Two Valley women were busted for performing dental work without a license. Arizona’s attorney general says this type of “dangerous fraud” happens more than most realize.
Layna Georgia first sensed something was wrong during her visit to Desert Valley Dental in January 2017 when Jolene Houchens, a woman she had assumed was a licensed dentist, kept shooting up random areas of her gums with Novocain.
“It was like she couldn’t find the tooth,” says Georgia, a West Valley school bus driver and a returning patient at the small Glendale clinic, where she was told her usual dentist, Mark Moss, was no longer working. She winces as she recalls the way Houchens painfully wormed the long needle beneath her gumline in a futile attempt to deaden the nerve. “She kept going to different tools, different sizes.”
The biggest red flag came a few minutes later, after business clinic owner Melissa Pavey, who Georgia says had been assisting Houchens during the tooth-extraction procedure, left the room. “That’s when Jolene dropped the tool on the floor then stuck it back into my mouth,” she says.
Doubting the five-second rule applied in professional dentistry, Georgia felt the urge to leave. “Right then I knew something wasn’t right.”
But she didn’t leave. She remained in the dentist’s chair while Houchens proceeded to extract several of her teeth, and write a faulty post-operative drug prescription that caused her even more discomfort.
Georgia’s suspicions that something was amiss that day were officially confirmed earlier this year, when she received a letter in the mail from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. The document stated that Brnovich’s office, acting on a referral from the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners, was investigating claims that both Houchens and Pavey had been performing unlicensed dental procedures on at least five unsuspecting patients, including Georgia. The AG wanted to hear her story.
According to the attorney general’s office, neither of the women had ever been licensed as a dentist and were acting instead as dental assistants, a position limited to performing basic supportive dental procedures under the supervision of a licensed dentist.
It was the most recent in a spate of fake-doctor cases prosecuted in the Valley and Arizona – a list that includes several dentists, an unlicensed Botox doctor and a self-styled liposuction surgeon whose illegal ministrations sent at least one patient to the ICU. These cases have several important common denominators – not the least of which is how easy it was to pull off the ruse and bilk patients.
“We’ve seen several cases involving people who were fake doctors or fake dentists, and I want our office to aggressively prosecute those cases,” Brnovich says.
In retrospect, Georgia admits she should have checked Houchens’ credentials, but posits that few patients make a habit of scouring the certificates papering dental office walls for names, let alone verifying the degrees. “I figured she was a dentist. I mean, she dressed the part,” Georgia says, recalling Houchens’ smock.
Pavey, she assumed, ran the business operations of the office, but Georgia says she also doled out medications. “Once Jolene was finally finished pulling my teeth, I asked if I could have something for the pain,” she says, noting that the resulting soreness felt “like somebody just punched me in the mouth.”
“That’s when Melissa got some pills out of a safe and gave them to me in a plastic bag, like a sterilization pouch,” Georgia says.
With the discomfort overriding her better judgment, Georgia says she popped one of the pills when she got home and immediately blacked out. “I literally don’t remember anything that happened after that, until I woke up later that evening.” She never identified what was in the pill, but recalls it did little to numb the pain from the extraction. “A few days later, I went to urgent care and found out I did have an infection in my mouth. They gave me a shot and antibiotics.”
After that, Georgia went back to Desert Valley and returned the pills to Pavey, who reciprocated by writing Georgia a prescription for Percocet. “When I walked out of the office, that’s when I noticed the prescription pad had Dr. Moss’ name on it,” she says. “But the pharmacy filled it.”
Thanks to the testimonies of Georgia and some of the other patients contacted by the attorney general’s office, Brnovich was able to file an indictment in Maricopa County Superior Court charging both Pavey and Houchens with 10 counts each of violations, including fraud, theft, forgery and identity theft (for use of Moss’ prescription pad) and “aggravated assault” using a dangerous instrument – in this case, a dental drill, laser and other assorted dental tools.
“You ever sat in a dental chair?” replies a bemused Brnovich when asked to justify the severity of the assault charge. “When you are in a situation where someone is using any sort of dangerous instrument around you, in a way that’s reckless or could cause injury, that amounts to aggravated assault.” On April 24, 2018, Pavey and Houchens were arrested at the Desert Valley office on multiple felony charges. Pavey spent six days in MCSO custody; Houchens did 13. Both are now awaiting trial (a complex capital case is scheduled for late August), and have not responded to multiple requests for interviews.
Georgia has been following the case, and says what angered her most was seeing Pavey’s mugshot in the news. Unlike Houchens’ jailhouse photo, which shows the shamed 38-year-old dental assistant appearing justifiably remorseful, Pavey’s photo captures the 45-year-old presumed ringleader flashing an eerily inscrutable smile. In it, Pavey holds her head cocked in a confident pose while showing off a perfect set of teeth. It looks, chillingly, like Pavey is posing for a direct-mail piece advertising a new dental office, rather than a prison mugshot.
