Feds in Florida bust 11 people in pharma theft ring

Miami HeraldMay 4, 2012 

Two years ago, thieves pulled off a brazen heist of about $80 million worth of prescription drugs from an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut — the largest theft in that state’s history.

Turns out, there was a Miami connection — a big one.

Federal agents Thursday busted a Miami-based ring of 11 people on charges of conspiring to sell anti-depressant, cancer-treatment and other drugs stolen from the pharmaceutical giant’s warehouse. Among them: alleged ring leader Amaury Villa, 37, of Miami, who also was charged in Connecticut with playing a key role in the Eli Lilly warehouse burglary.

His brother, Amed Villa, 46, also of Miami, was charged in the Connecticut theft but not in South Florida.

Overall, members of the South Florida ring were charged with conspiring to sell and distribute prescription medications, liquor, cigarettes and cellphones allegedly ripped off from various warehouses and tractor-trailers around the country. The total value of the stolen products came to more than $100 million, a staggering sum authorities said makes it the largest takedown involving cargo theft in U.S. history.

The FBI’s top agent in South Florida said the undercover investigation, dubbed Operation Southern Hospitality, dealt a “major blow” to the Miami-based network.

“The effects of this case will be felt nationwide,” John V. Gillies said at a news conference at the U.S. attorney’s office. Gillies, noting the investigation began in 2009 before the Eli Lilly heist, said the feds recovered all the medications stored in thousands of boxes.

None of them — including Xanax, Prozac and other brand names — were ever resold on the black market to consumers or pharmacies. U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the defendants, all of whom are in custody, showed a “callous disregard for the safety and health of the ultimate consumer who might buy and use these drugs, unaware of their questionable past.”

Eli Lilly & Co. officials cooperated with the criminal investigation and applauded federal authorities and local police for the arrests, said Maria Crowe, a senior executive with the company, in a statement. Eli Lilly plans to destroy the stolen products when they are no longer needed as evidence, Crowe said.

The Villa brothers were the only defendants charged in the separate federal case in Connecticut involving the Eli Lilly heist.

According to the indictment, Amaury Villa flew in January 2010 from Miami to New York, where he rented a car to drive to Eli Lilly’s warehouse in Enfield, Conn. The company’s surveillance captured a video of an individual believed to be Villa.

The following month, an associate of Villa’s received an email containing agreements for two tractor-trailer trucks to be leased to a company listing the Miami man as its registered agent, the indictment says.

On March 12, 2010, the day before the burglary, two associates purchased tools at a Home Depot in New York. That same day, Villa flew from Miami to New York, where he rented a car again for the drive to Connecticut. Villa and others made their move to break into Eli Lilly’s warehouse the following night, according to the indictment. The burglary was recorded by a video surveillance camera.

Villa and the others allegedly used the Home Depot tools to cut a hole in the roof and used rope to rappel into the warehouse. They also disabled parts of its security system.

Over the next five hours, Villa’s brother, Amed, along with others, used a forklift to load boxes of pharmaceuticals, including Zyprexa, Prozac and Gemzar, into a tractor-trailer truck.

Amed Villa allegedly touched a water bottle that had been stored in the warehouse and left it there after he departed, prosecutors said.

His fingerprints provided a clue that apparently helped investigators zero-in on the brothers as suspects.

On the morning of March 14, 2010, Amaury Villa flew back to Miami.

More than two years later, Amaury Villa and his South Florida associates would be charged with plotting to sell the Eli Lilly medications and other pharmaceutical drugs. Amaury Villa himself was charged with possession of 4,654 boxes of medications, including Gemzar, an intravenous cancer drug, stolen in the Eli Lilly heist.

Also, the Miami indictment charged Ernesto Romero Vidal, 46, of Hallandale Beach, and Roberto Garcia-Amador, 46, of Miami, with three other thefts: A tractor-trailer shipment of Alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug, at a truck stop in Pennsylvania; a shipment of Clinda Reach, an acne prescription medication, at a truck stop in Ohio; and diabetic and epilepsy medications from a warehouse in Virginia.

In addition, Michael Rangel, 38, of Hialeah, and Leonardo Manuel Guerra, 43, of Clewiston, were charged with selling prescription medications for arthritis, Crohn’s disease and immune disorders that were ripped off from a tractor-trailer at a truck stop in Tennessee.

Others charged in the South Florida case are: Abel Mesa Samper, 39, of Miami; Suhong Wu, 42, of Miami; Geovanni Gonzalez, 40, of Hialeah; Pedro L. Rangel, 27, of Miami; Carlos Alberto Valdes, 43, of Hialeah Gardens; and Yanni A. Sanchez, 39, of Hialeah.

In a separate indictment, federal prosecutors in New Jersey charged 12 people — including two men named in the Miami case — with conspiring to sell stolen pharmaceutical products from a Bayer distribution center in Mississippi in 2009.

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