NJ.com on June 17, 2012 released the following:
“By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger
The Eli Lilly warehouse in Enfield, Conn., is a nondescript beige building with a pebbled concrete exterior, just off Freshwater Boulevard.
Although just down the road from a suburban shopping mall and an Olive Garden restaurant, it feels like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and little else.
A light rain was falling on Saturday, March 13, 2010, when a tractor-trailer rumbled up to the loading dock about 9:33 p.m. Shut down for the weekend, the building had no security fence or watchman to keep an eye on the pallets of the costly pharmaceuticals awaiting shipment.
A video surveillance camera captured the fuzzy image of two men apparently checking to see if there was anyone inside the office. Then they quickly carried a ladder to get to the roof. Little more than tar and metal sheeting, it would not take much effort to cut through if nobody was watching.
And nobody was.
The Enfield warehouse was about to become legend — the scene of an $80 million commercial drug heist, the biggest in U.S. history.
This is the inside story of how it went down and how authorities tracked and arrested 22 alleged members of an Ocean’s Eleven-style ring of thieves, who operated with their own trucks, warehouses and black market wholesalers.
Criminal complaints filed in federal court in New Jersey, Florida, Connecticut and Illinois detail an operation that stole and then sold an eclectic litany of products: trailer-loads of pharmaceuticals exchanged for cash in the parking lot of a Toys “R” Us in North Bergen, hair care products taken in San Antonio and unloaded to a buyer in Newark, boxes of respiratory medicine loaded onto a flatbed tow truck at a Home Depot parking lot in Hollywood, Fla. They made off with millions in cancer drugs and antidepressants, and carried away loads of whiskey, inflatable boats and cigarettes.
It was an operation, say federal law enforcement sources, that was penetrated by an FBI cargo theft task force in New Jersey after a buy-and-bust sting involving a load of pharmaceuticals stolen in Georgia led investigators to Florida.
But the most revealing information comes by way of an FBI court affidavit, mistakenly unsealed, offering a rare insight into the workings of a network that operated like a big business with high-end, fast-moving theft crews — sometimes working independently, other times as teams.
The accused, say investigators, included two brothers — one an expert in alarm systems — each with a long history of taking stuff that did not belong to them. And both might still be free but for two mistakes that ultimately helped federal agents identify gang members and track them down — a discarded water bottle and a brand new set of tools.
“This wasn’t about a guy walking down the street with a black knit hat and a crowbar over his shoulder. It was nothing like that,” said Charles Forsaith, coordinator of the Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition, an industry group that shares intelligence. “This was a group that had tentacles elsewhere.”
EL GATO AND THE CUBANS
Amaury Villa is a stocky man with close-cropped hair, a tattoo of a scorpion on his left arm, and a long rap sheet for burglary.
“Unfortunately he has a substantial criminal background,” acknowledged his attorney, Frank Rubino of Miami.
Living in Miami with a girlfriend, and having to make monthly child support payments, Villa had recently incorporated a transportation company, Florida records showed. E-mails revealed he was looking to purchase several long-haul tractor-trailer rigs.
He also apparently knew his way around security systems. On an application for a safe deposit box at the Bank of America, Villa listed his occupation as a self-employed alarm installer.
Three months before the drug company warehouse in Enfield was hit, prosecutors said Villa boarded an American Airlines flight from Miami to LaGuardia Airport in New York on Jan. 7, 2010, together with another individual — a man not charged in the case, but identified in the FBI affidavit as “El Gato.” The Cat. According to the affidavit, El Gato’s real name was Yosmany Nunez Aguilar, who also had a record for theft of interstate freight.
Villa rented a luxury Infinity QX56 SUV from Hertz at the airport counter. He then drove to the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Jersey City waterfront, where Villa — a Hyatt platinum club member — had reserved two rooms for the night.
The next day, Villa and another man, believed to be Aguilar, drove to Windsor, Conn., approximately 11 miles from Enfield, where Villa checked into the Hyatt Summerfield Suites for a two-night stay.
It was a scouting mission, agents surmised in the affidavit. Late Saturday evening, about 10:35 p.m., the surveillance video at the Eli Lilly warehouse captured an individual walking around the outside and peering through the front doors of the locked building. Nobody was monitoring the camera, but someone — very likely Villa — appeared to be casing the joint, the FBI said. Villa returned to Miami the next day.
Cargo theft is a multibillion-dollar business, according to the FBI and Forsaith, a former New Hampshire state police officer who now works as a transportation security expert, said there is a methodology to how cargo thieves ferret out targets.
“In today’s day and age, you can pretty much go on the internet and tell what a company makes, where it is located — be it Pfizer or Purdue — and use that public information to make an educated guess as to what that company manufacturers, and where those products may be distributed,” he said.
Trucks leaving a warehouse may be followed to determine their routes of travel long before any theft takes place. Warehouses are not hard to find on Google Maps.
Villa, say authorities, had made a career out of it. Less than two weeks after his advance trip to Connecticut, Villa was tracked to another warehouse job 1,000 miles away. On Jan. 22, records show someone using Villa’s credit card checked into the Fairfield Inn in East Peoria.
