Amed and Amaury Villa walk across the Enfield warehouse parking lot. They peer into its front entrance and then through a rear door by a loading dock. As expected, they don’t see any security guards.
It’s almost 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 13, 2010. The men, who are brothers, grab a ladder that an accomplice had dropped off at the warehouse about an hour earlier. The edges of a nor’easter hitting the region lash them with wind and rain, but it doesn’t matter — it’s go time.
Amed is 6 feet tall and a bit over 200 pounds with brown eyes and a crop of salt-and-pepper hair. He’s in his mid-40s but keeps pace with his brother, nine years his junior, as they climb the ladder to the roof. Amed is a security-systems expert and selects a spot on the roof that he guesses, or somehow knows, is vulnerable. Using tools purchased the day before, they saw into the roof, carving out a sizable hole. After fastening ropes to the roof, they lower themselves into the warehouse. Avoiding a variety of security sensors with evident skill — and, some would later argue, uncanny knowledge of the security-system layout — they disable the warehouse’s alarm system.
Two other men, Yosmany Nunez, aka “El Gato” (“The Cat”), and Alexander Marquez, arrive. Marquez backs a leased tractor trailer into one of the warehouse’s seven loading bays — the only one not covered by a security camera. A fifth man, Rafael Lopez, who had traveled to Connecticut with Amed, is in a car nearby, told to keep an eye out for police. But his full involvement in the crime is unclear. He would later claim he was unaware of what was taking place in the warehouse.
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Using the warehouse forklift, the four men begin loading the tractor trailer with pallets filled with boxes of a product that had recently become more valuable to thieves than cash, jewels or even art — medicine. They are inside a major distribution warehouse for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The drugs on the pallets they are loading into their truck include thousands of boxes of Zyprexa, Cymbalta, Prozac and Gemzar. When sold on the black market, these medications could net millions. It’s a new type of crime for a new millennium, and they are good at it.
Working into the early-morning hours of March 14, the men load more than 40 pallets of pharmaceuticals onto the tractor trailer. By 3:40 a.m. the crew drives away.
They had just pulled off one of the largest heists in U.S. history.
This had been done by pros.
That much was evident to Det. Brian Callaghan of the Enfield Police Department. It was March 14, the day after the burglary at the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical supply warehouse in Enfield. Callaghan, the lead detective on the case, didn’t know exactly what or how much had been taken, but he could plainly see the gaping hole in the roof through which the thieves had accessed the building. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes’ power of deduction to tell this was no ordinary theft.
“It was clear that it was probably something that was worked out ahead of time and not just a random burglary,” he says in an interview, 10 years after the brazen crime was committed.
The warehouse itself was as nondescript as they come: an unmarked gray building in a quiet section of town. Even members of the Enfield Police Department didn’t know what was stored in it. “I had seen the building hundreds and hundreds of times, but had no idea what its contents were,” says Lt. Willie Pedemonti, who supervised the investigation and is now Enfield’s detective division commander.
As for Callaghan, he was only vaguely familiar with the place. He knew it was associated with Eli Lilly but didn’t realize it was one of the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant’s three major distribution centers. He also didn’t know that, over the past decade, soaring pharmaceutical prices and sometimes lax security had made pharmaceutical warehouses like this increasingly attractive targets to thieves.
The burglary he was now investigating was the largest score in an era later dubbed the “golden age of pharmaceutical thefts,” a period in the 2000s when pharma heists became more lucrative than bank robberies — far more lucrative. A year earlier in 2009, a total of $200 million in pharmaceuticals had been stolen in dozens of burglaries, more than four times what had been taken that year from banks.
Eli Lilly estimated that $90 million worth of medicines had been stolen from its Enfield facility. That number would be disputed and was ultimately lowered to $60 million. Even so, it is the largest pharmaceutical heist in U.S. history and one of the largest of any kind. It was almost three times the size of the real-life Lufthansa heist at the heart of the film Goodfellas, in which mobsters made off with more than $5 million (about $23 million in today’s dollars) from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1978. It is also the largest heist in Connecticut history, dwarfing the Águila Blanca theft of a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford in 1983 in which Puerto Rican nationalists stole $7 million to fund Los Macheteros (“The Machete Wielders”), a guerrilla group seeking Puerto Rican independence from the U.S.
Enfield investigators say they didn’t get caught up in thinking about the value of what was stolen. “We treated it like every other burglary down to its simple core,” Pedemonti says.
Callaghan adds, “We just started like we do with any burglary investigation, which is collecting the evidence, following the leads where they take you.” Though Callaghan was the lead investigator, he stressed that it was a team effort and all 10 Enfield detectives worked the case at various points.
