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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
DrugNet [PA]
    #6307680 - 11/28/06 03:23 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

Pushing pills
Akhil Bansal's double life puts agents in Philadelphia on the high-tech high-stakes trail of rogue online pill dealers. This eight-part series about Bansal, a Temple grad student, and his family is appearing in The Philadelphia Inquirer from Sunday, Nov. 19 through Sunday, Nov. 26.

DrugNet, Chapter 1: Global Hunt Turns Pushers Into Prey
November 19, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

A Temple grad student's double life puts agents here on the high-tech, high-stakes trail of rogue online pill dealers.

Fighting a fever with pepper cardamom tea, the graduate student raced through his homework and e-mailed a PowerPoint presentation to classmates. American business school seemed so easy. Group homework assignments. Exam review sessions. Online classes. Open-book tests!

And now, on April 18, 2005, Akhil Bansal stood on the cusp of earning an MBA and a master's in health-care finance from Temple University, golden American degrees that would catapult his career back home in India.

He smirked at the irony of that evening's twin assignments, health-care marketing and generic-drug risk management, subjects in which he had more than a passing interest.

If they only knew...

Since his arrival in Philadelphia in 2003, this studious foreigner, with his rumpled flannel shirts and cocksure demeanor, had at age 26 blossomed into a global businessman.

While classmates studied case histories and created mock businesses, Akhil made real money. He controlled offshore accounts worth $6 million. He bought four cars and a sleek five-bedroom condo in a swank suburb of New Delhi. He could fly his fiancée to London on a whim. The balance in his free student checking account stood at $401,881.

His family's business was simple. From its base in India, the company supplied Internet pharmacies on four continents. The Bansals were the guys who supplied the guys who sent that relentless spam, luring American consumers with cheap Viagra, no-prescription Ambien, next-day codeine.

Akhil oversaw the family's North American operations, shipping roughly 75,000 pills a day via UPS. In a little more than a year, the network had smuggled 11 million prescription tablets to more than 60,000 American addresses, an operation that grossed at least $8 million. These numbers did not include the steroids or the kilo shipments of the tranquilizer ketamine, a club drug called "Special K."

The family's Internet business represented a dark slice of the global economy so new, and so widespread, that national governments were still struggling to understand it, let alone police it.

Laws were vague, outdated, inconsistent. Technology - new medicines and ways to deliver them - was outpacing regulation.

Demand grew monthly. On this moonlit evening in April 2005, for example, the Bansal business had an additional six million tablets and 108 kilos of ketamine stockpiled in a cluttered garage and a warehouse in suburban Queens, N.Y.

There were risks, yes. Some clients paid slowly; some employees stole. More ominously, a valued client, one Web operator Akhil supplied, had been arrested on drug charges just days before.

Indeed, in an overseas phone call that very morning Akhil and his father, Brij Bansal, had discussed this arrest, spooked but reminding themselves again that what they were doing was legal: Both were doctors, after all, and in India most of the medicines they sold did not require a prescription.

Even so, the father sensed something wrong.

"Close all your bank accounts and transfer online," Brij told Akhil. "Keep an open ticket ready, and as soon as you smell trouble you can leave by the time they reach you."

"Yeah... . OK, Papaji."

ANJUMAN HOTEL, AGRA, INDIA

Seven thousand miles away, a thin Indian drug agent with a rust-colored goatee perched over a laptop in a sweaty hotel room not far from the Taj Mahal.

The room's thick walls and tiny windows shielded the wire man from the blare of National Highway 2, a road so frenetic even cows gave way to its traffic.

Through headphones, the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau agent listened to a replay of the Bansals' father-son call. Then the wire man listened again to confirm what he had heard: "Start taking precautions... keep an open ticket... as soon as you smell trouble..."

Across the room, his boss and his boss' boss stood next to an agent from America's DEA. The stakeout, two blocks from Brij Bansal's upscale home, was the culmination of a 13-month global dragnet. The wire man knew this bust represented his country's biggest Internet pharmacy crackdown, and its biggest case with the Americans.

With a series of synchronized sweeps coordinated from Philadelphia, Indian and U.S. agents hoped to arrest 17 people worldwide and seize bank accounts from 11 countries.

This was what the wire man had been waiting for.

Over six months on the wire, he had come to know the Bansals. Despite the time difference - when it was day here, it was night in Philadelphia - father and son spoke daily. True, they talked about the son's schooling and the father's bad heart. But mostly they talked business: supply, demand, stock, delivery, debt, profit.

The wire man had also eavesdropped on the father's calls with his New Delhi courier. Again and again, Brij reminded the courier to use phony return addresses on the packages he shipped to the United States. Several times, Brij remarked that he was paying the courier six times the going rate, a fee for which he expected loyalty and secrecy.

In a way, the wire man felt sorry for the Bansals. Except for their crimes, they were educated, productive, respected members of society. It would be sad to see them yanked from their homes in handcuffs.

That inglorious end, he believed, lay hours away.

LANCASTER, PA.

Lynn, a 35-year-old mother who had not worked since a 2000 car accident, logged on to a familiar Web site, meds-warehouse.net.

Her doctor had prescribed Ambien in the past, but he was retired now, and insurance no longer covered the sleeping medication.

She ordered 30 tabs with her credit card.

The person at meds-warehouse.net did not require a prescription, nor did he have any medical training. He didn't even understand the purpose of half the drugs he sold.

After validating Lynn's credit card, the Web site operator entered the order onto an Excel spreadsheet, one of 24 Ambien orders this day - orders from Little Rock, Ark.; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Plano, Texas; Wichita, Kan.; and Philadelphia.

The operator forwarded the spreadsheet to his suppliers, Akhil and Brij Bansal, who fulfilled more than 1,000 orders each day from their Queens warehouse, shipping them by UPS across America.

DEA OFFICES, CENTER CITY

Whenever DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden grew nervous, he would rub his forehead with his left hand. Now, as the arrest briefing began, Breeden dug deep into his brow.

Tomorrow's worldwide takedown of the Bansal network was to be monitored from this drab conference room overlooking Independence Mall.

The network supplied a rainbow of pills - painkillers, sleep aids, sedatives, stimulants, steroids, psychotropics, erectile-dysfunction medication. Thousands of orders a day.

Who knew who made this stuff, where it came from, what was in it? The public health risk that Internet drugs posed, Breeden thought, was incalculable.

Yet no one in DEA had ever worked a major global online pharmacy investigation. He knew it was a career case, one colleagues would always link to his name. Breeden? Yeah, he's the guy who supervised the Internet pill case out of Philly.

To take down the network, agents were using a number of weapons - surveillance, undercover buys, cell-tower pings, trash pulls, e-mail wiretaps, bank subpoenas, immigration reports, even provisions of the Patriot Act. Agents here had flown to Australia, Costa Rica and India.

As Breeden listened to the arrest briefing, he thought about everything that could go wrong.

Would foreign banks and governments cooperate? Or would they protect the targets, allowing Akhil and others to flee with millions? Would magistrates in several states authorize search warrants in time? Would the bad guys be there when agents raided their homes at dawn? Had any of them gotten wind of the premature arrest in New York? Did Akhil, as he implied in e-mails, really have a mole inside U.S. Customs?

Had they overlooked anything?

James Kasson, the top DEA official in Philadelphia, a weightlifter with a New York accent, began with a pep talk. What they were doing, he reminded the agents, was important, cutting-edge.

"The administrator is personally watching," Kasson said, citing Karen Tandy, DEA's top official in Washington.

Congress was pressuring Tandy to do something about illegal online pharmacies. She recognized the emerging public health threat. After all, any kid with a credit card and Internet access could order highly addictive drugs from the safety of home. But so far, DEA had struggled to take down the rogue pharmacies.

Tandy was counting on the Bansal case to make a splash.

In D.C., there was talk that the attorney general himself would announce the bust. In New York, DEA agents were going to let ABC News go along on the raids. In Philadelphia, U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan prepped for his news conference.

