How the voice of Hockeytown lost his son to drugs and insurance fraud

How the voice of Hockeytown lost his son to drugs, fraud (0:59)

In this excerpt, E:60 tells the story of Jamie Daniels, son of Red Wings play-by-play commentator Ken Daniels, and the drug scam that ended his life. (0:59)

KEN DANIELS WAS wrapping holiday gifts when the police officer showed up on his doorstep on Dec. 7, 2016. Daniels, the Detroit Red Wings play-by-play voice for more than two decades, had gotten to know many of the officers on the Birmingham, Michigan, police force through his job. But this one he didn't recognize.

"He said, 'Are you Ken Daniels?' and I said, 'Yes. What did he do?'"

He was Jamie Daniels, Ken's 23-year-old son. By that December, Jamie had been in and out of drug rehabilitation facilities in South Florida for going on eight months, battling an addiction to prescription opioids such as Vicodin and the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.

After calling the Red Wings game in Winnipeg, Canada, the night before, Ken had spoken on the phone with Jamie, who was living in Boynton Beach, Florida, at a halfway house for recovering addicts. Jamie had painted the wheels on his car and called his father, promising to send pictures, ending the conversation the way he always did: "Love you."

The officer at Ken's door was not there to inform Ken his son had broken the law or been arrested.

"Your son passed," the officer said.

Ken buckled.

"I guess there's shock, which seems like a half an hour and it's probably just seconds," he explained. "And then he came in the house and he hugged me and he's got that police vest on him, so you never forget that feeling. And then all I could think of was: 'How am I going to tell his sister? And how am I going to tell his mother?'"

Jamie died of an overdose of heroin that had been laced with fentanyl, a synthetic and far more potent form of the drug, according to an autopsy report and death certificate. For Ken, understanding how Jamie could overdose in a sober home environment meant exploring the dark path Jamie had traveled in the final weeks before his death, a journey that opened Ken's eyes to something he had never before considered: the existence of a corrupt side to the billion-dollar rehabilitation industry in South Florida, where federal laws can be exploited by people who actually have no interest in keeping recovering addicts clean. Jamie, his father came to realize, got caught in an insurance scam known as "The Florida Shuffle."

"It's one thing to have an addiction and not being able to overcome it because the addiction overtakes you ... but then when bad people get involved and they contribute to it, it makes you sick," Ken says.

THE FIRST SIGNS of trouble for Jamie came his freshman year at Michigan State University: He was the video manager of the Spartans hockey team, and he talked of going to law school and becoming a sports agent. But he joined a fraternity and, according to friends, started using heavy drugs.

"Jamie has a very addictive personality, where he can't really say no, and he didn't really know his limit either, so he'd just keep doing it and taking more because he liked the way it made him feel," says Amanda Farber, Jamie's friend from both high school and Michigan State.

Farber says that during Jamie's freshman year in East Lansing he started abusing cocaine and, more frequently, Vicodin and Xanax. It wouldn't be long before his family also recognized the troubling signs of his addiction.

"You'd see him at night and trying to put a coat on and even struggling to get the arm in there. But you'd say to him, 'You high?' 'No, I'm not high,'" Ken says.

Jamie's younger sister, Arlyn, said she, too, saw signs his addiction was out of control, like the time in a coffee shop near campus where Jamie could barely function.

"He couldn't talk. He couldn't stand up straight, and I was embarrassed to have him there. I took him back to my apartment ... I couldn't handle it," Arlyn said.

It was a disappointing development; she and Jamie had grown closer when she became a freshman at Michigan State during Jamie's senior year.

Normally big-hearted and loving, Jamie developed a nasty streak.

"The s--- that will come out of somebody's mouth who is on drugs is amazing. The crap that they'll say ... it's another person, just takes over the body," Ken says.

When Jamie was home from Michigan State, he split time between his parents' homes. They had divorced when Jamie was 9. Jamie's mother, Lisa, experienced the same rage Ken did.

"I can't remember what prompted it, honestly, but [Jamie] threatened me. He threatened to kill me," Lisa says. Jamie was always remorseful, she says, always sincerely apologetic after lashing out. Still, she says, she took the threat seriously enough to remove the knife set from the kitchen counter and lock her bedroom door at night.

