Sometime in the early morning Sunday, thieves scaled the walls of the Eli Lilly warehouse on Freshwater Boulevard.
As a light rain fell, they cut a hole in the roof of the 70,000-square-foot building and slid down ropes to get inside.
They disabled the building's alarm system, and police believe they loaded several dozen pallets of prescription drugs — worth $75 million — into at least one truck parked at the rear of the building, and drove away.
The heist wasn't discovered until the afternoon, when an employee went to work.
The theft at the Eli Lilly & Co. warehouse, one of three distribution centers in the nation for the international pharmaceutical firm, was well-planned and "extremely substantial," Police Chief Carl Sferrazza said.
Edward Sagebiel, a spokesman for Eli Lilly, said Tuesday that the theft "certainly has the appearance of a sophisticated, well-planned criminal action."
"We are conducting a full investigation and working with authorities ... with the intention of recovering the products," Sagebiel said.
The burglars were sophisticated, the police chief said. He said he didn't know what type of drugs or how many pallets were taken, but it was enough to fill at least one tractor-trailer.
"I can tell you it was many, many pallets," he said Tuesday morning. "They might have spent at least a couple of hours unloading all these drugs."
Sferrazza said that police were reviewing surveillance cameras and interviewing employees at the facility to gather evidence. Detectives will look for common crimes in other parts of the country or the state.
Two Enfield detectives have been assigned to the case full time, and the FBI will be meeting with Enfield police today.
"We're putting a lot of time and a lot of effort into this," Sferrazza said. "The burglary is unique from a lot of perspectives."
"This will turn out to be, unfortunately, the largest theft that our town has ever experienced," he said.
Sagebiel said that the drugs stored at the facility include Prozac, Cymbalta and Zyprexa, but that he could not say which drugs were taken. No narcotics or other painkillers were stored at the warehouse, he said.
He described the take as "several dozen pallets of products that range across our portfolio."
"It's hard for us to speculate on the intent, but we know that there is a marketplace out there on pharmaceuticals," he said.
Police were dispatched to the warehouse Sunday about 1:50 p.m., when the theft was discovered, according to a police report. A state police dog was called in to search for suspects, but none was found.
Sagebiel said that corporate security officials were at the site, and that any necessary security improvements would be made.
The Enfield site is Eli Lilly's East Coast distribution facility. The company is based in Indianapolis.
Other pharmaceutical warehouses have been hit with similar burglaries in recent years, but experts said that the value of the Eli Lilly heist far eclipsed any other thefts they had tracked of prescription drugs. The thieves could easily net $20 million to $25 million, said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor who studies the health care industry.
Experts said that 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 that 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 was unlikely that 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 health."
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 were usually stolen from trucks or cargo containers — there were a few dozen such thefts last year — although Burges said that warehouse break-ins were on the rise as thieves became 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.
An Associated Press report is included in this story.Copyright © 2015, CT Now