As the briefing broke up, the FBI agent on the case, Jason Huff, a bright young techie, approached the lead DEA agent, Eric Russ, a no-nonsense former Marine. Huff proposed an overnight stakeout of Akhil's Roxborough apartment, in case he and his roommate tried to flee.

Russ liked Huff, but Russ had a lot to coordinate, too much to accomplish before morning, and a stakeout wasn't part of the plan. He doubted anyone would run. These targets were computer nerds, not street thugs. If they hadn't detected surveillance trailing them for the last nine months, they weren't likely to be spooked at the eleventh hour.

Huff offered to have his FBI squad sit on the Roxborough apartment. Russ wasn't in the mood to argue. He thought, Knock yourself out, bud. I'm going home. I've got to be back here at 5 a.m. to coordinate arrests in five countries.

In the meantime, Kasson walked over to chat with Breeden, the nervous supervisor.

Kasson could see Breeden was tense. He tried some DEA humor.

"All right, Breeden," he said. "It's all on your shoulders now."

Wonderful, Breeden thought, knowing the boss was half-joking. He rubbed his forehead.

NEW DELHI

The deputy director of investigations for India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) was senior enough to rate an air-conditioner in his office. Yet Ahmad Payam Siddiqui was sweating anyway.

As the top official involved in the country's first Internet investigation, he knew the next 24 hours were vital.

For six months, Siddiqui had kept the Bansal case a closely guarded secret. Leaks and corruption were endemic in the Indian government, and Siddiqui feared someone would tip the targets in Agra or Delhi.

Akhil Bansal's father, Brij, was wealthy. If he knew what was coming, he might flee to nearby Nepal.

On the eve of the arrests, Siddiqui had had no choice but to let dozens of officials know about the case - agents, their superiors, local police. Who knew whom they might tell?

Siddiqui felt helpless. So much was at stake. The case. His reputation. The reputation of NCB. Of India.

If we screw this up, he thought, the Americans will think we are incompetent.

DUNKIN' DONUTS, NORTHEAST PHILA.

Prosecutor Barbara Cohan handed the search warrants to the magistrate judge on call.

It was well past 9 p.m.

Cohan ordered a large black coffee and an egg-and-bacon bagel, her first meal since breakfast, her first chance to exhale.

While the judge reviewed the paperwork, Cohan joined two cops at another table. They toasted her silently, clicking styrofoam. This was her last case as a federal prosecutor, probably the last time she would meet a magistrate after hours to get warrants approved. After 24 years - a career that included the successful prosecution of a KGB spy - Cohan was leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office.

That her last case was so important, so fascinating, so challenging, gave Cohan special satisfaction. Akhil's business acumen both impressed and repulsed her.

The prosecutor bit into the bagel, sipped some coffee. She looked up at Lower Merion Police Officer Christine Konieczny.

"Do you think he has any idea what's about to happen to him?"

"If he did -" Konieczny said.

"He'd run," Cohan said.

Everyone laughed.

They talked about that sweet moment - hours away - when agents would cuff Akhil.

Cohan said, "Wouldn't you just love to see the look on his face?"

ROXBOROUGH

About 10 p.m., Akhil received a call from India.

It was his mom, worried about his dad. Brij had a serious heart ailment, and twice since January Akhil had flown home to take him to specialists. Now Brij's hands and feet were swelling, a sign his heart wasn't pumping properly. Though he was a doctor, Brij was a stubborn patient.

Akhil tried to calm his mother. He promised to see her soon.

He hung up and sat down.

The timing couldn't be worse: He was days away from buying a $400,000 medical transcription business; his best friend and his roommate were in South Carolina to close the deal. He was feuding with his sister over control of their father's business. And, in 12 days, he had final exams at Temple.

Then there was that odd New York situation. When his client, a New York Web site operator, had failed to respond for a few days, Akhil had Googled the man's name. The headlines shook him: "Internet Drug Ring Smashed," "Cyber Gangs Charged."

Akhil recalled his father's warning: Keep an open ticket... leave...

Akhil got online and checked his favorite airline, Virgin Atlantic. A flight was leaving Newark, N.J., for London in nine hours. He booked it and pulled out his Bank of America debit card.

The card was rejected.

Akhil tried again. Rejected again. He tried another card. It didn't work, either. He tried an Air Canada flight from Toronto, leaving in 19 hours. No luck.

How could the bank screw up this badly? He had $401,881 in that account!

He logged on to bankofamerica.com. The account showed a negative balance.

He dialed the bank's 800 number. A woman who answered told him to call a Philadelphia number in the morning. She said, "Legal restrictions have been placed on the accounts."

Legal restrictions?

Legal restrictions. An arrested customer. A warning from his father.

Akhil hunted through his wallet and found a credit card that worked. He bought two tickets home - one departing Toronto on Air Canada and one departing Newark on Virgin Atlantic. Booking two flights gave him a backup, and a decoy.

Then Akhil called a classmate. He needed a big favor; there was trouble. Could the friend come over?

Akhil explained that he needed to leave for Toronto right away but didn't want to use his own car. Akhil's friend could sleep in the passenger seat while Akhil drove all night. To cross the border, Akhil reserved a rental car in Detroit, a Ford Escape.

At 1:40 a.m., Akhil emerged from his apartment into the crisp night air. He rolled his canvas suitcase to his friend's SUV and put his laptop in the backseat. He pocketed a handful of the pick-me-up Provigil, his drug of choice.

Then Akhil got behind the wheel and headed west.

BREEDEN'S HOME, DOWNINGTOWN

The DEA supervisor's cell phone woke him from a deep sleep at 1:42 a.m. He groped for the phone, but the call slipped to voicemail.

As Breeden fumbled to retrieve the message, the phone rang again. It was a DEA agent on the other side of the world.

The guy in India got right to it: There was a new wiretap from Brij's phone. It looked like Akhil planned to flee his Philadelphia apartment and probably leave the country. In fact, he might already be gone.

"Jeff," the agent said, "we need to get out there."


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307690 - 11/28/06 03:28 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 2: Origins
November 20, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Suspicious packages at the airport lead a DEA agent to Chester. A son leaves India - but not his family's pill business.


PHILA. INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

It all began on a frigid February 2004 morning - back when Akhil Bansal still viewed shipping pills as a chore for his father, back when DEA agents didn't even have Internet access at their desks.

At the airport, a squat Airborne Express supervisor noticed three suspicious packages on the green conveyer belt and, because they lacked manifests, broke them open.

Inside the first, he found 120 tablets of generic Valium. Inside the others, he found more Valium and knockoff Viagra.

Anonymous packaging. No dosage directions. No evidence of a prescription.

The supervisor called police.

NEAR UPPER CHICHESTER

Carlos Aquino, tired from a three-day training session in Quantico, Va., pulled into the driveway of his canary-yellow suburban home. He planned to take the rest of the day off as comp time, maybe tinker with his fishing boat, an 18-foot Manatee.

The DEA investigator, his once-trim body softened by desk work and agency meetings, hauled his suitcase inside.

He had found the seminar interesting enough - DEA had established a new priority, targeting Internet pharmacies. But Carlos had left the session hoping he never got such a case. It looked complicated, a pain.

"Little cases, little headaches," he'd say. "Big cases, big headaches."

Carlos had had enough big cases. He'd spent 24 years as a Philly cop, nine of them assigned to a DEA task force, busting crackheads, kicking down doors, recovering kilos of dope, nearly getting himself killed working undercover against Jamaican thugs. He could be a hard-ass, but his warm smile revealed an empathetic nature.

Now, at 56, Carlos worked for the DEA division that regulated pharmaceuticals. He carried a clipboard instead of a gun, pursuing a softer kind of criminal, often doctors and pharmacists who violated prescription laws. As bad guys went, they made easy targets. He would say, "Doc, whatcha been doing, huh?" Usually, the doctor would confess on the spot, case closed.

Carlos found the work safe, satisfying, simple - a solid way, he thought, for a Puerto Rican raised in South Philadelphia to end a fine career as a narc.