“I didn’t appreciate seeing that,” Georgia says. “I was like, ‘You put me through hell! You charged me and my insurance a fortune. Why are you smiling?’”
Brnovich has been on a bit of a roll this year in busting bogus doctors. “Just recently in Tucson, we successfully prosecuted a chiropractor who got three years in prison for allowing an unlicensed dentist to practice out of his office,” he says, referring to the case of Maria Hernandez, a woman from Mexico posing as a dentist who had been making trips to Tucson to perform dental work in a jerry-built, unsanitary dental office in the Bernal Chiropractic Clinic.
Brnovich wasn’t able to nab Hernandez, who is believed to be on the run and hiding in Mexico, but he did prosecute chiropractor Jesus Bernal, who he discovered was receiving a cut of the profits from the dental work. That qualified Bernal for a laundry list of felonies including running a fraudulent scheme, money laundering, conspiracy and facilitating the practice of dentistry without a license.
“If you’re doing something like that, it’s not only fraudulent,” Brnovich says. “Quite frankly, it’s dangerous.”
And, in many cases, predatory – for the simple reason that unlicensed medical and dental offices tend to operate in poorer neighborhoods, catering to desperate and disadvantaged clients.
To wit: The Desert Valley Dental office is operated out of a converted late-1970s single-family home sandwiched between condominium complexes on North 59th Avenue just south of Olive Avenue in Glendale. It’s adorned with welcoming touches. On the front patio sits an umbrella-topped table surrounded by outdoor dining chairs, and on the side walls the blue-framed windows are bedecked with bright pink flower boxes blooming with white and pink perennials.
Patients have described the interior as homey, too, if a bit makeshift. One patient reviewing the practice on Yelp who had also been treated by Houchens noted a “flimsy” dental chair and tool tray along with the surprising absence of a dental sink. “Truly the oddest experience at a dental office I’ve ever had,” the reviewer wrote.
Such accommodations have unfortunately become commonplace for low-income or uninsured patients who are the bread and butter of home-operated, so-called “backroom” dentists and doctors. The Yelp reviewer noted that she was able to get a deep dental cleaning at Desert Valley for about a fifth of what the larger dental chains charge, and said that Houchens repeatedly touted the office’s mission to help patients in need.
Perceived value may have also played a role in two other notorious fake-doctor cases. In April 2017, Tucson resident Gustavo Felix Nunez pled guilty to 28 felony charges stemming from liposuction procedures he performed on nine women at his NuTec International medical clinic. The bogus surgeon charged the women a cumulative total of $23,760 for the surgeries – far below what comparable work would have cost in a typical clinic.
Also in 2017, fraudulent Valley “doctor” Craig Allen Scherf was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge for administering hundreds of quickie Botox injections and other cosmetic procedures without a medical license.
In talking with Brnovich’s office, Georgia learned that Arizona is one of six states where you can legally own and operate a dental office without being a licensed dentist, although the actual dentistry must be performed by licensed professionals. “It’s like if you owned a hair salon and rented out the booths to certified beauticians,” she says. “Anybody can own a dental shop, but you have to hire licensed dentists to do the work.”
Arizona’s lax codes permitting dental practice ownership by non-licensees may serve as a beacon for fake dentists. In 2016, Brnovich’s investigators discovered a crude dental office being run out of a Phoenix apartment by a tenant named Elda Margez De Zamora, who went by the nickname “Mama Elda.” The 56-year-old woman was also driving up from Mexico to perform dental services for cash, then returning home.
Desert Valley Dental also fits the model of a non-dentist-owned dental practice, and surprisingly – even after getting busted by Brnovich – it still appears to be conducting business.
The Maricopa County Assessor lists the property’s owner as Melissa Pavey, and that appears to be who opens the back door when a PHOENIX reporter visits in early June – albeit only a crack to say she “can’t help” answer any questions about the case, then abruptly shuts the door when asked, “Are you Melissa?”
In a prison interview granted to Lauren Reimer of 3TV/CBS 5 two days after the arrests, however, Pavey was still maintaining the sunny face from her mugshot. “My original reason I loved dentistry was to change people’s lives through smiles,” she said, smiling. But she also related an illuminating backstory, one that not only explains how she and Houchens came to be doing the unlicensed work, but also provides a glimpse into how non-physician-owned dental offices are allowed to flourish in Arizona.
As the owner of the office, Pavey, who opened the business in 2008, shortly after relocating from San Diego, admitted she didn’t possess a dental license but said she had hired Mark L. Moss, a general practice dentist with a doctorate in dental surgery (D.D.S.) to do the work.
The trouble began later, Pavey told Reimer, when she and Moss became romantically involved, even identifying themselves as husband and wife to a Glendale Chamber of Commerce staffer who penned a profile on them, although no public record can be found of a marriage. Michelle Elliott McMahan, a dental assistant with 22 years of experience who now manages another dental office, says she briefly worked at Desert Valley but left after the couple’s in-fighting became too disruptive.
“It was a hostile work environment with them screaming and fighting in the office,” McMahan says. “They struck me as weird, and a little crazy.”
