Crackdown on drug thieves has trails to Florida

Thu May 3, 2012 7:42pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Prosecutors in a number of states have charged dozens of suspects with stealing prescription drugs from warehouses and tractor trailers across the country, including two brothers accused of grabbing more than $70 million of prescription drugs two years ago from an Eli Lilly & Co warehouse in Connecticut.

The national crackdown on heists of prescription drugs involved coordinated arrests and indictments in Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Haven, Connecticut said brothers Amaury Villa and Amed Villa, were arrested in Florida on Thursday in connection with the Eli Lilly burglary in the town of Enfield, Connecticut - calling it the biggest known theft in the state's history. It said the pair were citizens of Cuba, living in Miami.

The brothers were accused of cutting a hole in the roof of the warehouse on March 13, 2010, and partly disabling the building's security alarm on a night when violent rain and winds lashed the Eastern seaboard. Over the next five hours, they allegedly used a forklift inside the building to load pallets of Lilly's Zyprexa schizophrenia drug, Prozac anti-depressant and Gemzar cancer treatment into a tractor trailer truck.

Prosecutors said Amed Villa left behind valuable evidence - his fingerprints - on a water bottle found in the warehouse after the burglary.

Simultaneously, U.S. prosecutors in Miami charged Amaury Villa and two other Miami residents - Roberto Garcia-Amador and Suhong Wu - with conspiring to sell drugs stolen from the Lilly warehouse.

Another eight suspects were charged in Miami with other thefts, including of various prescription drugs from warehouses and tractor trailers at truck stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Tennessee, as well as diabetes and epilepsy drugs from a warehouse in Virginia owned by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

"These defendants moved truckloads and pallets of stolen pharmaceuticals from other states to South Florida for storage and ultimate sale," Miami U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer said in a release.

"Along the way, they transported and handled these medications without any regard whatsoever for their proper storage and care, and - worst yet - with a callous disregard for the safety and health of the ultimate consumer."

Ferrer said the investigation was conducted by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

In New Jersey, federal prosecutors charged 12 defendants with stealing and selling millions of dollars in prescription drugs, over the counter medicines, and other products. Ten were arrested in Florida, and one in Nebraska, while another is being sought.

Six of the defendants were charged in connection with pharmaceuticals stolen in March 2009 from a product distribution center in Olive Branch, Mississippi, owned by German drugmaker Bayer AG. They were also accused of stealing a tractor trailer a year later in Dallas containing products from Perrigo Co, which makes over the counter medicines.

Prosecutors said one of those six defendants, Ernesto Romero-Vidal, of Hallandale, Florida, acted as broker between buyers and sellers and was also named in the Florida indictment.

Romero-Vidal and three other men were accused of conspiracy to sell a trailer load of prescription respiratory drugs, worth $1.15 million, that had been destined for a Novartis AG facility in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Police recovered the stolen trailer in Maryland.

The prosecutors in Newark charged three defendants with conspiracy to take possession of a stolen tractor trailer loaded with another prescription respiratory medicine, made by generic drugmaker Mylan.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson)

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