By all appearances, Scottsdale physician David A. Wilbirt has reached the pinnacle of a successful medical career.
A doctor for nearly 30 years, the longtime Tempe resident runs a small private practice on Stetson Drive in downtown Scottsdale, specializing in anti-aging medicine.
He is on the forefront of human growth hormone therapy and genomic science, his Web site proclaims.
But federal investigators say Wilbirt has delved into a far more lucrative practice — writing thousands of illegal prescriptions to juice up bodybuilders on steroids and human growth hormones.
A four-year criminal investigation has identified Wilbirt, 60, as a main player in an Internet prescription drug ring that spans the nation, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In a six-month period alone, from November 2004 to April 2005, Wilbirt wrote 3,879 prescriptions for controlled substances — more than any other physician in the state, according to a DEA search warrant affidavit.
And investigators believe none of these prescriptions came during legitimate doctor-patient relationships. The prescriptions were instead issued to people he’d never met or examined who requested the drugs through what police call "rogue" Internet pharmacies, the warrant states.
No charges have been filed against Wilbirt since the investigation began in 2001, but DEA agents served a search warrant June 10 on his modest home near Southern Avenue and Rural Road and his office at 7350 E. Stetson Drive.
Seized were patient files, a computer, more than $40,000 in cash, $29,000 in gold and silver bullion, several pills, vials and syringes of testosterone, human growth hormones and other prescription drugs, plus three bags of marijuana, according the the affidavit. Among documents recovered were prescriptions, correspondence from customers and requests for prescriptions from the Internet.
Investigators say Wilbirt is part of a growing trend of rogue Internet companies that contract with doctors and pharmacies to illegally distribute controlled substances such as Percocet, Vicodin, Valium and steroids. Doctors and pharmacies use their DEA registration licenses, which allow them to legally obtain and dispense the drugs for legitimate medical purposes.
Customers will contact the pharmacy or doctor through on online questionnaire or by e-mail for a prescription. The doctor will then write the prescription without establishing a true doctor-patient relationship, which requires a face-toface examination and a determination that a medical condition exists.
Customers will then either receive the drug in the mail or fill the illegal prescription at a pharmacy involved in the conspiracy.
Since 2001, several rogue Web site operators have been using Wilbirt to write and fill these prescriptions without ever seeing the patients, most of whom were from out of state, the records state.
"The investigation thus far has not revealed that Wilbirt has any legitimate doctorpatient relationships, or has prepared any lawful prescriptions, but rather, that all funds received by Wilbirt over the past years have been derived from the unlawful distribution of controlled substances," the seizure warrant states.
Attempts by the Tribune to reach Wilbirt for comment at his home and office or by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.
Mary Dennison, an astrologer who shares the office suite with Wilbirt in the Scottsdale Medical and Professional Building, said he has not worked in the office since he suffered a stroke earlier this year.
Several pharmacies across the country are still under investigation.
"The Internet has definitely added a new dimension to the diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals," said DEA spokeswoman Ramona Sanchez. "Through these Web sites, very easily anyone can gain access."
The danger of whom is abusing the drugs is coupled with the fact that several prescription drugs are manufactured overseas in developing countries with little to no regulations similar to those in the United States.
"It is a very troubling situation with rogue pharmacy Web sites and we are going after them very aggressively," Sanchez said. Several doctors and pharmacies across the nation have already been successfully prosecuted in similar conspiracies.
"It’s seen as easy money for doctors," Sanchez said. "It requires little or no overhead at all, and the pharmacies profit heavily from the large volume of prescriptions filled."
Investigators submitted a seizure warrant in federal court June 15 to possess the funds in five bank accounts belonging to Wilbirt and his live-in girlfriend.
In 2001, when questioned by agents, Wilbirt said he received 25 percent of the profits from each prescription he wrote for a local pharmacy. He also said he knew it was wrong and said he would not continue the practice, the warrant states.
But confidential informants and DEA agents have made several undercover buys from Wilbert at his Scottsdale office, through the Internet and at a local pharmacy, the warrant states.
Some of the undercover buys in 2001 were made at a Phoenix pharmacy where convicted felon Sean Southland was working and sold the prescriptions with Wilbirt’s name on the bottle, according to the warrant.
Southland was accused in 2001 of trying to steal almost $1 million worth of the human growth hormone Saizan by robbing a FedEx delivery truck carrying the drug, which can sell for triple its retail price on the street.
Authorities said he and others then later staged a burglary of Peak Physique, 4045 E. Bell Road, next to the pharmacy, where the hormone was stored after the botched robbery.
Southland is now serving a prison sentence after he and two Canadians were caught trying to load three kilograms of cocaine on a boat dock at Wellesley Island State Park in New York in 2003, according to federal officials.
In February, a confidential informant visited Wilbert’s office wearing a concealed transmitter. They met for about six minutes. The informant asked for anabolic steroids for bodybuilding, and without being examined, bought a vial from Wilbirt for $225, the warrant states.
When agents searched his home last month, girlfriend Candace Toler admitted to her part in the scheme, the warrant states.
She said since his stroke in February, she has rubberstamped his signature on prescriptions that were then sent to pharmacies. She said at first he received $15 per prescription, but later asked for $30.
Wilbirt, who attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, voluntarily suspended his medical license on April 13 after the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners decided that he should not practice medicine until he recovers from the stroke.
Wilbirt has been investigated and disciplined by the state medical board twice, in 1996 and 1998, and received letters of reprimand for unprofessional conduct, according to records online.
One of the investigations found that Wilbirt prescribed weight-loss drugs, such as Phen Fen and Redux, to several women who were not obese and did not meet medical requirements for the program.
There is currently an open medical board investigation against him, but no information was available.
Anabolic steroids: Controlled substances. Synthetic steroids are often abused by athletes or bodybuilders. Natural testosterone, also a steroid, is prescribed for older men to restore health, muscle strength and sex drive. Dangerous for young men, who already naturally produce high levels of testosterone.
Human growth hormones: Not controlled substance, but a prescription is necessary. Regulate the body’s metabolism of proteins, electrolytes, carbohydrates, and control how the body uses fat. Levels of HGH decline as people age and can cause thinner skin, weak bones and weight gain. Can be abused by bodybuilders.