing wrong, so end of story."
Records show Forrest Cyphers received prescriptions from Gordon and three other doctors at the clinic in the year preceding his death. Authorities said Karlin was made aware of Forrest Cyphers' addiction by his brother but did not notify anyone on his staff about the issue.
"The death of Forrest Cyphers exemplifies what the ... organization is about," the affidavit states. "Continuing to profit off the addictions of others at all costs. Dr. Gordon's role ... is to prescribe highly addictive medications to bolster the profits."
But at least one former clinic patient said the staff took a serious response to the man's death. Earlier this spring, the clinic required patients to sit through a four-hour lecture about pain medication addiction, Evelyn Luchesi said.
"I didn't know who it was who had died at the time, but apparently these seminars were in response to his death," Luchesi said. "They said we had to attend one or we would not be able to return as patients."