The target that weekend, according to the FBI, was a commercial warehouse along Illinois Route 116 containing a sizable load of cigarettes being stored for distribution.
The operation seemed well orchestrated to police. Thieves did not try to go in through the front door, but rather climbed to the unsecured roof, cut through with power tools, and lowered themselves in with ropes. They seemed to know what they were looking for there. The alarm system was bypassed without cutting a single wire, and a convoy of stolen tractor-trailers pulled up to haul away more than 3,500 cases of cigarettes valued at more than $8 million.
One of the truck trailers turned up in New Jersey two days later, abandoned near Newark on the southbound shoulder of the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, authorities say.
But inside the East Peoria warehouse, someone left a clue that would help connect the dots much later. According to the FBI affidavit, DNA that they now link to Villa’s older brother, Amed, was recovered at the scene.
With dark hair and the tattoo of a skull on his right arm, Amed Villa was well known to law enforcement authorities. He reportedly installed fire doors for a living, according to his attorney, but he had a history of arrests and convictions for burglary. He had been arrested and convicted for burglary in January 2000 in Seminole County, Fla., and charged with multiple burglary-related offenses in Florida between 1995 and 2005, the FBI affidavit noted.
A Cuban citizen, he had been ordered deported from the United States, according to the FBI, although he had not been detained. Rather, he was required to periodically check in with immigration authorities. He had not done so for years, according to the affidavit.
In July 2009, another multimillion-dollar cigarette warehouse burglary was reported in Montgomery, Ill. Inside, said the FBI, they again found DNA that matched the same unique biological fingerprint picked up in East Peoria. Days before the July 4 break-in, the FBI found Amaury Villa had checked into a hotel in Rosemont, some 40 miles away, and checked out after the heist.
Then in August 2009, thieves struck the big GlaxoSmithKline distribution warehouse in Chesterfield, Va., cutting through the roof, disabling the alarms and driving away with at least $4.3 million of its respiratory drug Advair Diskus.
Amaury again had not been far away. The day before, he had checked into a hotel in Chester, Va., some 15 miles away from Chesterfield, according to the FBI. And investigators again had a DNA match to the earlier jobs, they said, left on a coffee cup in the warehouse.
Officials will not disclose if they knew who they were looking for based on the DNA. But if they did not yet know the name of Amed Villa, the evidence showed that one person had been at the scene of three major unsolved crimes.
THE CONNECTICUT CAPER
In March, members of the gang were zeroing in on their new target, the Eli Lilly warehouse in Enfield, Conn., according to complaints filed in the case and other court documents.
Amaury Villa had just negotiated lease agreements for two Freightliner CL-20 tractor trucks — one for $20,205 and the other for $23,211 — through the company he set up in Florida, called Trans-USA.
Villa rented another Infiniti QX56 in early March, between a flurry of flights he made to and from Miami and New York. On March 12, Villa checked back into the Summerfield Suites, using his platinum Hyatt membership card.
The Connecticut break-in occurred on the night of March 13, following the same script as that of the GlaxoSmithKline theft in Virginia, the cigarette heist in East Peoria, and the job in Montgomery. The thieves went in on a Saturday night, climbed to the roof, cut into the drugmaker’s warehouse, rappelled down using climbing gear to the floor below and knocked out the alarm system without cutting wires.
“The security surveillance system and alarm were disabled in a manner which indicated familiarity with systems of this type,” wrote FBI agent John Howell in his affidavit. “For example, wires were not cut, but rather unplugged and only certain of the wires were unplugged. Other wires, which might have set off alarms outside of Connecticut were not disconnected for some time.”
The crew had plenty of time to themselves and put together 49 pallets of drugs, using forklifts inside the warehouse to load boxes of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder; Prozac and Cymbalta, both antidepressant drugs; and Gemzar, a chemotherapy drug used to treat lung cancer.
They drove away into the night, and into international headlines of what seemed like a Hollywood-style caper movie, starring a crack team of brazen professionals who knew what they were looking for before they punched their way inside.
But as smart as the alleged gang members were, law enforcement documents say, they left more evidence behind — enough to get the Villa brothers arrested.
When the Enfield Police Department was called to the scene, they found an opened case of water bottles, with several empty plastic bottles scattered on the floor of the kitchen and office area of the warehouse. Later in a lab, they found DNA on the water bottle that matched the DNA found on the coffee cup of the GlaxoSmithKline warehouse in Virginia, and at two Illinois warehouse break-ins, linking four jobs now to the same man — Amed Villa.
Also lying on the floor was a collection of several red-handled Husky-brand hand tools and an assortment of power tools, all with that immaculate, never-used look. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut would not disclose what specific tools were used, but the thieves could not have made a more ill-advised purchase.
Husky is a brand sold only at Home Depot stores, and investigators speculated that someone might have purchased everything at one time. Agents began scouring Home Depot computer records to find out if how many collections of the eight tools matching those recovered in Connecticut had ever been sold together in one place.
The answer was a blockbuster. The purchase had been made only once in the past 12 months — at the Flushing, N.Y., store on March 12, 2010, at 1:13 p.m.