After lunch on the day he returned from Quantico, his Nextel cell phone chirped. It was Bill Knightly, a state trooper Carlos knew from an old DEA task force. Salt-and-pepper crewcut, medium build. A good guy.

"Carlos, you know anything about Internet pharmacies?"

"Yeah, a little..."

Knightly briefed him: 119 packages seized at Airborne Express at the airport. Generic Valium and Viagra. In a month's time, the same shipping company, Abbas Enterprises in Chester, had sent 4,100 similar packages.

Here's the fun part, Knightly said: Two different men had delivered the Abbas packages, each signing "Leroy Jones."

Leroy Jones No. 1 was a hulking, bald African American.

Leroy Jones No. 2 was a flabby Indian fellow with a comb-over.

Carlos laughed.

Knightly continued: The latest shipment arrived without a manifest, giving Airborne the legal right to open the packages. The depot supervisor found scores of generic Valium and Viagra inside.

Knightly and local police planned to confront the shipper. Was DEA interested? Did Carlos want to go along?

Not really, Carlos thought. The case sounded complicated, probably insignificant.

On the other hand, Carlos valued the cop-to-cop network he had built over 30 years. He liked being a fed locals could work with. As a Philadelphia cop, he had hated it whenever the feds whizzed on stuff he brought them. When Carlos moved to DEA, he'd vowed never to be so rude, so turf-conscious.

"Dude," he told the trooper, "I'm in."

ROXBOROUGH

Akhil scanned an e-mail from his father and saved it.

Helping his father's business hadn't been part of his plan. Akhil had come to Philadelphia to earn an MBA and a master's in health-care finance. Classes kept him busy enough; his life in a dim Henry Avenue apartment - mattress on the floor, food stacked haphazardly in the kitchen - was a testament to that.

But as an only son, even at 25, Akhil had a duty to do whatever his father wished. Helping his dad ship Indian-made knockoff pills from inside the United States took only an hour or two a day.

Besides, when Akhil was young, Brij had given him whatever he desired - the latest computers, cell phones, stereo, CDs - things available to only 2 percent of Indians his age.

In return, Brij, a successful doctor, had demanded academic excellence in high school. "Get top marks and I will buy you a car," he used to say. "Get good marks and I will buy you a bicycle. Get low marks and I will buy you a taxi, and you will drive it for the rest of your life."

Late many nights, Akhil cloistered himself in his room with books, the air-conditioning and stereo turned up high. Outside, 10-foot walls separated him from Agra's poverty and chaos, a life he hoped to avoid.

"A very responsible boy," his high school report card said. "Artistic, capable."

Akhil excelled at St. Paul's Church School, where students wore stiff navy blazers and striped ties and could be caned for an incorrect answer. He scored best-in-class on a national standardized test, and when he turned 16, Brij bought him a new, Korean-made sedan.

Akhil entered medical college in Gwalior and took residence in a dorm, to his father's horror. No son of his would live among commoners. Brij got Akhil a proper apartment and installed a servant.

After graduation, Akhil worked for a few hospitals, an expected step before joining his father's clinics. He grooved in Delhi's party scene with fellow doctors, assumed comic postures in group pictures, and grew a goatee. He used "Dr." on credit cards and signed up for the e-mail address [Email]drakhil@hotmail.com.[/Email]

Then he threw everyone a curveball: He was going to graduate school in America.

With his grades, he believed he could go anywhere. His research revealed that Temple University offered both the MBA and health-care diplomas he sought.

His parents were wary. Philadelphia was halfway around the world.

"Just stay," Brij said. Akhil's mother, Kamlesh, laughed, "Who will cook for you?" The joke masked his parents' biggest fear - that some white American woman would fancy Akhil's piercing eyes and thick hair, and he would never return. Brij and Kamlesh devised plans to keep their son in India.

First, to renovate his room in Agra, they spent $16,000 - more money than most Indians spend for a house.

When that didn't work, they found him an attractive Indian woman to marry, of the same business-class caste, the Baniya. He rejected her, too.

"I'll not let you go away from me," Brij said. "How much can you earn if you go? $5,000 a month? I'll give you $6,000 a month to stay with me."

"Papaji," Akhil said. "Please understand. I want to get these degrees so someday I will be in a position to offer my son a job for $6,000 a month."

When Akhil left for Temple, Brij was so distraught he didn't go to the airport.

And yet, within six months, father and son found themselves working together again - Brij in India, Akhil in Philadelphia.

By February 2004, business had become so good, they had hired some help, a guy with an account at Airborne Express.

WASHINGTON

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy joined the nation's top narcotics officials inside the National Press Club, in a white banquet room overlooking the top of the East Wing of the White House. They were there to announce the government's first strategy to combat online pharmacies.

"What we have seen," Tandy told reporters, "is the incredible path of misery and wake of family destruction and addiction left by the illegal use of prescription drugs.

"Let me be clear: When Internet pharmacies serve legitimate patients receiving care under accepted medical standards, we welcome those Internet sales. When they are merely crime impersonating medicine, we will put them out of business."

A CNN reporter asked, "Why is it not a very simple matter for DEA to identify the individuals that are spamming offers for Vicodin, Xanax... and shut them down tomorrow?"

Because, Tandy said, "there are hundreds of thousands of sites" online, virtually all cloaking their identities.

"You don't know where to find them. They could shut down one day and pop up under a new name the next."

JAIPUR, INDIA

Akhil's sister, Julie, was in charge of marketing, or spam.

Sir,

We wish to introduce ourselves as wholesale distributor and supplier of generic and branded medicines manufactured by top multinational pharmaceuticals companies of India. We can drop ship to your customers in US 100% delivery without any customs problems.

We charge the following generic: Viagra $1; Valium, $60.00 per 100 tabs; codeine $50 per 100 tabs...

Let me know if you are interested. Thanks and regards, Julie.

A reply came the next day, from discountmedsonline.com:

Hi Julie,

What is the total delivery time frame? Will you be carrying Xanax, Ativan, Diazapam, Ambien, anytime soon? I may be very interested in your business.

Thank you.

CHESTER

To trace the suspicious Valium found at the airport, Carlos and two local officers, Chester Police Sgt. Joe Bail and Delaware County investigator Michael Boudwin, drove to a storefront at 214 Lamokin St., the return address on the package.

The storefront's owner met them there.

Richard Dabney was a bald, heavyset, 61-year-old ex-con with drug and bank robbery arrests dating back to 1969. Carlos expected Dabney to lie.

Indeed, he told them a story: A mysterious Indian he had met at a Radnor computer store had offered him $3 a package to use his Airborne account. The guy paid cash, and Dabney never asked what was inside.

"Dude," Carlos said quietly, "you're BS-ing me."

Dabney tried again. He'd met the Indian driving a cab.

Carlos gave a cold stare. "Dude, don't lie to me."

Dabney insisted the story was true.

Fine, Carlos said. Help us catch this guy. Wear a wire.

Dabney agreed.

As Carlos drove back to his Chinatown office, he called a federal prosecutor.

"Hey, it's Carlos. I've got a new one, a quick-hit indictment. A no-brainer. Interested?"

ROXBOROUGH

Akhil confronted his roommate, fellow Temple student Atul Patil.

Where was Dabney? Patil was the one who had met him in the cab and had his cell-phone number.

Akhil didn't trust Dabney. He seemed like a hustler. And his English was terrible. Akhil liked to joke that Dabney, who was African American, spoke "Ebonics."

Still, mailing pills for Brij was beginning to interfere with Akhil's studies. He needed a shipper, one who did the job and didn't ask questions.

The Bansals did not operate Web sites. They were bigger than that. They were wholesalers who fulfilled the orders American consumers sent to online pharmacies.

To circumvent U.S. customs, Brij shipped large packages of generic pills from India to Akhil in Philadelphia. Here, Akhil and Patil took up the mindless task of reshipping; while listening to B-101's soft rock, they wrote labels and stuffed packages with generic Ambien, Xanax, Viagra, Valium, codeine, morphine, steroids.

Father and son told themselves what they were doing was legal because both were doctors in India and because Brij had an Indian license to ship pharmaceuticals.