More often than not, though, Jamie was a functioning addict, according to friends and family members. Frequently on the dean's list, he graduated from Michigan State in May 2015 with a 3.5 GPA.

He worked for a mortgage company in Downtown Detroit. He also was employed during the summer of 2015 as a camp counselor in Ortonville, Michigan, nearly an hour north of his father's house. It was there that Jamie reached his breaking point.

"You could tell from the phone call he was desperate and just so high," Ken says. "He was at the point saying, 'I need to go to rehab.' And we said, 'OK, if you're going to rehab, we're picking you up from camp and you're going right to rehab.'"

Jamie's brief stint in rehab in Michigan was followed by a relapse two weeks later. In the months that followed, he put his parents through a string of lies, hospital stays and car accidents. During the last accident, in the spring of 2016, he flipped his car and called his mother from his cellphone as he hung upside down in his seatbelt. He walked away from that last crash with only minor injuries. Not long after, in April 2016, he agreed to try rehab out of state.

Lisa had heard of an intensive in-patient treatment center in Palm Beach County, Florida. At age 22, Jamie boarded a plane to South Florida to try to finally get clean.

WHEN JAMIE ARRIVED in Palm Beach County that April, the billion-dollar rehab industry was in turmoil.

Palm Beach County is home to hundreds of drug treatment centers. Addicts like Jamie, drawn by the resortlike weather and the promise of recovery, flock to the coastal community. Three-quarters of those in the county's private treatment facilities come from out of state. It's rightfully called the recovery capital of America.

But in 2016, Palm Beach County also was the epicenter of Florida's opioid crisis; 571 people died from overdoses that year alone, the most of any county in the state and a 110 percent increase from the previous year, according to an analysis of state data by the Palm Beach Post.

Jamie checked into Beachway Therapy Center in Boynton Beach, an intensive in-patient facility that cost $15,000 per month. He spent more than a month at Beachway before moving into Sober Living in Delray, a supervised apartment complex.

"Jamie came in, and immediately he knew where he wanted to be in life, and it wasn't as an addict," says Chris Ege, a manager at Sober Living in Delray. "He was working. He was going to meetings. He had the sponsor that was top of the line. He was doing everything right."

Jamie worked as a clerk in a local law firm. He spent more than five months at Sober Living, Ege says, but eventually bristled at the structured environment, where spot checks and urine tests were part of the routine.

On Nov. 1, 2016, Jamie moved just blocks away to what's known as a "sober home," Miracle House, a bungalow in the middle of a residential street in Delray Beach.

"The whole concept of having kids in a sober house, to mutually support each other and keep each other honest and struggle together for sobriety is pretty good -- done right. Done wrong, the results are much worse," says Marc Woods, a code enforcement officer for the city of Delray Beach.

Woods, 64, spent 30 years working as a police officer in Delray Beach before retiring in 2009.

In 2014, he noticed a shift in the character of the sober homes that dotted residential neighborhoods. Shortly after the Affordable Care Act kicked in, insurance companies lifted the limits on policies for drug treatment, essentially giving treatment centers a blank check. Around that same time, Woods says, many sober home operators realized urine samples could be liquid gold, because the insurance companies would reimburse them for the tests.

"The recovery industry took a turn for the worse when people found out that the urine testing billing was lucrative, and the wrong people got in the industry to enrich themselves," Woods says.

It was the perfect storm. Patient brokers and marketers would lure addicts with good insurance into unregulated sober homes with the promise of cheap rent and a less-structured environment. Patients' insurance companies would then be billed tens of thousands of dollars for often unnecessary drug treatment.

Sober homes, estimated to number in the hundreds, opened in neighborhoods across Palm Beach County, and because of the privacy protections afforded addicts under federal laws, local governments could do little about it.

"Now you have sober home owners, who are using that law designed to protect individuals in recovery, so they can prey upon people in recovery," says Dave Aronberg, State Attorney for Palm Beach County.

The problem is spreading to other states, Aronberg says, but he has seen some improvement in Palm Beach County in recent months due to the arrests of 45 people affiliated with sober homes and treatment facilities. Sixteen people -- doctors and patient brokers among them -- have been convicted of crimes.

THE LACK OF regulations surrounding sober homes and lucrative urine testing were the two main drivers for the insurance scam that came to be known as "The Florida Shuffle."