On the warehouse floor, the thieves had left tools and water bottles that they appeared to have used. Enfield detectives carefully gathered that evidence. They also interviewed the few full-time employees at the warehouse as well as subcontractors who regularly worked there. All employees and regular subcontractors were “pretty quickly ruled out,” Callaghan says.
This job had not been done by locals.
Key characters on both sides of the law involved in the Eli Lilly warehouse theft and investigation:
Enfield detectives consulted with other police departments and state agencies for tips on similar crimes. “We got some different leads — some that panned out, some that didn’t,” Callaghan recalls. They were given the name of a cargo-theft ring out of Lynn, Massachusetts, called the Lynn Breakers, that had accessed warehouses through the roof. But that turned out to be a dead end.
Because of the size of the crime and because the cargo thieves had likely crossed state lines, the FBI began assisting the Enfield detectives. Special Agent Damian Platosh supervised the investigation of the theft from the FBI’s New Haven Division. A native of Newington and a veteran agent, Platosh had never seen a case where thieves had accessed a building through the roof “other than on TV on Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
As spectacular as the crime was, Platosh knew that tracking down the culprits was vital. The FBI was in communication with the federal Food and Drug Administration, where officials worried that, if the stolen drugs were sold on the black market, they could be dangerous. Some medications lose their efficacy over time, others need to be stored at the proper temperature and humidity. Platosh says there was a public health concern to solving the crime quickly and making sure the stolen drugs were not sold.
Before long, analysis of the DNA on one of the water bottles came back. There was a match. The DNA was from a Florida man who had been arrested in the early 2000s in connection with a series of small thefts. His name was Amed Villa.
Amed Villa was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1965. According to statements Amed made to investigators, which are contained in court documents viewed for this story, he lived an eventful life. Amed said his father was chief of police in Havana. Amed grew up in relative luxury in a large, two-story house, where he says the family wanted for nothing.
After mandatory military service for three years, Amed spent several years working in the kitchen at his father’s police station. He seems to have wanted something more out of life. In 1994, when Amed was 27 or 28, he and three friends built a raft by hand and drifted out to sea in hopes of reaching the U.S. They floated for a week. They had no food or possessions, and at times Amed says he could feel sharks bumping against the raft. They were ultimately picked up by a Philippine ship. When the ship docked in the Port of Miami, because they were Cubans, they were permitted to stay in the U.S.
Years later, when asked by investigators why he came to the U.S., Amed’s answer was simply, “rock music.” He told them the music “filled my mind” and made him want to travel here.
In the land of rock ’n’ roll, he settled in Miami. Eventually he found work as a handyman and independent contractor installing garage doors and alarm systems. But like the outlaws sometimes glorified in the music Villa loved, he had run-ins with the law. In 1999, when he was 33, he and another man were caught by police near a construction site with $12,000 worth of stolen tools. Over the next few years he was caught and charged in similar incidents and served 6 months in prison in 2002.
After 2002, Amed claimed to have lived a law-abiding life for some years. But according to court documents filed in 2016 by Amed’s lawyer, beginning in 2008 Amed felt he needed more money to support his family (he has three children and his youngest son has learning disabilities). Amed’s younger brother Amaury, who had followed him to the U.S., was already involved in warehouse thefts, the documents say. Amaury had intel on warehouse alarm systems and a list of drivers he used as fences. Amed began working with his brother; his specialty was disabling the same type of alarm systems he once installed. In 2009 Amed met a man named Yosmany Nunez at a Miami restaurant they both frequented. The man was known on the street as “El Gato.” Amed and his brother began to work with him. It proved a lucrative partnership.
Unlike La Cosa Nostra, the Cuban mob is less centralized and more of a loose association of operators who participate in crimes as a “side hustle.”
In addition to the water bottle linking Amed Villa to the crime scene, investigators in Connecticut were making progress in other ways. They got an anonymous tip that the people involved had Cuban names and one of them went by the street name “El Gato.” Suspecting the Cuban mob was involved, the FBI began to coordinate the investigation with experts in cargo theft at the FBI’s Miami division, which has a cargo-theft task force.
Prior to this case, “I knew nothing about the Cuban mob,” Agent Platosh says. “I came to learn that it’s not like La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob.” He says it’s less centralized, and more of a loose association of operators who participate in crimes as a “side hustle.” If someone is planning a theft, they might say “I need an alarm guy, or a driver, or a packer. Now I need a couple of guys.”
The tools left at the warehouse provided another lead. “They all seemed to be Husky brand which is proprietary to Home Depot,” Callaghan says. When they contacted Home Depot, the company ran the combination of tools through their system. “There was only one purchase of that combination of tools and it was in Flushing, New York, the day before the burglary. Then we got video of that, and started linking some plates.”