Besides, they told associates, if the authorities concluded that shipping the medicines was illegal, someone would send a warning notice. Which the Bansals would, of course, honor.

In the beginning, two or three dozen packages from India were no trouble. But by exam time, Akhil and Patil were receiving 100 packages at once. A day's shipment could contain 5,000 or 10,000 pills.

So they had found Dabney and paid him $3 a package. For fun, they tipped him with surplus Viagra.

Now Dabney had vanished. Akhil pressed Patil. What had Dabney done with their drugs?

A month passed. Then in April, Dabney called. Could they meet in Chester?

Patil said, How about the Friendly's on Ridge Avenue? It was closer.

Sure, Dabney said.

NEAR FRIENDLY'S, ROXBOROUGH

Carlos stood by as a detective flipped on the recorder:

"Today's date is 4-7-04," the detective said. "Time now is approximately 4:30. This will be a consensual intercept by Richard Dabney and two Indian males."

The feds hoped Dabney could get the Indians to admit they were selling drugs - or, better still, provide details about a larger operation, anything that might lead to the smuggler behind it all.

But when Dabney met the Indians at Friendly's, his hostile, accusatory tone implied he'd had no idea the packages contained drugs. It caught the Indians off guard, as well as the agents listening in.

"If I get caught with drugs, I got a problem," Dabney told Akhil and Patil. "... Either you or the police set me up."

Patil was skeptical. "But you knew what we were doing. We were clear on that."

"You said Viagra and antibiotics... . You guys are playing games, man."

"If we were playing games with you, we wouldn't be here."

Dabney kept talking, but agents listening by wire already knew the whole thing was a disaster. Dabney dominated the session, in a clumsy attempt to exonerate himself. The Indians said little. They seemed unsophisticated, small-timers.

Besides, the agents already had another, promising lead.

While searching Dabney's storefront in Chester, they found a letter from an angry woman in Olympia, Wash. She'd returned 50 tablets of Valium and a MasterCard receipt for $154. She'd ordered 1-milligram tabs, not 0.5-milligram.

The woman's letter was addressed to "Rx-mart.com." The FBI quickly traced the Web site. It was in Texas - and, ultimately, would lead them to Australia.

FRIENDLY'S, ROXBOROUGH

Akhil and Patil dismissed the Dabney encounter, too.

Dabney might be hoping to scam them out of more money. Well, Akhil and Patil were moving to a new system anyway.

Akhil's father had put them in touch with an Indian couple living in Queens, N.Y., David and Elizabeth Armstrong. From now on, the Armstrongs would handle the shipping.

Under the improved scheme, bulk quantities - pills by the tens of thousands - would be shipped from India to a Queens rowhouse. In the basement, newly arrived Indian immigrants would earn $6 an hour repackaging and labeling pills. Already, the Armstrongs were filling 400 orders a day.

From: Akhil Bansal

To: David Armstrong

Please send the following order and let me know the tracking number. Alprax, 2,000 tabs. Thanks. Success is a journey not a destination!

To further shield the operation, the Armstrongs had UPS pick up the packages from their home, a few miles away. The Armstrongs lived on a busy thoroughfare in Queens called Utopia Parkway.

PAGOSA SPRINGS, COLO.

On a lonely canyon road in southwestern Colorado, a deputy sheriff discovered a middle-age woman facedown outside her Chevy Tahoe, dead.

Inside her SUV, the deputy found packets of the blood-pressure medicine Catapres, pills often abused as a sedative.

The woman's husband knew she had been suicidal. But until he began to go through her things, he did not know that she had been ordering Catapres, Valium and other sedatives online.

The husband gave the receipts and envelopes to police. Some of them bore a return address in Queens - 5028 Utopia Parkway.


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
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Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307702 - 11/28/06 03:34 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 3: The PowerPoint
November 21, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

A big deal hinges on a screen test. The feds' team fans out, and can't believe what it sees.



ROXBOROUGH

"A red tie?"

Akhil Bansal scoffed. So far, he had accepted most of his roommate Atul Patil's advice for the big meeting: Put together a compelling PowerPoint presentation. Lean forward when you speak. Exaggerate your expenses, and expect the buyer to do the same. Above all, don't budge on price.

But the color of a tie? What difference could it make?

"It is a business tie - red means power," explained Patil, also an MBA student at Temple University. "You want them to take you seriously."

Akhil knotted the tie. The Manhattan meeting his father, Brij Bansal, had set up from India was too important to ignore any detail. A Costa Rican client sought an exclusive deal to buy 500,000 generic pills a month. Millions of dollars were at stake.

Akhil stepped from his apartment near Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and into the humid day. The laptop he carried contained a PowerPoint presentation of which he was very proud - one that months later would come back to haunt him.

He revved his Chevy TrailBlazer and sped toward Manhattan.

CHINATOWN

Like most law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia, DEA liked to keep cases in the family.

When other agencies got involved, DEA worried about losing control. Or sharing the credit - what feds called "the stat" - or sharing cash, cars and property seized in the arrests.

Carlos Aquino understood this.

He also understood that this case was different. DEA had never conducted an Internet pharmacy case on such a scale. It needed help.

What Carlos initially viewed as a quick-hit investigation had morphed into something much bigger, perhaps the case of his career.

Four months earlier, Carlos traced 119 packages of generic Valium and Viagra to a Chester shipper and two Indian graduate students. The shipper was an ex-con. The Indians looked like small-timers, couriers maybe.

The identity of the real targets - the Internet pharmacy kingpins - wasn't clear yet. But already a clue found at the shipper's storefront had led to something called Rx-mart.com, and from there to an Australian pharmacy with global tentacles.

So far, DEA had identified suspect Web pharmacies in Australia, India, Germany, New York, Virginia and Philadelphia. The pharmacies bought generic drugs for pennies a pill, then sold them online, without requiring a prescription, for a dollar apiece.

In a report Carlos shared with Homeland Security, he wrote: "Early investigative findings indicate... sales of $108 million annually... . This organization generates enough revenue per year to purchase a virtually unlimited supply of drugs."

In short, a public-health nightmare - people, even teens, buying highly addictive pills online, generics made cheap overseas, from who knows where.

Carlos approached DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden to begin putting together a team with other agencies. At a minimum, they would need people to trace Web sites, track bank accounts, run surveillance, supervise wiretaps, and trace passport and customs data.

Carlos sat in his DEA cubicle on Eighth Street, looked at the ferns, the Puerto Rican flag, and his Emiliano Zapata poster, and tried to think of a sexy title for the investigation, something to remind everyone who was top dog.

Carlos called it "Wronguy's Way."

N.J. TURNPIKE

Akhil drove as fast as he dared, rolling through toll plazas with E-ZPass, toward Jersey's congested north and Manhattan.

He loved driving, just as he loved computers and business.

He missed India's hectic traffic with its Darwinian rules. For a young man who hated video games - they wasted valuable computer memory - driving was the ultimate reality game.

At home, he'd snake through Agra's clogged, 16th-century roads, then break onto the highways that split farmland between Agra and Delhi, or roar east to the Himalayas and Nepal. He'd push his Korean sedan to 80 m.p.h., crank up the air, and blast his 12-CD stereo, the woofer thumping Phil Collins or a Hindi cover of "Pretty Woman."

Using the horn more than the brake, like any good Indian driver, Akhil would lean low, bouncing from lane to lane, zooming past cows, chickens, scrawny dogs, motorized rickshaws, camels carting rice, semis hauling flammable fuels, pickups stacked with wind-whipped riders. He'd fly by grimy green buses jammed with lesser castes, by women ferrying jugs on their heads, by motorbikes balancing families of four.

The sight of the Manhattan skyline with its steel canyons jolted Akhil back to the task at hand.

He did his best to act cool, but he was glad his roommate had come along. Patil was 30, five years older than Akhil, though his receding hairline made him appear older than that. Patil read books on the art of negotiation. Patil knew what he was doing.

They were on their way to meet Corrina Meherer, an executive for Interphar, a Costa Rican-based Internet pharmacy that also operated strip clubs. Interphar, looking to expand its business with the Bansals, had sent Meherer to New York to eyeball Akhil and his operation.