"In The Florida Shuffle, you go in and out of recovery, in and out of rehab centers, in and out of sober homes, milking the individual for their insurance until that person dies," Aronberg says. "Our current system isn't really a recovery model, it's a relapse model, where the big money is in relapse. It's in failure rather than success and sobriety."

The Florida Shuffle has been investigated by such media outlets as The New York Times, the Palm Beach Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Jamie's story was first reported by The Athletic.

Jamie, covered by his father's insurance plan, was sent for tens of thousands of dollars in urine tests while staying in sober homes.

"About every two days, they were doing blood and urine testing, and the charges were anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 a test," Lisa Daniels says.

Urine tests, even on the high end, should cost no more than a few hundred dollars per test, says Ege, the manager who supervised Jamie at Sober Living in Delray. Most reputable treatment facilities, Ege says, conduct drug screens for opioids that cost no more than a few dollars a test and can be purchased from the local drug store.

Over the 2016 Thanksgiving break, Jamie returned to Detroit for a family visit. During that visit, he and his father went to Joe Louis Arena to see the Red Wings play the Montreal Canadiens. While at the game, they took a photo with legendary hockey announcer Bob Cole.

That visit would prove significant for two reasons: It was the last time Ken and Lisa would see their son alive. It also would prove to be valuable evidence that Jamie had been caught in The Florida Shuffle.

"I figured, when he went back ... I was thinking in my head, you know, 'How long is he going to stay down there for?' And then the s--- hits the fan," Ken says.

After returning to Florida, Jamie switched houses again, this time moving to a sober home in Boynton Beach called Sea of Recovery, which, he told his parents, cost just $50 a month.

"I started hearing something in his voice. His voice just sounded off ... but I thought, 'He's in a home. They drug test. It's the safest because, if he were using, then they would know,'" Lisa says.

Kade Potter, a 23-year-old recovering heroin addict from rural Kentucky, was Jamie's roommate at Sea of Recovery and slept in a bed just a few feet away in a garage converted into a bedroom. Potter told Outside the Lines that in the brief time he and Jamie shared a room together, they frequently abused drugs. Jamie's drug of choice, he says, was Xanax, the same drug he had abused in college.

Some of the drugs, Potter says, came from a dealer living inside their sober home. Potter says one of the managers at Sea of Recovery, Emmanuel Merilien, knew drugs were being dealt to recovering addicts in the home.

When reached by phone by Outside the Lines, Merilien denied Potter's claim: "There was no drug use in the home. If we found somebody using drugs, we kicked them out," Merilien says.

Allegations of drug use inside sober homes is nothing new, says code enforcement officer Woods.

"Some of the illicit operators ... would rent these houses and put a bunch of kids in it and then warehouse them and then sell them to the highest bidder to the treatment center that would pay them the most in kickbacks. ... The kids wound up being worth more money if they were using drugs than if they weren't using drugs," Woods says. "People that have their kids go out of state for recovery, they're so at risk."

Insurance forms reviewed by Outside the Lines indicate that on Dec. 1, 2016, less than a week before his fatal overdose, Jamie was drug tested at a facility called Journey to Recovery. Today, Journey to Recovery is an empty storefront in a strip mall in Lake Worth, Florida. But then, Journey to Recovery was a bustling intensive outpatient facility, where recovering addicts, like Potter and Jamie, were routinely bused in from their sober homes for urine tests and therapy. Journey to Recovery was owned by Kenneth Chatman. In May 2017, Chatman was sentenced to 27½ years in federal prison as the central figure in a far-reaching insurance scam.

Chatman admitted to billing insurance companies for millions of dollars in fraudulent charges related to drug treatment. He also ran sober homes in Palm Beach County, where he acknowledged he allowed drug dealing and prostitution and received millions more in illegal kickbacks from treatment centers. From prison, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Ultimately, Ken Daniels' insurance company determined it had been billed for roughly $60,000 in fraudulent charges from various facilities that claimed to house Jamie. Most of those charges were for urine tests, over a two-month period in the fall of 2016.

Jamie's urine specimens for three of those tests, according to laboratory documents reviewed by Outside the Lines, were collected in Florida on Nov. 23, 25 and 27. Yet Jamie wasn't in Florida on any of those dates. That's the time period when he was visiting his family in Michigan over Thanksgiving, the same visit during which he and his father posed for the photo with hockey announcer Cole at the Red Wings game.

