MIAMI (CBSMiami) — A three year undercover investigation centered in South Florida but stretching across the country has ended with the smashing of a massive theft ring responsible for what is being termed the largest pharmaceutical heist in US history.
Eleven South Florida residents were named in an indictment unsealed Thursday, part of nearly 2 dozen taken into custody nationwide, in the scheme which saw members of the gang steal drugs and merchandise from warehouses and tractor trailers, including $80 million in drugs from an Eli Lilly company warehouse in Connecticut. That theft is the largest single drug heist in US history.
The FBI, the DEA, and a host of police agencies across the country were involved in what was called Operation Southern Comfort, which started with a tip in 2009.
As investigators tracked the scheme, they say members of the theft ring based in South Florida robbed warehouses and trucks of everything from cancer drugs to epilepsy treatments, which were brought to South Florida and sold, some for pennies on the dollar.
The FBI said as the thefts grew into the tens of millions of dollars, the drugs and other goods kept flowing into South Florida, and the gang got bigger.
“The significance of taking this case down today was that these individuals were the ringleaders. They were going across the country ripping off these warehouses and these trailer trucks and there was no stopping them in sight.”
“We recovered 100% of the medications that were stolen in this case,” said Wilfredo Ferrer, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “That’s what makes this operation so successful and that’s why the agents and the officers involved here should be applauded for their incredible investigative work, because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be sitting here telling you that we got 100%.”
The South Florida gang members taken into custody were processed at FBI headquarters in North Miami Dade.
Sources have named the ringleader as Roberto Garcia-Amador who is listed in the indictment, but members of the task force said there were multiple ringleaders they decline to identify.
Other names on the indictment are Amaury Villa, Ernesto Romero Vidal, Abel Mesa Samper, Michael Rangel, Suhong Wu, Geovanni Gonzalez, Pedro Rangel, Carlos Alberto Valdes, Yanni A. Sanchez, and Leonardo Manuel Guerra.
A number of them made initial appearances in various federal or local courts Thursday. Court appearances for others are scheduled for Friday, and around the country, others were arrested for their role in the massive theft ring.
Charges include conspiracy to sell stolen goods, sales of stolen goods, concealing or storing stolen goods and conspiracy to sell and dispose stolen goods, according to the indictment.
It was the stolen drugs which most worried the task force, because in many cases efforts were made to sell them to sources that could have placed the drugs back into access by doctors, where investigators believe people could have been put in danger.
“The reason these scenarios are very dangerous is that these medications could be reintroduced back into the real chain of supply for these medications, and if they have been out of the supply and haven’t been refrigerated, they haven’t been properly stored in any fashion, imagine having these medications that are to treat these serious ailment and the consumer has no idea that these have been out of the chain for months, could lose its potency, it could have been tampered with,” said Ferrer. “NationWide, we have seen where scenarios like this have caused serious consequences.”
He was particularly proud that because of the investigation, none of the stolen drugs made it to the public. The pharmaceuticals taken from Eli Lilly’s warehouse were recovered and never entered the pharmaceutical distribution channels.
“For more than two years, Lilly has cooperated with this criminal investigation – providing important information to federal and local authorities to help piece together the details of the theft,” said Maria Crowe, President, Manufacturing Operations, Eli Lilly and Company.
Crowe said Lilly plans to destroy the remaining products when they are no longer needed as evidence.
Investigators said the gang was highly sophisticated and not only responsible for stealing millions from pharmaceutical companies in Connecticut, Virginia and New Jersey, but also hijacking trucks and stealing $20 million in cigarettes, liquor and 69 thousand cell phones.
In a 2010 interview with CBS News, two Miami men said they’ve worked for these kinds of rings and stole pharmaceuticals using cargo trucks.
“It’s very easy,” said one trucker.
“My job is to sell the merchandise,” said another.
That merchandise, the FBI says, included cancer medications. If not stored properly, the meds could be ineffective — or even kill someone.
CBS asked one of the thieves if he was concerned about re-selling bad meds.
“No, because you are in it for the money,” said the thief.
Nobody was ever hurt in the multi-million dollar heists, according to sources.
The heist in Connecticut was described as one of the biggest pharmaceutical heists in history. The burglars took enough drugs to fill a tractor-trailer. Most of the drugs stolen were psychiatric drugs, such as Zyprexa and Cymbalta, as well as the anti-clotting drug Effient and the injectable cancer drugs Gemzar and Alimta.