Spinal Solutions founder. Roger Williams spent 16 years in the orthopedic sales business with his father before he went out on his own. He started Spinal Solutions in 1999 and launched a firm selling knee and hip implants three years later. From nothing, he built an $18 million-a-year business based in Murrieta, California. Williams and his wife had a BMW, a Mercedes-Benz, a yacht named “Spare Change” and a 6,300-square-foot Murrieta home, according to court records and interviews. He ordered his seven-seat jet painted with stripes of Lakers purple and gold, and he and his wife sat courtside among celebrities at Laker games, according to interviews with former employees.
But Spinal Solutions also racked up big debts with hardware manufacturers and then refused to pay, according to industry executives and lawsuit allegations.The company increasingly relied on Lenders Funding LLC, a firm that fronted cash at an interest rate of 35 percent. By 2013, the company owed the lender about $35,000 per month – solely in interest payments – and imploded in debt.
Spinal Solutions could not have raked in millions or spread its products across the U.S. if not for doctors eager to do business. Roger Williams allegedly lured them with private plane rides, generous consulting contracts and even cash. Williams made it clear the consulting deals and free flights were tools to keep doctors hooked on his products, said Quin Rudin, a businessman who poured money into the company when it hit a cash crunch in 2012. “He said that many times. ‘In order to do business with these guys, I gotta take care of them,’ ” Rudin recalled from behind thick glass in a downtown Oakland jail, where he landed after pleading guilty in an unrelated fraud case.
Although the true extent of the caper remains buried in the necks and backs of people scattered around the U.S., it began to unravel in 2009 when evidence of the scheme landed in the receiving room of Ortho Sol, a surgical supply firm in South Africa. Ortho Sol makes precision screws for the most delicate of construction projects: spinal fusion. The company had repossessed some of its screws after Spinal Solutions LLC stopped paying its bills. Nestled with the returns, the brighter yellow luster of a few screws caught Richard Walker’s eye. Testing confirmed his fears. Some were not made of his firm’s medical-grade titanium. Their uneven threads showed potential for backing out or breaking, he said. He feared the laser-etched markings intended to make them look authentic could be toxic to patients.
More evidence – Derika Moses hefted a case of 2-liter soda bottles while setting up a grocery store display in 2007. Nothing helped. In desperation, Moses opted for spinal fusion surgery.The procedure offered little relief. Five years later, she had most of her spinal hardware removed, convinced that the erector set of metal in her spine was the source of ongoing problems. Attorneys contacted Moses after finding her name among Spinal Solutions’ sales records. CIR showed photos of Moses’ hardware to U and I, the South Korean company whose logo was etched on it. Company engineers noted the finishes and lot numbers on some of Moses’ screws and connectors did not match their product. But the dead giveaway was the logo, they said, which lacks the firm’s signature forward-leaning font. During an interview at the company’s U.S. office in Orange County, California, General Manager Sung Hwang identified three of Moses’ four screws as fakes. “This is obviously not what we did,” Hwang said. “I feel sorry because (patients) got the surgery with improper devices, so they might suffer from it.”
The screws, real or fake, all funneled into what lawsuits claim was a larger scheme to bilk California’s workers’ compensation system. Some hospitals billed insurance carriers as much as $12,500 a screw before a 2012 change in state law shut down the astronomical markups. From that, Spinal Solutions stood to reap several thousand dollars from the sale of a single screw.
The source of the counterfeits, plaintiffs’ attorneys allege, was 85-year-old machinist William Crowder. He owns a small office park machine shop in Southern California’s Inland Empire. He had experience working on parts for boats, planes and, it appears, the human body. In an interview with CIR, Crowder said Spinal Solutions’ operations manager, Jeff Fields, gave him professional-looking medical screws and asked for exact copies. “He might want 50 of this size and 40 of these,” said Crowder, who has been named as a defendant in dozens of lawsuits. Plaintiffs’ attorneys believe that thousands of counterfeit screws went into unsuspecting patients, though Crowder testified in a recent deposition to making “maybe 500.” Crowder also said he didn’t etch anything on the screws he made for Spinal Solutions. Instead, that trail seems to lead to another Spinal Solutions contractor, Ryan Zavilenski. On his YouTube page, Zavilenski boasts of owning a laser engraver. He also posted photos of spinal implants on his photo-sharing website. From behind the screen door of his Santa Rosa, California, apartment, Zavilenski confirmed to CIR that he did laser engraving for Spinal Solutions several years ago. He said he engraved only a few screws, however, which he called prototypes.