Those three urine tests, according to the documents, were authorized by Delray Beach physician Michael Ligotti.

When asked why he would order drug tests on dates that a patient wasn't even physically there to provide a sample, Ligotti told Outside the Lines such a request "would absolutely be fraudulent."

"If that specimen was ordered on a day where the patient wasn't in the state of Florida, that would absolutely be a fraudulent specimen and I wouldn't have ordered it. I couldn't have ordered it. It's not what I do. It's not how I practice," Ligotti says.

Ligotti says he's the victim of identity theft. In 2013, he wrote a letter complaining to Florida's Department of Children and Families, the state agency that regulates medical care at substance abuse treatment facilities, notifying the state that somebody had stolen the ID number he uses to authorize drug treatment.

Ligotti is the target of an active FBI investigation, according to a law enforcement source and a second source, both of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly.

Attempts to reach the local FBI agents handling the case were unsuccessful. Ligotti's attorney would neither confirm nor deny that the FBI is investigating her client.

According to insurance forms, Ligotti wasn't the only physician to authorize treatment for Jamie in the days and weeks before his death. Just four days before his death, another Palm Beach County physician prescribed Jamie with Alprazolam, a generic form of Xanax, Jamie's drug of choice. It's not clear what Jamie told the physician who prescribed him that medication.

"They gave him something that's violating all the rules. It is an abusable drug." says Ege, the above-mentioned manager at Sober Living in Delray. "And not only is it an abusable drug, it's a drug that will make you black out while you're wide awake. So the unfortunate thing for Jamie in that week that he passed away, he might have blacked out and made a decision that killed him."

ON THE MORNING of Dec. 7, 2016, Kade Potter says he awoke to the screams of his sober home manager, Emmanuel Merilien. Jamie was lying motionless on the floor just a few feet away.

"He was just pale white and as soon as I saw him, I knew that he was gone," Potter says.

Potter told Outside the Lines that rather than immediately call 911 for help, Merilien waited at least 30 minutes to call police.

"Emmanuel was packing Jamie's stuff before the cops got there. He was telling me: 'Tell them you pay $125 a week in rent.' ... Just telling me to lie to the police because he knows everything he is doing is illegal."

Merilien denies cleaning up the scene and says he immediately started performing CPR when he found Jamie motionless on the floor.

Police found no sign of illicit drugs or paraphernalia when they searched the home. Potter says he did not report any of his allegations about drug use in the house and Merilien's alleged actions to police because he was afraid of Merilien.

Neither Merilien nor Potter, who now lives in Virginia., is engaged to be married and works as a mover, has a criminal record in Florida. Merilien, who has left the rehab industry and is in training to be a massage therapist, is not facing charges, nor is he under an active investigation for the way he handled or reported Jamie's overdose. He denies profiting from Jamie's drug treatment.

The official cause of death for Jamie was listed as "acute heroin and fentanyl intoxication." A toxicology report also revealed the presence of Alprazolam, the generic form of Xanax.

"He should have never been on Xanax," Ken says. "He should have never been in that place. Having good insurance put him in that place. ... I think all contributed to his death."

Ken and his ex-wife received medical bills and insurance paperwork from the facilities Jamie lived in for about four months after his death.

"I'm amazed with the greed at someone's expense, at their life expense," Lisa Daniels says. "How do you look in the mirror? I will never get over the anger. That I know."

Lisa and Ken say they agreed to share Jamie's story, in part, to remove the stigma addiction carries. Jamie was college educated, was working as a law clerk and had a loving and supportive collection of friends and family members, and yet he still couldn't beat his addiction. If it could happen to him, they say, it could happen to anyone.

In recent months, Ken has found a new purpose by sharing Jamie's story, speaking to community groups and high schools all across Michigan, educating people not only about the horrors of addiction but also the dangers of insurance scams such as The Florida Shuffle.

"Jamie's legacy should be to save hundreds of thousands of lives and make everybody aware of what happened to him," Ken says. "The more people we can make aware than I think we do Jamie's name proud."

John Barr is an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at John.A.Barr@espn.com. Mike Farrell is a feature producer for E:60.