Five goombahs sweep into a closet-like suburban pharmacy in Plantation. One locks the door. Two others snag the arms of Jason Villano, a skinny, gap-toothed 29-year-old.
The capo, Bobby, a stocky career criminal in shorts and a Kangol hat, starts. "I know everything about you. I know about your parents living down here. I know you live with your girlfriend. I could hurt you, but I don't like doing anything like that."
Then he demands pain pill prescriptions — five of them — and tugs from his pocket the business card of a Broward police lieutenant. "This belongs to my nephew. Cooperate, or tonight when you leave here, you will be pulled over and police will find Oxycontin on you. I need these scrips. So go back and fill them."
Thus began the unlikely jailhouse odyssey of Villano, now a 37-year-old Broward County dad with a background helping AIDS victims. He made no profit from drug sales, and lost both his pharmacy license and seven years of his life.
South Florida is a world leader in illicit pain medication sales. Around 85 percent of the nation's oxycodone, the drug of choice for millions, is peddled here. And less than two months after signing into law a hotly debated jihad on pill mills, Gov. Rick Scott last week set up a dog-and-pony show to declare victory. "There are good things to see," he said. "Our approach is working."
Villano's story takes us backstage in the crackdown. To collar him, cops allied themselves with a convicted rapist and a lowlife accused of more than 30 crimes, from extortion and burglary to domestic abuse, during the past three decades. The crooks got off easy. Even Villano's boss, a former Broward County Pharmacy Association president who was also convicted of selling oxycodone and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the drug sales, has returned to prominence.
Villano spent four months behind bars and two years on house arrest. He's still on probation, and his life is a mess. "The court has taken everything from me and left me in the dirt," says Villano, who lives in a modest cinder-block home with his wife and 18-month-old daughter. He can't afford a car, so he pedals around town on a beat-up Mongoose bicycle. When a judge recently continued Villano's probation, eight years after the alleged crime, he says, "I literally broke down crying."
Villano is a local kid. He grew up in Hallandale Beach and Hollywood. Both parents were elementary school teachers — mom at Citrus Grove in Miami, dad at Sterling in Broward. He graduated with honors from Davie's Nova High School in 1992 and then spent a couple of years at the University of Florida before transferring to Florida Atlantic in Boca and earning a pharmacy degree at Nova Southeastern. Chemistry and biology were his interests. "I wanted to be a doctor," he says.
After finishing his education, he interned at Walgreens and then spent a year doing a residency at an HIV clinic just west of downtown Fort Lauderdale. He also taught at Nova Southeastern and did AIDS research, once even presenting his work in Scotland.
His only run-in with the law came in 1994, when he was dropping off a girlfriend in Boynton Beach and an undercover cop named Donald Bateson tried to pull him over. Fearing a carjacking, Villano fled. Bateson claimed Villano had burglarized a car. The pharmacy student received probation. Later, Bateson was busted for burglary, and it turned out he had pinned thefts on random traffic stops. In 1999, Boynton paid Villano a $14,000 settlement and apologized. His record was clear.
Then, in March 2002, Villano's Nova professor and mentor, Seth Mahler, called. He owned a pharmacy in Hollywood and wanted to expand into Plantation, at Broward Boulevard and University Drive. The job would pay $70,000 per year, paltry for a pharmacist, according to payscale.com, but Villano was enthusiastic. Mahler was a prominent guy, president-elect of the Broward County Pharmacy Association, and the plan was sound. "I'm 28 years old, I had all this knowledge, and I wanted to do something with it... to open my own HIV-specialty pharmacy. This was a step. I would learn the business."
The store opened in June, and two months later, Villano says, Mahler called with a request. A longtime client and New Yorker named Tony needed two Xanax prescriptions filled. Mahler didn't have the drugs on hand in Hollywood. Could Villano fill the prescription?
Later that day, Tony walked into the Plantation store. "He was wearing a hat, jewelry — a stereotypical Italian from New York." He said he wanted the prescriptions not for himself but for other people. There was a conversation about fishing. No big deal. Because Mahler often worked with elderly folks, Villano figured the drugs were for them.
In the days that followed, four or five guys would accompany Tony and also request prescriptions, Villano says. The leader, Bobby, was there. The youngest one, in his late 20s, was named Robert Redford. Then there was Kevin — a big guy — and someone named Joey. "They were all tough guys from the streets," Villano says. Then one day Tony entered alone and asked to have five prescriptions filled. That was too much. "When someone walks in with five prescriptions, you don't fill them. The person is a junkie. Something like that."