The home improvement store’s own records not only provided a road map, but images of the sale itself at the checkout line. Surveillance cameras in the store showed two men at the register, paying for the $757 purchase in cash. Those same two men could then be seen on other video footage Home Depot maintained of its parking lot, as they put their purchases into the back of an SUV.
It looked a lot like the Infiniti QX56 rented by Villa.
AN UNSELLABLE CARGO
Just days after the theft, the FBI in New Haven got an anonymous call helping connect more of the pieces. Three of the perpetrators of the Eli Lilly heist, the caller said, would be meeting in the near future to negotiate the load.
Among them was Aguilar, who the caller knew only as El Gato. All of them, the FBI was told, hung out at the Rickenbacker Marina in Key Biscayne, Fla., where the nearby Rusty Pelican offers up a great waterside view of Miami, along with steaks, burgers with avocado fries, and Holy Mackerel Special Golden Ale.
The surveillance that followed would soon lead investigators to others, and an undercover buy operation to locate the stolen drugs, the criminal complaints show.
Pharmaceuticals are typically marketed through wholesalers, but there has long been a secondary wholesale market that often deals with products offered at cheaper prices because they are about to expire. Sellers are supposed to have “pedigrees” to show the stuff came from an authorized wholesaler.
“Typically you have these sellers with fax machines who blast out that they have this stuff available cheap,” said former New Jersey federal prosecutor A. Jeff Ifrah, whose Washington-based law firm represents major health, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
“There’s a ready market,” he conceded. “Although there’s not necessarily a market super-diligent about the pedigrees of these products.”
In fact, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey set up a major sting in 2004 called “Operation Pill Collector” to catch pharmaceutical thieves by setting up a fake wholesale company with the help of an informant who agreed to cooperate with the FBI after he was caught selling stolen drugs with fake pedigree paperwork. Instead of looking for the bad guys, the investigation had bad guys coming to them.
Ultimately, 17 people in New Jersey and three other states were arrested on charges of trafficking $56 million in stolen or misdirected prescription drugs, which were sold to local pharmacies at big discounts.
The drugs taken from the Eli Lilly warehouse would have been much harder to move. Forsaith said that because of pressure from law enforcement, publicity about the Eli haul became almost too hot to handle. The alleged gang members only felt comfortable dealing small to the black market, FBI documents said.
In a meeting in Elizabeth, one of those eventually charged with hijacking a tractor-trailer load of inhalers stolen from Tampa, Fla., discussed the importance of holding “cold” stolen goods. Caught on surveillance tape by an informant, Reynado Tapanes, 45, of Miami, was recorded saying, “If you’re holding hot stuff … you’re gonna get burned at some moment.”
Samples of Advair stolen from Glaxo were already showing up in legitimate pharmacies as far west as Texas, sparking an alert by the Food and Drug Administration over concerns that improper storage conditions might render the products ineffective, risking the health of patients.
In mid-August 2010, according to the FBI affidavit, the U.S. Customs Service intercepted a FedEx package addressed to a business at the Rickenbaker Marina, sent from the Dominican Republic. The package contained approximately 2,200 counterfeit labels for the pharmaceuticals stolen from the Eli Lilly warehouse. Someone, the FBI believed, was trying to re-label the haul.
By late 2010, the gang appears to have been penetrated, court documents suggest. Law enforcement sources said a buy-and-bust operation being directed by a cargo theft task force headed by FBI agent Tom Hauck in Newark led investigators to Florida beginning in 2009, after an $8.8 million tractor-trailer load of drugs was hijacked at a truck stop in Georgia.
For more than a year, transactions in stolen merchandise tied to those eventually arrested were recorded by several unidentified individuals cooperating with the feds. In one meeting, an informant arranged to have part of a stolen drug shipment delivered to the Toys “R” Us parking lot in North Bergen. When it arrived, the trailer was hooked up to another tractor and driven away, and then returned empty an hour later in exchange for a cash payment of $64,000.
According to Amaury’s attorney, the government told him that an informant fingered Villa when drugs stolen from Eli Lilly were being fenced.
“From what I understand, the government conducted surveillance on my client. When he turned in a rental car, they found a set of keys that fit a storage warehouse where they had followed him earlier,” said Rubino.
The FBI agents tried the keys to every storage locker at the facility and found several that opened. Then they obtained a search warrant to look inside, and discovered the stolen pharmaceuticals, according to Rubino.
On the morning of May 3, teams of federal agents began arresting people — including the Villa brothers. In all, 22 men were charged in four states.
None of those charged has yet to go to trial.
Amed Villa on Thursday entered a plea of not guilty in Connecticut. His attorney, Jonathan Einhorn of New Haven, said it was still early in the process.
“The government has a very dramatic account of what happened,” said Einhorn. “But this is not Hollywood. You have to prove the facts.”
Amaury Villa sits in jail in Florida.
“He’s not happy he’s been arrested,” said Rubino. But the lawyer conceded this may not be the easiest case he has ever handled. “There may be significant physical evidence in this case,” he said.”
Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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