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Phony clinics targeted immigrant community

January 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Authorities say two people ended up in the hospital after getting injections at a local vitamin store. In an exclusive, Eyewitness News shows the dangers of phony health clinics.

Gloria Lopez remembers the terrifying moments when the injection entered her bloodstream.

"I felt my heart start racing. My lips started going numb and I got a splitting headache. That's when I started passing out," Gloria Lopez said through a translator.

Lopez is talking about the time that she and her son, Cesar, went to a vitamin store in MacArthur Park.

The mother and son from Lincoln Heights agreed to be injected with vitamins in hopes they could shake their colds. But instead of getting better, the two ended up in the hospital, each suffering a severe allergic reaction to the injections.

"The person I am today is not the person I used to be," said Cesar. "I lost 30 pounds in a week. My pancreas doesn't work. I still have headaches."

"There's all sorts of scams out there," said Erick Aguilar, a health officer with the H.A.L.T. Task Force.

Aguilar works for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. He's part of a task force that's in charge of shutting down phony clinics, about 15 every year.

Eyewitness News received a tip about Gloria and Cesar Lopez and their experience at Excellent Nutrition. The mother and son were put in touch with the task force. A few days later, the task force raided the Excellent Nutrition store, along with a beauty supply store next door.

"We didn't know about it until we got a call from Channel 7," said Aguilar.

Eight people were arrested in the raid two weeks ago, including Araceli Ramirez, the woman who authorities say was the owner-operator of the illegal pharmacy and clinic located on the 1800 block of James Wood Boulevard.

"We found a wide variety of pharmaceuticals, birth control, injectable vitamins, antibiotics," said Aguilar.

Investigators say the Ramirezes were operating what looked like two legitimate businesses that sold beauty supplies and vitamins. But investigators say in the back of one of the stores there were examining rooms where patients were injected with dangerous and illegal drugs.

"They target immigrant communities and they are very profitable," said Erick Aguilar.

Investigators say they found used syringes in makeshift examining rooms inside Excellent Nutrition, along with hundreds of pills and large amounts of cash.

The task force also raided Ramirez's home in Montebello, where they found more than a million dollars in illegal pharmaceutical products.

"A lot of times these things are smuggled, so we don't know what condition they were smuggled or stored under, extreme heat or filth, whatever," said Aguilar.

Ramirez and the seven others who were arrested in the raid have all either been released or have posted bail. They have not been formally arraigned, but Aguilar says they will likely be charged with dispensing medicine without a license, assault and several health code violations.

Eyewitness News went to Ramirez's Montebello house, but no one there would respond to interview requests.

Araceli Ramirez's two stores in MacArthur Park have been shut down pending the outcome of the county's investigation.

Meanwhile, Cesar and Gloria Lopez say they never learned what was in the injections that they received in December. The two say they are still having health problems and are struggling to pay for their medical expenses.

"They didn't kill us. But I know they would've ended up killing somebody," said Cesar Lopez. "I just want to warn others: Don't let anyone inject you with anything. Unless you're with a real doctor. It's not worth it."