Detectives also began trying to better track the movements of the potential perpetrators before the crime by looking at hotel registries in the area. Members of the FBI’s cargo-theft task force advised the Enfield detectives “that a lot of cargo-theft organizations will use lower-end motels, kind of cheaper motels,” Callaghan recalls.
Finding the hotels where the thieves stayed required old-school, shoe-leather detective work. “The whole detective bureau was out there going essentially lobby to lobby up and down I-91,” Callaghan says. They would ask to see the registry at a hotel and then check likely dates against the initial names of the thieves they had gathered. They searched the cheaper hotels but couldn’t find mention of the thieves. They started searching more expensive conference centers and found they had stayed at Hyatt Summerfield Suites in Windsor and the Hilton Garden Inn in Springfield, Massachusetts. The thieves either registered under their own names or used credit cards with their names to pay for their rooms.
Investigators also discovered that Amaury Villa and Yosmany Nunez had made a scouting trip to Enfield in early January, two months before the burglary. During that trip one of the men was caught on surveillance video looking into the front door of the Eli Lilly warehouse. Nunez also made a separate scouting trip to Connecticut at the end of January.
In addition to placing Amed, Amaury, Nunez and their accomplices in Connecticut, investigators learned that this had not been their first major warehouse burglary.
It is not hyperbole to say the Villa brothers and their team were some of the most effective thieves in U.S. history. Between 2009 and 2011, from their base in the Miami area, they conducted a string of burglaries that garnered nearly $100 million in merchandise and baffled authorities, at least initially.
In 2009 they stole $13.3 million in pharmaceuticals from the GlaxoSmithKline warehouse in Virginia. In 2010 they took more than $8 million in cigarettes and a cargo trailer from an Illinois warehouse. In 2011 they stole $7.8 million in cellphones and tablets from a Florida warehouse, and more than $1.5 million in cigarettes from a Kentucky warehouse in 2011. The thieves specialized in accessing warehouses through the roof and disabling alarm systems.
On paper, at least, their biggest success came that night a decade ago in Enfield. But the $60 million they had taken in pharmaceuticals would prove difficult to fence, and the mistakes they made in Connecticut would come back to haunt them.
The Eli Lilly pharmaceutical heist is the largest in Connecticut’s history, but the state has witnessed or been tied to other high-value and u…
In the early-morning hours of March 14, 2010, after loading the pallets filled with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of pharmaceuticals, the men split up. Alexander Marquez drove the tractor trailer to Miami. The others traveled to Miami through separate flights or by car.
On March 16, the Villa brothers, Nunez and Marquez met and unloaded the pharmaceuticals into public storage facilities in the Miami area. They had a great deal of merchandise to fence, but the story was already being picked up in national news outlets. They realized the drugs were too hot to sell and waited several months, continuing to steal from other warehouses in the interim. They didn’t realize investigators had some of their names and were closing in.
Later that year, in August, the U.S. Customs Service intercepted a FedEx package addressed to a business associated with Rickenbacker Marina, where the thieves were known to hang out. The package was from the Dominican Republic and contained more than 2,000 counterfeit labels for the pharmaceuticals stolen from Eli Lilly. Investigators knew they were getting ready to sell the drugs and put the word out to their informants in the area.
In 2011, Amaury Villa met with two Florida men who were in contact with an overseas buyer supposedly interested in purchasing the stolen drugs. That buyer turned out to be a confidential source for the FBI. Authorities were led to where the pharmaceuticals were sold and put the men under surveillance.
In May 2012, Amaury and Amed Villa were arrested. Arrests of the others involved in the Eli Lilly theft took place two years later. At the same time, dozens of others in Florida and New Jersey were arrested as part of a larger investigation into a ring of black-market pharmaceutical sales.
Confronted with overwhelming physical and visual evidence against them, the men who stole from the Eli Lilly warehouse all eventually pleaded guilty. But the legal drama surrounding the case was far from over.
Some suspected the job was done with some type of inside knowledge. How, for instance, had a group of Florida men with no obvious Connecticut ties known about a nondescript warehouse in Enfield?
New Haven-based attorney Jonathan J. Einhorn represented Amed. He says the Florida man was kind and family oriented. “He was very polite, always, and very mild mannered.” According to court documents, Amed called his young son every day from prison, expressed remorse for his actions and said he did not drink alcohol.
Einhorn argued that Eli Lilly had significantly overstated the value of the stolen pharmaceuticals. (Eli Lilly did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this story.) However, Einhorn’s main legal strategy was to consolidate the charges against Amed in various states into Connecticut.
Amed was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2016, but had already been imprisoned since 2012. Amaury Villa, who was tried separately for his thefts in multiple states, received multiple sentences and more than 18 years jail time. Nunez received six years and Marquez got a year. Lopez, who had not been present in the warehouse but was in a car nearby, and who apparently never sought to profit from the crime, was given two years of probation with home confinement for six months.