Tony left but then returned with the others. That's when the shakedown began. After they locked the door and threatened Villano, he called Mahler. "Seth, you have to do something," he remembers saying. "I don't want to die working here."
Soon the group was arriving regularly, demanding eight or ten prescriptions a day. They paid in cash, stacks of it. Villano remembers receiving $10,000 in a day. "We were putting $30,000 to $50,000 per week, mostly in cash, into the pharmacy bank account.
Villano became nervous, took boxing lessons, and even obtained a concealed weapons permit, though he never bought a gun. In January, he told Mahler he was quitting. (Pay and bank records he kept indicate he received no money from the drug sales, just a regular salary.) "The next thing I know, Tony sits me down on a bench outside the store and says, "We need you here. Don't try moving, because we'll bring you back."
Villano contends he felt trapped. He couldn't go to police. He checked further and learned that Bobby's nephew worked with the Broward cops. And Tony claimed he had connections with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the FBI.
The whole thing started unraveling from there, according to public documents, court depositions, and police reports. Tony, it turns out, was Anthony DeLuca, a 63-year-old paisano who later testified he had been arrested 100 times — once for a rape that sent him to jail in Maine for one and a half years, and another time for a stolen car deal, which resulted in three years in a federal penitentiary. In 1979, he said, he had fallen off a truck and been burned by hydrochloric acid. In 2002, records show, a corpse had shown up in his Plantation apartment — cause of death: drug overdose.
Bobby was Robert Pitocchelli, whose arrest record with the FDLE is almost 20 pages long. It includes 42 arrests over 30 years in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Volusia counties. There are nine counts of burglary during the '80s , larceny and aggravated battery charges in the '90s, and drug sales and extortion in the new millennium.
The others had prodigious criminal charges too. The bizarrely named Robert Redford, for instance, had two decades of burglary, larceny, grand theft, and drug crimes.
The records didn't hinder police from wiring Pitocchelli and DeLuca with microphones and sending them into the pharmacies and offices of Mahler and Villano; another pharmacist, Julius Seiler; and Theodore Racciatti, the 74-year-old North Miami Beach doctor who had written many of the prescriptions. The police record of the tape recording describes Villano saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," when one of the men delivers a prescription. Villano sold Bobby 300 Oxycontin for $3,000 without a prescription.
After several more drug buys, Mahler, Villano, Seiler, and Racciatti were arrested and stripped of their licenses. Villano faced three charges of trafficking in Oxycodone and a single count of conspiracy.
It took three years for the men to go to trial. Faced with a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence under state laws for each count, Villano, Mahler, and Seiler took the plea offer of four months in jail and two years of house arrest. Prosecutors demanded they surrender their pharmacy licenses.
Around the same time he took the deal, Villano married a sympathetic girlfriend, Adriana. The time in jail wasn't too bad, he says, but house arrest was difficult because he couldn't earn enough to pay the $200,000 in legal bills and court costs that had built up. He sold an Oakland Park home he had inherited, but because of his criminal record, he was repeatedly turned down for work everywhere — from a Little Haiti home for the aged to Winn-Dixie, where he applied to bag groceries. Eventually, he stitched together gigs cutting lawns, assisting a photographer, and even working as a bouncer at a downtown Fort Lauderdale nightclub.
Finally, he and Adriana started a house-cleaning business and 18 months ago had a baby girl.
What happened to the others? Racciatti died in 2009. Pitocchelli, caught selling drugs, received two years of probation in a 2003 case. He went on to commit more crimes and in 2008 was convicted of extortion and sentenced to three and a half years of probation.
Mahler's case is most striking. His probation ended several months ago. Despite his criminal record, he is second vice president of the North Suburban Pharmacists of Chicagoland Association. A bio on the association's website conveniently skips his criminal problems. On a Chicago Jewish networking site, he lists his profession as "retired pharmacist," and there's a picture of him holding a large fish. He lists his cell phone number, and picked up when I dialed. "I don't have anything to say about Jason Villano," he responds. "I think we were all unfairly treated. That period of my life is finished."
Villano, of course, is bitter. It was Mahler who profited from the drug sales yet never lost his fortune. "He was like a father figure to me, but he's a sociopath," Villano says.
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In the end, the case is telling. The criminals who turned in Villano got off with minor punishment. The man who hired him and made off with the profits has reinvented himself by lying. And the governor is declaring victory while aggressively moving forward with an unproven strategy to shut down pill mills.
"There's injustice on so many levels," Villano says before biking off to a class at Florida Atlantic. "It seems like everyone is against me, and no one is on the side of the people who really need help."
Intern Margaux Herrera contributed to this report.