Eventually Pavey fired Moss, and the couple split up. “Pavey was open about the fact they were in a relationship together, and she stated she fired him before they broke up,” says Reimer. “But she was unclear on the exact timeline.”
Pavey said she and Houchens, both dental assistants, were then left doing follow-up work on Moss’ patients – “removing sutures, adjusting dentures” – until a replacement dentist could be hired. She also claimed it was Moss, along with one of the patients, who reported them to the state dental board, in what she characterized to Reimer as “a vendetta.”
Some patients remain unclear as to whether Moss actually left before Pavey fired him. In the indictment, Rosemarie St. Michael is listed as the last of the five patients “assaulted” with a dental tool. But in the comments section following Reimer’s jailhouse interview piece on azfamily.com, St. Michael, posting through her Facebook account, added this defense of Pavey, along with a dig at Moss: “She was honest about not having a certification and took care of his patients, while the ex-dentist abandoned his patients,” St. Michael wrote, adding, “He should be the one in jail.” (Moss, through a lawyer who represented him on a separate case, declined to comment.)
St. Michael did not want to talk about her experience, saying only through Facebook Messenger, “I was never a victim and it was a terrible mistake by [the A.G.].”
Booking photos of Pavey and Houchens; photos courtesy Arizona Attorney General office
“It sounds like they were trying to fill in and not lose patients that were already scheduled, doing some dental work on their own until they could fill the vacancy,” says Paul Kelly, D.M.D., a noted oral and maxillofacial surgery specialist in Gilbert who frequently shows up in PHOENIX’s annual Top Dentists list. “But, of course, that’s wrong on a number of levels.”
For starters, dental assistants are limited by the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners to performing only certain procedures – cleaning the surface of the teeth, applying sealants and topical fluorides, removing excess cement from inlays, crowns and bridges and preparing a patient for analgesia – and even then, the functions must be performed under the supervision of a licensed dentist. “They’re what we call ‘reversible intraoral procedures,’” Kelly says. The indictment charges that Pavey and Houchens went beyond that, using drills, lasers and surgical tools to do tooth extractions.
On a broader scale, Kelly says what the women did is symptomatic of a larger problem with Arizona’s regulation of dental offices.
“The fact that in the state of Arizona you can own a dental practice and not be a dentist brings in a lot of corporate dental offices just trying to improve their bottom line,” he says. “And sometimes they don’t have good quality dentists available to keep up with the demand of their office, so a lot of questionable dental work ends up being done.”
In both Pavey’s and Houchens’ cases, there may also have been some pressure to live up to family expectations. Both women come from families involved in the dental profession. Pavey’s family owns a dental lab called Bambrick Restorations, according to McMahan, a business that is curiously listed at the same address as the dental office. Houchens, who had added an EDDA (Expanded Duty Dental Assisting) certification to her dental assistant training, permitting her to perform advanced tasks like expanded restorative work and fillings (under dentist supervision), bragged to a previous employer that her father was a dentist. But Robin Barotz, office manager for Barotz Dental in Denver, Colorado, where Houchens worked before moving to Arizona, says she doesn’t recall Houchens’ dad ever dropping by the offices.
“I remember she had a lot of family issues going on,” Barotz says. “That may be why we finally let her go.”
On her Facebook page, inexplicably, Houchens has recently begun listing her name as Jolene Pavey, and claiming to be the owner of a “59th Avenue dental studio” in Glendale.
It’s mid-June, and the receptionist at Desert Valley Dental is now answering the phones, “Thank you for choosing Alta Sky Family Dental,” the name of another Glendale dental office where Moss is now practicing.
The plexiglass panel in the sign out front of Desert Valley has been flipped around so that only a blank white slab is showing, and another business sign has been stowed behind a barbecue grill by the side of the building. Nevertheless, calls are going through to an office where Moss is apparently back to practicing, and accepting new patients.
“He can see you today, if you’re able to come in,” the receptionist says.
It’s likely the calls, and the clients, are actually being forwarded to Alta Sky’s location on Peoria and 43rd Avenue, where Moss, looking like a slightly younger Robert Redford in a photo on the office’s website, is listed as a team member. Still, it puts into question who’s now in charge of Desert Valley, particularly since Moss’ ex, Pavey, appears to be continuing to occupy the building, and Houchens is bizarrely claiming ownership on Facebook.
Whatever’s going on with the trio of players, Brnovich pledges he’ll be watching.
“Whenever I hear the word ‘fake’ attached to either a doctor or a dentist, it scares the living hell out of me,” he says. “I don’t want anyone involved in any sort of medical procedures to not be legitimate. I want to send a very strong message that if you’re pretending to be a doctor or a dentist, we’re going to go after you with the full force of law.”
Meanwhile, Georgia is, incredibly, considering going back to the office for more dental work.
“I’d like to go back, because there’s still more work to be done on my dentures,” she says. “But I don’t know. If Melissa’s there, it might be pretty awkward if I walk in.”