Arrests made in $75M prescription drug heist

Suhong Wu, left, and Ernesto Romero Vidal in mugshots provided by the FBI

(CBS/AP) MIAMI - Federal prosecutors say 11 people are charged in Florida with running a major pharmaceutical theft ring that targeted warehouses and tractor-trailers around the country.

The Miami U.S. attorney's office says one theft involved an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut in 2010, considered the largest such heist in the nation. More than $75 million in various medications were stolen in that heist.

The 18-count indictment released Thursday is the culmination of what investigators are calling Operation Southern Hospitality targeting sale and distribution of stolen pharmaceuticals. All 11 of those charged are from South Florida. They are in custody and thousands of boxes of medications were recovered.

Initial court appearances for the suspects were set Thursday and Friday in Fort Lauderdale.

In the 2010 heist, the thieves broke into the Enfield warehouse of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. in March and stole enough pills to fill a tractor-trailer. The drugs were believed to be destined for the black market, perhaps overseas.

View the official indictment in pharma theft ring (PDF)

After cutting a hole in the roof of the industrial park warehouse, they lowered themselves to the floor, disabled the alarms and spent at least an hour loading pallets of antidepressants and other drugs into a vehicle at the loading dock, authorities said. The company said the stolen drugs included the antidepressants Prozac and Cymbalta and the anti-psychotic Zyprexa.

In the days after the heist, the Indianapolis-based drug maker asked the public for help in spotting the stolen pills and warned consumers to watch for tampering that might indicate products were stolen. Local police interviewed company workers and checked area hotels to try to identify suspects, but there was little word on progress of the investigation until now.

Experts have said the heist shared many traits with warehouse thefts of pharmaceuticals last year near Richmond, Va., Memphis, Tenn., and Olive Branch, Miss. Those thieves also cut through ceilings and sometimes used trapeze-style rigging to get inside and disable the main and backup alarms. In some cases, they sprayed dark paint on the lenses of security cameras; in others, they stole disks in the security recording devices.