HARTFORD, Conn. -- In a Hollywood-style heist, thieves cut a hole in the roof of a warehouse, rappelled inside and scored one of the biggest hauls of its kind -- not diamonds, gold bullion or Old World art, but about $75 million in antidepressants and other
The pills - stolen from the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co.
in quantities big enough to fill a tractor-trailer - are believed
to be destined for the black market, perhaps overseas.
"This is like the Brink's pill heist," said Erik Gordon, a
University of Michigan business professor who studies the health
care industry. "This one will enter the folklore."
The thieves apparently scaled the brick exterior of the
warehouse in an industrial park in Enfield, a town about midway
between Hartford and Springfield, Mass., during a blustery
rainstorm before daybreak Sunday. After lowering themselves to the
floor, they disabled the alarms and spent at least an hour loading
pallets of drugs into a vehicle at the loading dock, authorities
"Just by the way it occurred, it appears that there were
several individuals involved and that it was a very well
planned-out and orchestrated operation," Enfield Police Chief Carl
Sferrazza said. "It's not your run-of-the-mill home burglary,
that's for sure."
Experts described it as one of the biggest pharmaceutical heists
Edward Sagebiel, a spokesman for Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly,
put the wholesale value of the drugs at $75 million and said they
included the antidepressants Prozac and Cymbalta and the
anti-psychotic Zyprexa. No narcotics or other painkillers were in
the warehouse, he said.
Other pharmaceutical warehouses have been hit with similar
burglaries in recent years, but experts said the value of the Eli
Lilly heist far eclipses any other prescription-drug thefts they
have tracked. The thieves could easily net $20 million to $25
million, Gordon said.
Enfield police would not say whether the building had
surveillance video or whether employees are being investigated. The
building is unmarked and unprotected by fences.
The FBI was called in.
Experts 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.
Enfield police and the FBI would not comment on whether some of
those techniques were also used in the Eli Lilly theft.
"The level of sophistication in these thefts is very high,"
said Dan Burges, director of intelligence at FreightWatch
International, a Texas-based security company. "These thieves
actively target certain products. They find out where they are,
they go there, they come looking for it. They probably were
conducting surveillance on that warehouse for days, if not weeks,
before that theft occurred."
Burges and Gordon said the thieves probably already had a buyer
lined up, possibly an online pharmacy or someone in South America
or Asia, where drug regulations are lax. Gordon said it is unlikely
the drugs would end up at a local hospital or drugstore chain.
"The people with a reputation to protect, a CVS or a Target or
a Kroger or most hospitals, they don't want to take any chances,"
he said. "It's too big a risk. You're talking about people's
However, stolen drugs have made it into the U.S. health care
system, often through Internet suppliers or crooked wholesalers.
Last June, thieves stole 129,000 vials of insulin in North
Carolina. The drugs were not properly refrigerated, and later
surfaced at a medical center in Houston. The Food and Drug
Administration said in August that some patients suffered unsafe
blood sugar levels after using them and that it had recovered just
2 percent of the stolen insulin.
"We know that any number of unscrupulous people interested in
profit find ways to convince some secondary wholesalers to put
these products back into circulation and on into pharmacies," FDA
spokesman Tom Gasparoli said in a statement.
Pharmaceuticals made up 5 percent of the thefts of commodities
in 2009 in the U.S. The average such heist was worth about $2.5
million, according to FreightWatch. Pharmaceuticals are usually
stolen from trucks or cargo containers -- there were a few dozen
such thefts last year -- though Burges said warehouse break-ins are
on the rise as thieves become more sophisticated.
"They're very creative, they're very good at what they do, and
catching them is a very difficult thing," he said.
Zyprexa and Cymbalta were Eli Lilly's two best-selling drugs
last year. Prozac was Lilly's first billion-dollar drug and the
company's top seller before it lost patent protection several years
ago. The thefts will not cause any national shortages of the
products, Sagebiel said.