Akhil viewed the meeting as a different kind of test. He had built his father's U.S. business into an efficient, assembly-line operation, largely by phone and e-mail. But now he was headed for his first face-to-face business negotiation.

Could he close the deal? Or was he some young poseur playing businessman in a fantasy league?

WASHINGTON

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy had just settled into her seat at a U.S. Senate hearing, her prepared text next to the microphone, when the chairman began to rant.

"We are drowning in a flood of imported drugs of unknown composition and origin as well as potentially lethal controlled substances," Sen. Norm Coleman said. Unknown quantities of untested imported drugs too easily slip through customs, he said, mostly through regular cargo to JFK Airport.

"The federal government has been on notice about this issue for at least five years," the Minnesota Republican complained. "Many of the initiatives that we will hear about today sound eerily familiar. I am concerned by the apparent lack of progress in getting our arms around this glaring problem."

Tandy didn't disagree. "The attorney general and I have made it a priority," she said.

CHINATOWN

By midsummer, Carlos and Breeden had finished assembling a team for Operation Wronguy's Way:

DEA agent Eric Russ - age 36, a no-nonsense former Marine who had worked hard-core pot, cocaine and heroin jobs, but never a pill case. No Internet jock, he still used AOL dial-up at home. His assignment: With Carlos, supervise the case.

IRS agent Aaron Carp - age 25, eager, hungry for something significant. His assignment: Trace bank records.

FBI agent Jason Huff - age 30, a buttoned-down software engineer recently transferred from the antiterror squad. His assignment: Trace the Web addresses of pharmacies and make undercover online purchases.

Immigration Customs Enforcement agent Andrew McCrossan - age 55, paternal, a customs inspector for 23 years. His assignment: Search passport, travel and global financial databases and determine how pills are smuggled past Customs.

Lower Merion Police Officer Christine Konieczny - age 35, quick-witted, a natural leader, one of a dozen suburban Philadelphia officers on loan to DEA since 2001. Her assignment: Supervise surveillance of the Indian suspects.

At Carlos' request, Konieczny took Carp and Huff on an early undercover job. When the young crewcut agents showed up, veteran cops on the detail cringed.

The baby-faced FBI man wore a suit, making him look a lot like... an FBI agent. And the IRS kid? He sported a Hawaiian shirt and shades, like something off the set of Magnum, P.I.

Konieczny laughed.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.

Vic Devore, who ran bigcitymeds.com, studied the spam e-mail:

The medicine are the best quality available in India. We have made arrangements to ship within five to six days, in any part of USA, without any Customs problem. If you are interested...

Devore, 25, had chiseled cheekbones, white teeth, dark hair, and all-American aspirations to become a celebrity and a millionaire. He appeared well on his way, too. Devore gave traffic reports on South Florida radio and operated Web sites; some of them sold Zippo lighters, some sold generic Valium, Viagra, Darvon and Xanax.

Devore excelled at Web design, but had no medical training, not even a college degree. He didn't read the medical histories customers sometimes sent him. He didn't understand the legal disclaimers he posted. It was just marketing, words to make it all look legit.

Devore thought about the Indian's e-mail. This guy, Dr. Brij Bansal, was saying he could ship from inside the United States, which meant fewer packages seized by Customs, which meant more money.

From a Google search, Devore knew this was all illegal. Whatever. He e-mailed Bansal back.

MANHATTAN

At a hotel near Times Square, Akhil met Meherer - 34, slender, in jeans and a T-shirt.

Akhil shook hands, feeling silly in his suit. He shot Patil a screw-you stare: Red tie, eh?

Akhil opened his laptop. Time to wow her.

Akhil titled his PowerPoint presentation Evolution because it outlined the development of his pill distribution network.

Evolution had four chapters. The first three - "Stone Age," "Bronze Age" and "Iron Age" - recounted Akhil's struggle to ship pills by himself and later to use a private shipper. Results had been mixed.

Meherer listened.

Gaining confidence, Akhil moved to the final chapter, "Revolution." His was a professional operation! Pills were now shipped in bulk from India to a home in Queens. Each morning, women working there downloaded customer orders and fulfilled them via UPS. With the new system, consumers got their drugs in 48 hours.

From the last slide, Akhil read aloud questions for discussion: "Can we process more orders? Can it be done with the same efficiency? How long can we keep this going? What if anything bad happens?"

He showed her clip art of Donald Duck and dollar bills. It seemed to say: Can you believe how much we're going to make?

Meherer laughed. Akhil did, too.

PLYMOUTH MEETING, PA.

Carlos wanted to meet a customer. What kind of person ordered pills online?

Of the 119 packages seized at the airport in February, a dozen had been destined for local addresses. That gave Carlos a list of leads.

As he headed out for his first visit, background data in hand, Carlos grabbed Huff, his new FBI colleague. They headed west on the Schuylkill Expressway, past Boathouse Row, past Roxborough.

Laura, an attractive woman in her mid-20s, answered the door of a luxury townhouse. Agents knew that she and her husband had no children, and that she held a six-figure sales job with, ironically, a pharmaceutical company. She looked nervous.

Carlos tried to put her at ease. "You're not in any type of trouble. We just want to talk to you about the Ambien."

Carlos saw her hands quiver as she invited them in. They sat on overstuffed couches, near a giant flat-screen TV. Everything looked new, clean. Too perfect, Carlos thought.

The woman spoke freely, almost eager to confess her secret: It all started with insomnia two years ago, for which her doctor prescribed the proper dosage - one pill a night. When the refills ended, and her doctor refused to renew the prescription, she decided she couldn't sleep without the drug. So she got online, Googled "Ambien," found a site, and bought 100 tabs with her credit card. Days later, the pills arrived.

Carlos: "How many pills a night do you take now?"

"Ten."

Ten? The agents tried not to flinch. Two years hooked on Ambien, at possibly lethal doses.

Carlos stepped gingerly. "Have you ordered any lately?"

The woman walked to a closet, where she hid her stash from her husband. She handed Carlos an envelope.

He spilled the pills across a coffee table and began to count.

QUEENS, N.Y.

Akhil felt pumped.

The meeting with Meherer had gone so well that the next day he took her to the Queens depot to show her how sophisticated his operation really was.

There was his fulfillment center, a clean, brick rowhouse secured by bars on the windows. He'd called ahead to send the workers home. Coffee and snacks were waiting.

Inside, Akhil gave Meherer and her Asian assistant the full tour:

Here, on the ground floor, was the office where supervisors David and Elizabeth Armstrong received e-mail orders from online pharmacies.

Here, on the second floor, the Indian women grabbed blister packs of pills from cubbyholes, each labeled with the names of the appropriate medicine.

And here, in the basement, the women packed the pills into boxes and labeled them.

Then, Akhil explained, the Armstrongs drove the packages to their nearby home, where UPS made a pickup daily.

As they moved through the tour, Patil could sense Meherer's assistant grow uneasy.

The volume. The audacity. The risk.

Patil overheard the assistant whisper to Meherer: "My God, this guy is crazy! I want to get out."

What if the police found out? What if they seized the pills? What was the plan?

Stealing a line from Akhil's PowerPoint presentation, the assistant said, "What if something bad happens?"

QUEENS

A crisp October evening three months later. Rush hour.

A silver Olds Alero parked half a block from the Armstrong home. In the front seat, two blond women in their mid-30s chatted. Stuffed animals lined the rear window, above two child-booster seats. A couple of neighborhood moms.

Out of sight, the driver cradled a police radio, the passenger a tiny video camera.

Weeks of grueling surveillance had brought the driver, Konieczny, and her DEA team here. The 10-person detail had spent days camped near the Indian students' spartan Roxborough apartment. The agents hadn't seen much, just trips to the grocery store and the bank.

And when this Akhil ventured out? The way he drove! So fast, so crazy. And tough to tail.

Besides, how important were these Indians, anyway? Were they stars of a global conspiracy? Or bit players?

