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, 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 Kangol 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, 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."