Kansas City, Mo. — A Kansas City drug wholesaler received six shipments of bogus medications from sellers of fake prescription drugs, according to an indictment unsealed this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Albers Medical Inc., which voluntarily recalled thousands of bottles of fake Lipitor earlier this year, says it was a victim of the Florida scheme, which involved Lipitor and drugs to treat cancer, AIDS and other ailments.
The 95-page indictment, returned by a Fort Lauderdale grand jury last week and unsealed Monday, charged 18 South Florida residents with selling to the wholesale market adulterated, relabeled, stolen, illegally imported and improperly stored drugs.
The alleged leader, Michael A. Carlow, some of his relatives and other alleged participants were arrested Monday.
A second indictment accused Jose Grillo of relabeling Epogen, a drug used to treat cancer and AIDS, to make it appear 20 times stronger than its actual potency so that he could sell it for more money. Grillo was not charged as part of the Carlow ring.
Florida Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist said the accused individuals had "participated in some of the most heinous acts possible."
"Our most ill citizens -- cancer and AIDS patients -- depend on these drugs for their very lives," Crist said in a written statement.
The accused individuals were indicted on a variety of charges, including racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, dealing in stolen property and other crimes related to prescription drug fraud.
The indictment said Albers received shipments of phony drugs on five occasions from various Florida companies, including two alleged shell operations associated with the defendants. On a sixth occasion, the indictment said, Albers received a shipment from one of the defendants. And on a seventh occasion, it says, a company in Florida received the drugs from Albers.
The indictment does not specify which drugs Albers received or shipped, or in what quantities.
"Albers distributes hundreds of drugs, and at one point or another in its history, it distributed some of the drugs mentioned in the indictment," said Laurie Roberts, a spokeswoman for Albers. "But we have no way of knowing what it's referring to. We're waiting for additional information."
After the Food and Drug Administration uncovered three batches of fake Lipitor, Albers issued separate recalls in May and June of more than 100,000 bottles. The company agreed to stop distributing the product after it and Med-Pro Inc. of Lexington, Neb., a company that repackages drugs for Albers, were sued in Kansas City by Pfizer Inc., Lipitor's manufacturer.
Albers and Med-Pro have said they were cooperating with Pfizer and the FDA, which are trying to find the source of the phony pills. The pills are virtually indistinguishable in appearance from the real thing.
Lipitor is the most widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drug in the United States, with 18 million users. Annual worldwide sales of the drug total more than $9 billion.
Roberts said Albers had never distributed Lipitor until it was approached by a broker who offered to sell it to the company at a discount.
"It's too expensive for Albers," Roberts said. "But a broker offered it at a reduced price. He said a company that had bought it in bulk had bought too much and needed to unload the surplus."
Albers is a small operation, with four full-time employees. The 27-year-old company buys from and sells to wholesalers.
Roberts said the company had not been asked to testify in the Florida investigation, and she said she assumed the information in the indictment came from material Albers turned over to the FDA in May.
Albers "gave them its entire database beginning with the first recall" of the fake Lipitor, Roberts said.
"If there's a shadow cast over Albers," she said, "I think it's clear now from the indictment that it was a victim. No charges were filed against them."
Officials with the FDA, which has been on a campaign against counterfeit drugs, could not be reached for comment.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Tuesday that agents arrested Carlow and his wife, an officer in at least one of the alleged shell companies, at their $1.3 million Weston, Fla., home. Also arrested were his mother-in-law and a brother-in-law.