Either way, they were now essential to the case. Even if they didn't lead the DEA to a big boss behind the Internet pharmacies, they gave the feds in Philadelphia jurisdiction. Without a local defendant in the case, the office couldn't prosecute.

In August, the DEA team had followed the Indians to another Queens home. In September, agents there photographed the Armstrongs stuffing packages into a 1999 Lincoln Continental with MOTOR vanity plates.

Now, as dusk fell, the MOTOR car arrived at the Armstrongs' driveway. The cops watched them unload large, see-through plastic bags, each with about 20 packages inside.

Paydirt.

At 7:03 p.m., a UPS truck pulled up.

"You getting this?" Konieczny asked her partner holding the camera, Christine Kelliher.

"Yeah," Kelliher shot back. "I remembered to push record."

With the videotape rolling, Konieczny narrated, "The front door opened, and the driver is starting to load the bags. One, two... I'll count them. Three, four, five. God. Six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11..."

The bags were so light that the Armstrongs carried a big one in each hand.

"Unbelievable! She's got 12. That's 13. 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. Oh, my!"

The packages kept coming.

"... 23, 24, 25, 26..."

The agents started laughing.

"... 27, 28. Oh, my gosh, 29, 30! I think they're done. 30 bags!"

They did the math: 30 bags, each with 20 smaller packages inside. That meant UPS had loaded about 600 packages. The average online pharmacy order was 100 tabs.

The Indians had just shipped roughly 60,000 pills illegally.

"Unbelievable," Kelliher said.

Another UPS truck appeared.

"I wonder," Konieczny suggested, "if they didn't have enough room in the first one."


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307714 - 11/28/06 03:40 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 4: Down Under
November 22, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

While agents race to Australia in search of Mr. Big, Akhil tries to balance love and work.


ABOARD QANTAS FLIGHT 12

DEA agent Eric Russ sprawled across three seats on a southbound 747, earplugs in, eyeshades on, sound asleep.

His partner tried to relax, too, but several hours into the overnight flight to Sydney, Carlos Aquino was wide awake. Carlos had been busting drug dealers since 1969, when he was a trim military policeman in Vietnam. But he had never worked a case so important, so complex.

And now, with just three days' notice, he was scrambling to get to western Australia.

Carlos looked into the dark Pacific sky, then pulled out a 41-page report marked "DEA SENSITIVE."

The document summarized the six-month investigation: Agents traced three packages of generic pills at the Philadelphia airport to a Chester storefront. A receipt at the storefront led them to something called Rx-mart.com, which was hosted by a Web server in Texas. Keen detective work by FBI agent Jason Huff revealed that the person paying Rx-mart.com's bill was a cocky 25-year-old named Andrew Shackleton who lived in Australia, where he appeared to run a multimillion-dollar online pill ring.

DEA believed that Shackleton used pill suppliers around the globe, including bit players such as Temple University graduate student Akhil Bansal.

DEA hoped to extradite Shackleton and charge him under a U.S. law - "operating a continuing criminal enterprise" - that carried a huge hammer, a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. The law had been aimed for use against mobsters and drug kingpins. This would be among the first uses against Internet pill pushers.

At DEA's request, the Australian Federal Police had checked Shackleton's bank records and shadowed him in Perth. But now AFP wanted to bring Shackleton in for questioning, which could tip everyone else under investigation. It might ruin the U.S. case.

Which was why Carlos and his partner were in such a hurry to get to Perth.

MANHATTAN

Foram Mankodi, a pediatrician from Bombay, led her fiancé, Akhil Bansal, toward the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village.

A pocked goalie mask hid Akhil's broad face; he was Jason from the movie Friday the 13th. Foram, her dark hair under a peaked hat, dressed as a witch.

The Halloween festivities, she hoped, would provide a break from their increasingly hectic lives. Akhil's workaholic ways were wearing him down.

Not only was he pursuing two master's degrees from Temple, but Akhil was also managing his father's India-based business - supplying pharmaceuticals to companies that sold them to Americans on the Internet.

In the year since he had proposed, Foram watched Akhil grow the U.S. side of the business from a two-person, 1,000-pill-a-day operation into a 10-person, 50,000-pill-a-day enterprise. Already, the intense 26-year-old had earned his first $1 million, money he used to buy a new five-bedroom, $420,000 condo in an affluent Delhi suburb.

But she didn't love him for his money. After they met at the Temple library, their first dates were visits to the Franklin Mills mall. Back then, they took walks on Kelly Drive and watched Friends and Seinfeld. Now, Akhil was promising to fly her to London for New Year's Eve.

Their parents didn't know about the engagement; the couple was going to wait until Akhil graduated and they could return to India.

Foram found Akhil, with the green tint in his brown eyes, to be handsome, brilliant, kind, genuine, confident, sure to succeed. Akhil acknowledged that he was "obsessed with achievement and perfection." His memory was photographic, his class papers top-rate. Someday, she knew, he would run a large hospital in India.

Even Akhil's jokes related to business. The doormat outside his Roxborough apartment said: "Please stay on the mat. Your visit is very important to us. Your knock will be answered in the order in which it was received."

Foram loved Akhil's directness. Before he proposed, he hacked into her e-mail account to make sure that she was true, that she really cared for him.

Akhil told her about the snooping afterward. "All is fair in love and war," he said.

She found this charming.

He had his faults, among them a quick temper. When an argument would reduce her to tears, he would wave a hand and say, "Ah, you women use tears as your weapon."

When she would tell him to stop bragging, he would say, "What is man without ego?"

Akhil cared little about politics. His passions were cars, money and music.

And although he was proud to help grow his father's business, Akhil yearned to make a name for himself. He often cited the Hindi expression upnay pairopay khada hona: "Stand on my own feet."

Foram knew that Akhil was so driven, he had trouble relaxing, even on vacation. During a trip to Niagara Falls, Akhil spent hours tethered to a laptop. When Foram urged him to join friends at the barbecue grill, he snapped, "This is important."

Later, he explained that he had just caught a German rival hacking into his computer to steal client data.

Akhil retaliated. He sent the bastard a virus.

AGRA, INDIA

Dr. Brij Bansal opened an e-mail from a Costa Rican online pharmacy operator.

Amounts you did not confirm

Sept. 20, $46,000

Sept. 23, $36,000

Monday another $40,000 will leave Cyprus. All transfers will arrive in Fleet/USA. Thanks a lot for your great business.

CENTER CITY

Beneath a red Mexican tapestry, federal prosecutor Barbara Cohan spread a DEA chart across her red desk. The diagram was dotted with mug shots, lines drawn to suggest associations.

The Australian Shackleton and his spiked, peroxided hair loomed large in the center. Web operators in five continents formed an outer ring around him. Off in a corner, with suspected couriers, was Akhil Bansal.

Barb let out a laugh. Taken together, the mug shots reminded her of the characters from the bar scene in Star Wars.

Barb had worked drug cases for 24 years, but found these suspects particularly greedy. They dispensed prescription drugs like candy. Such audacity made her smile. Her job was much more fun, she often said, when the defendants were evil.

Barb's colleague and friend, prosecutor Wendy Kelly, was on her way to Australia to join two DEA agents. With Kelly gone, Barb focused on the Indians living in Philadelphia.

Akhil was not Mr. Big, she believed, but he would do. To indict the case in federal court here, she needed a local defendant. And prosecutors preferred a dealer to a user.

Surveillance had trailed Akhil to a suspected Queens, N.Y., stash house, then to another home, where agents had videotaped Indians loading hundreds of packages onto a UPS truck.

Akhil's role wasn't clear. Yet for a young guy in grad school, his bank accounts seemed flush. When Barb subpoenaed his records, she discovered $100,000 in certificates of deposit and a free student checking account with $138,797.23.

Large wire transfers from abroad - $35,000, $60,000, $100,000 - were routine. He wrote big checks - $3,000, $25,000, $50,000 - to cash and to a Queens company.