Questions remained about the case, however. Some suspected it was done with some type of inside knowledge. How, for instance, had a group of Florida men with no obvious Connecticut ties known about a nondescript warehouse in Enfield? Investigators, both at the FBI and in Enfield, say they never uncovered evidence that the thieves had inside information.
Platosh says there were plausible ways the thieves could have learned the location of the warehouse. “By speaking to other truck drivers, or analyzing the symbols written on the sides of 18-wheelers,” he says. “The truck-driving community is a bit of a small pond. It is plausible the Florida-based thieves learned of the location of the Eli Lilly Connecticut warehouse in this fashion — through this network of drivers.”
Eli Lilly’s insurer didn’t agree. That company, the National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, sued Tyco Integrated Security, which ran security for the Enfield warehouse. The suit charged that thieves had gained access online to a confidential report Tyco prepared on the Eli Lilly warehouse outlining the vulnerabilities of the facility’s security system. Investigators working for National Union noted that Tyco is located in Boca Raton, Florida, not far from where the thieves lived in the Miami area. It had been the security company in charge of the Enfield warehouse as well as several other warehouses the thieves burglarized. Mario Santana, a relative of one of the thieves, worked for Tyco as a sales manager, and the insurer unearthed evidence that password-reset requests were made from his account after he voluntarily left the company. Santana said he had no knowledge of those requests and that he wouldn’t have had access to the security report in question.
Testimony from the thieves themselves was not illuminating. Amaury gave contradictory testimony. He said it was Amed who selected the location on the roof where they would enter the Enfield warehouse and also Amed who disabled the alarm system. He said there was nothing special about the manner in which they entered the Enfield warehouse, Amed simply peered into the warehouse through the hole in the roof and followed the cables to determine where the security room was located. Amaury said multiple times that no confidential information was used in executing the burglary. However, at other times, Amaury seemed to indicate there was some insider information. He said that one of the operation’s planners, Nunez, may have had some sort of information. A transcript from court documents contains the following exchange:
Q: Did [Nunez] ever tell you that there was an insider who was going to help make this an easy burglary?
A: Supposedly, because the records of my brother’s said that there was a person that was going to give him information from the inside.
Q: Is it your understanding that [Nunez] may have spoken to your brother about how to break into this warehouse?
A: It could be.
Tyco ultimately won the trial.
Roger G. Johnston, a security expert hired by the insurance company to testify during the trial, still believes that the Villa brothers and their co-conspirators acted with inside knowledge. “It is my professional opinion that it was definitely an inside job. Not just at the Eli Lilly facility but at at least three other warehouses,” he says, noting that all the thefts “showed incredibly detailed knowledge of the layout of the warehouse.” He adds that to be able to bypass the security systems by making visual observations and guessing was “extremely unlikely at one warehouse, four just no way … It just was extraordinarily unlikely.”
Other security experts sided with the jury in that case and said there are ways the thieves could have gained access without inside knowledge. Amed has not made public statements regarding the insider claim, his lawyer, Einhorn, says. “It’s a mystery to this day. The insurance company thought there was an inside person there. It was never proven. My guy, to the last time I talked to him, never said it was an inside job.”
Ten years later, the heist has faded from the headlines but remains important in the world of pharmaceutical security. “Eil Lilly was kind of a wakeup call to the industry as a whole,” says Chuck Forsaith, vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance’s Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition.
In the burglary’s aftermath, industry members shared best practices through organizations like Forsaith’s coalition and also lobbied for harsher penalties of pharmaceutical thefts. In recent years, thanks to these efforts, the amount of stolen pharmaceuticals annually has sunk from hundreds of millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands, even as drug prices have remained high.
For the Connecticut agents and detectives who cracked the Eli Lilly case, it also remains memorable.
“It’s a huge credit to the detectives here at the police department — their training and their experience,” Pedemonti says. “Because of the great police work on the part of my detectives, not only did they solve this case but they also [helped] solve several other cases across the country. It all comes from collecting that water bottle, doing good police work.”
Callaghan says that it was rewarding for him to work with agents and officers from so many different agencies. He also notes that “in the end, as big as a crime as it was, it was a property crime, nobody got hurt.”
As for the culprits, several have already gotten out of jail. Amed was released from federal prison in June 2018 and now seems to be living in the Miami area. Efforts to contact him for this story were not successful. Einhorn, his lawyer, says he has declined all interview requests in the past. The two have not communicated since Amed’s trial concluded, but Einhorn still thinks about his former client. “It’s funny, I sort of think of him as probably a criminal from another time, an era when it wasn’t a bunch of kids out to pay for a drug habit, or someone robbing a bank for $16,” he says. “He was a professional in what he did. I’m not sure it should be glorified but it’s definitely a different era of criminal.”