Tony left but then returned with the others. That's when the shakedown began. After they locked the door and threatened Villano, Villano 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."

Jason Villano: The face of Gov. Scott's pill mill crackdown?
Chuck Strouse
Jason Villano: The face of Gov. Scott's pill mill crackdown?

Villano contends he felt trapped. He couldn't go to police. He checked further and learned that Bobby's nephew did indeed work 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 a year and a half, 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.

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.

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13 comments
Myfriendtony
Myfriendtony

Poor guy? Maybe he should have come to you with the story then? Could have caught the bad guys and bad cops. But no, he starts working out, thinks HE'S something. (what good is learning boxing going to do?) As we say where I come from "Pah-leez"

 
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