The money transfers weren't illegal, per se. And agents hadn't witnessed Akhil commit any crimes. But there was enough suspicious activity to ask a magistrate to authorize a search of his e-mail. When they got approval, the feds sent a search warrant to hotmail.com, the company that hosted Akhil's account.

KING OF PRUSSIA, PA.

Douglas, a husky 19-year-old computer salesman, logged on to ourprescriptionsforless.com. He lived with his mother in a small brick house within sight of the Bloomingdale's arch at the mall.

He clicked on alprazolam, a generic sedative. Douglas liked the way it cut his anxiety in social situations.

By ordering online, Douglas avoided an embarrassing doctor visit or alerting his mother, who still carried his health insurance and might see the bill.

Douglas clicked on quantity and chose 110 tablets, more than a month's supply - more than he thought he would need - just in case. These Internet pharmacies were shady, clearly illegal, and Douglas wasn't sure how long they would remain in business.

He entered his address. He liked that the pills were shipped from a domestic depot. Why risk involving U.S. Customs?

He charged $132.57 to his credit card.

The process was so easy. And why not? Wasn't the point of pharmaceuticals to help people? Weren't the major drug companies always bombarding American consumers with ads? The pitches were everywhere - magazines, newspapers, TV, billboards, banners at ballgames. Anxious? Sleepless? Limp? Have we got a pill for you.

Douglas confirmed his order, and it zipped through cyberspace.

The order shot from the online pharmacy in Romania to a credit-card processor in the British Channel Islands, where it was approved, then e-mailed to Indian suppliers in Agra, who forwarded it to a rented home in Queens, where an Indian supervisor printed it out and handed it to another Indian woman, who climbed to the second floor, took 110 tabs of alprazolam from a cubbyhole, slid them into an envelope, labeled it, and put it into a bag for pickup by UPS, which, two days later, delivered it, up the walk by the big holly tree, to Douglas' doorstep in King of Prussia.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA

The day after the Americans arrived in Perth, they shook off jet lag and turned on the diplomatic charm.

The Australians knew little about Shackleton, except that he was a shadowy figure, a former waiter suddenly rich enough to buy himself a flat and renovate his parents' home. But, Carlos explained, Shackleton had made one foolish mistake: He'd used a Texas company, not an Australian one, to host his online pharmacy and e-mail, making it easier for FBI to get a warrant to search it.

Shackleton's e-mail provided a bonanza. It appeared to show that the brash CEO of Shack Corp. ran a global pill network that netted $5,000 a day, almost $2 million a year.

Shackleton had homes in Perth; Florence, Italy; and Frankfurt, Germany. He was toying with buying a million-dollar chateau near Paris.

Houses were nice, but Shackleton's ultimate goal was amassing $800 million. He figured he could achieve this in five years if he sold 3,000 packages of Valium a day.

"It's not easy to get rich," he wrote in an e-mail to an Internet consultant. "My goal is the upper echelon of economic independence."

What struck the Americans most about the guy, besides his spiked hair, was his arrogance. He began e-mail to employees with the words, "I decree...," and signed off, "Your Lord."

He called his three main suppliers by frat-boy nicknames - the German was "White," the Hungarian "Chubbs," and the Indian "Curry."

Curry's son lived in Philadelphia.

AGRA

An e-mail from Brij to a Texan who operated Web pharmacies in Romania and South Korea:

We can supply ketamine injectible. 10mg vials. Price is $20. Pseudoephedrine tablets. We can supply pure medicinal grade ephedrine in powder form.

Thanks, Brij.



The mastermind behind ourprescriptionforless.com, an English as a second language teacher, replied:

You will be getting orders. Matthew and I will be working on this in the next 24 hours.

CENTER CITY

The day after the Australia contingent returned, Barb and Kelly met with their boss in his expansive Chestnut Street office overlooking Independence Hall. U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan wasn't a micromanager, but he liked to be briefed on big cases.

The trip had gone well, Kelly reported, better than expected. The Aussies had agreed not to question Shackleton, but would instead tap phone lines, pull bank records, the works.

But there was more, Kelly added - something she had learned that morning.

Barb took over.

She grabbed a large white board and spun it around, revealing DEA's cluttered chart of targets.

"We've been focusing here," she said, pointing to Shackleton in the center, spokes running out to other online pharmacies.

Barb paused, reveling in the moment's drama. She pointed to the upper lefthand corner of the chart, to a smaller universe of suppliers, the Bansals. "Our focus needs to be here."

She put a finger on Akhil's mug. "Head of U.S. operations."

Mr. Big wasn't a cocky 25-year-old Australian. He was a cocky 26-year-old Indian. And, Barb said, "he's right here in our backyard."

His e-mail proved it: His father, a doctor in India, was smuggling one million prescription pills a month to America - generic Viagra, Valium, Xanax, kilos of the painkiller hydrocodone, the psychotropic club drug ketamine, the stimulant ephedrine.

Customers ordered directly from a dozen or so Bansal clients, who operated independent online pharmacies, and the Bansals filled their orders. It seemed that the son was supervising everything, Barb said, right from his modest apartment in Roxborough.

This was no Robin Hood operation - no discounting pills for the gravely ill. The Bansals, she said, charged more for their meds because they didn't require prescriptions. They sold to anyone with a credit card and a modem.

"These guys are just like street-corner drug dealers, except they use the Internet," Barb said, getting worked up. "There are dealers, suppliers, distribution networks. This is the new wave of drug dealing - white-collar drug dealing."

Meehan had recently attended a Justice Department briefing at which DEA Administrator Karen Tandy announced that online pharmacies were a priority. Here was their chance, he said. This case would make a splash.

Kelly wanted to move now - arrests, indictments, prison. The risk to consumers was too serious, she argued. The Bansals were shipping addictive, dangerous prescription pills. Maybe that Colorado woman who overdosed was part of the case. Who might be next?

Barb argued for more time. In heroin and crack cases, she noted, authorities routinely waited to gather enough evidence to take down whole networks, not just a few dealers. Why was this case different? Because it involved white-collar dealers and middle-class consumers?

Barb and Kelly agreed on one thing: They couldn't make this case alone. They needed three things:

One, help from India. Though the nation was notoriously corrupt, and Akhil's father was rich enough to pay bribes, the risk seemed worth it. Assistance from Indian drug agents would be essential.

Two, an expert to track money-laundering on a global scale. Could bureaucrats at Justice in D.C. move fast enough to send someone?

Three, a way to read Akhil's e-mail as he sent and received it. That would require an e-mail wiretap. No one in the room had ever tried that.

They didn't know anyone who had.


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307732 - 11/28/06 03:47 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 5: Wiretaps
November 23, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Prosecutors like what they see - when equipment and colleagues cooperate. Clients and workers torment Akhil.



CENTER CITY

Lead prosecutor Barbara Cohan paced her office, red-faced, ponytail flying. She yelled into the phone.

"If it's not ready for prime time, why the hell are we using it?"

Once again, Cool Miner, the wiretapping software, had broken down.

Barb hadn't expected miracles, she told the DEA techie down in Washington, but now that they had arranged for a Hotmail clone account to wiretap e-mail, lugging two PCs up from northern Virginia, she wanted it to work.

DEA had used the program a few times for smaller cases, in other cities - catching bad guys in midsize towns - but never in Philadelphia. With a case this complex, the techie protested, Cool Miner had become overloaded by too many e-mails, too many attachments, too much volume.

The Help Desk was working on it.

Barb seethed. DEA had a new mandate from on high to go after online pharmacies! With a computer program so lame, how did the agency expect to catch such sophisticated criminals, a global network moving 50,000 pills a day? Three years after 9/11 and DEA was still struggling to tap e-mail!

Fix it, she said.

When the wiretap did work, it was fabulous. Authorities could track the suspected kingpins in real time, reading each e-mail to and from Temple University graduate student Akhil Bansal and his father, Brij, a doctor in India. E-mail attachments included spreadsheets of detailed pill orders. Amazingly, the Bansals didn't encrypt most e-mail.

From: Brij Bansal

To: Sanjeev Srivastav

cc: Akhil Bansal

Please send the following order with next-day service:

30,000 tabs - Zolpidem 10 mg.

10,000 tabs - Cialis 20 mg.

10,000 tabs - Viagra 100 mg.

One recently intercepted e-mail put the Bansal network's stock in Queens, N.Y., at four million pills. This e-mail wiretap was going to provide a bounty of evidence - when it worked.

For Barb, a computer-savvy workaholic with an obsession for detail and no patience for incompetence, the wiretap trouble added to growing tension.

As the stakes rose - suspects on four continents, tens of thousands of U.S. customers, a pressing public-health threat - DEA and FBI agents had begun to fight over control of the case like boys in a sandbox. DEA was wary, fearing FBI's reputation for stealing cases. FBI felt frustrated because agencies such as DEA often asked for help, then resented sharing control.

Barb and fellow prosecutor Wendy Kelly felt the tension, too. Again and again, DEA agents ignored requests to print copies of Web pharmacy home pages - not a minor task, because the printouts would be the only evidence if a Web site disappeared.

The prosecutors began to sense that some agents and supervisors couldn't take orders from women. Barb found this incredible. She had been prosecuting cases since before these guys were born. And Kelly? For God's sake, the woman served as a full colonel in the Army Reserve.

The way the prosecutors saw it, the boys needed to grow up.

NEW DELHI

The Narcotics Control Bureau agent, a thin 30-year-old with a rust-colored goatee, walked down an alley, past the cats and flies, the servants scrubbing dishes, the line of white, government Ambassador sedans.

The wire man ducked into a weathered three-story building and entered a restricted area on the third floor, an air-conditioned, high-tech enclosure with tinted windows. This was the Source Room, where NCB agents listened to wiretaps.

The wire man worked alone, anonymously. Only two others knew who he was taping and why. Everyone understood that a leak could spoil everything. That's why the wiretap paperwork was hand-carried to the home secretary for approval.

Not only was the case NCB's first major international pharmaceutical investigation, but it was also its biggest case with DEA. The Indians were eager to prove they were serious about policing pill-smuggling. It wasn't just about law enforcement, it was about economics and politics, too. Pill-smuggling tainted and imperiled the nation's legitimate manufacturing and export industries. Such a crime also threatened U.S.-Indian diplomatic relations, which had warmed since 9/11.

The wire man sat down and opened his laptop.

He had been listening for two months, ever since DEA asked for help. He knew that Brij and Akhil Bansal often spoke several times a day. Because of the time difference and Akhil's class schedule, they routinely talked when it was morning in India, night in Philadelphia.

The agent picked up his headset and downloaded a new call.

Akhil's voice came on the line.

"Papaji," he said in Hindi. "It's me."

ROXBOROUGH

Sitting on his Value City mattress, Akhil began most mornings with chocolate, a Coke, and a call to his father.

As the enterprise grew, and as Akhil became schooled in the ways of American business, the tenor of the calls changed. Now the son took charge.

"Papaji," he said in one call. "You must slow down. All your hard work will be gone."

Akhil, cocksure and 26, began to realize that his father was a terrible businessman. Brij trusted people too much, overpaid staff. He let the online pharmacies they supplied go weeks without paying.

This drove Akhil nuts. By January, clients owed the Bansals more than $800,000.

Akhil, an MBA student at a prestigious American university, urged his dad to cut off the deadbeats. Brij hesitated. He had trouble saying no.

While he let Akhil control the finances - $4 million stashed in a dozen U.S. and offshore accounts - he questioned some of his son's moves. In one call, Brij erupted in fury after learning that Akhil was selling customer data to spammers. They were using the information to make follow-up calls to pill customers - some of them addicts - pushing them to buy more.

To Brij, this seemed dishonorable. Akhil insisted it was OK.

"It's America, Papaji. Everything is for sale."

NEWNAN, GA.

DEA agent Shawn Ellerman studied the e-mail that had brought him from New York to this rural ranch home not far from the Alabama border:

To: Interphar

From: Diane Graybeal

Please do not send or charge my credit card for this purchase. My daughter ordered this without my permission and she passed away on the 27th of November from over-medication.

Thank you.

Graybeal's daughter, Sarah, had bought 25 10-milligram tabs of generic Valium for $198. DEA had discovered the order and the mother's message in a stack of e-mails seized from Interphar, the Costa Rican online pharmacy, which the Bansals supplied.

If Ellerman could prove that Bansal pills were killing people, DEA might nail the Indians for murder, not just drug dealing.

In October, Ellerman had flown to Colorado, where another Bansal customer had died. Prosecutors were reviewing Ellerman's report, but that woman's death looked like a suicide.

In Newnan, he met with the first cop on the scene, the paramedics, the coroner, and Mrs. Graybeal. By day's end, Ellerman concluded the death was probably a suicide, too.

Ellerman felt sorry for the mother, so he sat with her at the kitchen table looking at family photographs. Mrs. Graybeal, thrilled that someone cared about her daughter, asked why DEA had sent Ellerman all the way from New York.

Ellerman couldn't discuss the case, but he told her, "Watch the news. You're going to see something big soon."

CENTER CITY

Federal grand juries convene in a restricted area on the sixth floor of the Nix Federal Building, a Moderne structure on Market Street. The secret sessions are often formal affairs, with dry testimony about paperwork and financial minutiae.

But as light snow fell outside on this January morning, jurors inside Room No. 2 seemed anything but bored. From a mahogany witness box, DEA agent Eric Russ explained the scope of the Bansal network. Grand jurors were outraged.

"How can they be so brazen about this?" one asked. "I mean, there's no doctor involved."

Said another: "I used to get spam, I'm pretty sure, and I just ignored it because I don't have a prescription. How do they get people to go for it?"

Russ had already testified twice to these grand jurors, laying out preliminaries - how the trail led to Australia and back, and how the case was growing in complexity and scope. Frankly, Russ would have been satisfied to make the arrests by now. But prosecutors wanted more evidence, more bad guys, an airtight case. They always did.

At this appearance, Russ gave grand jurors the big picture, including some of the seedier clients: Rx-mart.com, pillbasket.com, ourprescriptionsforless.com, bigcitymeds.com, myemeds.com, getsomemeds.com, ezfreescripts.com.

"The majority... look like a professional Web site where you would go and order anything," Russ told the grand jurors. "They will have a list of medications they may classify by painkillers, sleep aids, diet aids, things like that... . No requirement to fill out... description of symptoms... . No place to fax or bring your prescription."

When pills arrive, "there is no doctor's note telling you how to take it or anything like that. It's just the Valium in a box."

One customer merited special notice, Russ said: a guy using the e-mail name "Millerlight." He stood apart for two reasons.

One, Millerlight didn't order pills. He ordered ketamine powder, a sedative abused as a club drug, by the kilo.

Two, while the Web site operators paid Akhil by wiring money into his bank accounts, Millerlight paid cash. He bundled big bills like bricks and shipped them by UPS directly to Akhil.

Just like a street dealer.

ROXBOROUGH

As the total owed to the Bansals by online pharmacies climbed toward $1 million, Akhil began to lose his patience. From the computer in his spartan bedroom, he e-mailed a terse note to longtime customers:

In this business we take all the risk right from buying of medicine from India, sending it to USA, storage in USA and then shipping it to your customer's doors. On the other hand you guys sit in an unknown country, with web servers in a different country and merchant account in yet another different country. You have no risk in this business aside from losing future money.

I wrote the above paragraph to convey that we take all the risk for MONEY. If we are not paid on time or not paid in full, we have no incentive to take all the risks and work with a client.

After all this I have reached a conclusion that you are a very risky client... . We are in a situation in which we would rather NOT work with you, than be begging for OUR money.

It was a pleasure having done business with you. Wish you luck for your future. Dr. Akhil Bansal.

CENTER CITY

Akhil wasn't the only one struggling with finances.

On a frosty morning, James Pavlock, a money-laundering expert up from Washington, settled into a temporary office on Chestnut Street, half a block from Independence Hall. He knew the city well, having once served as a Philadelphia assistant district attorney, and he kept a home here.

Among his first visitors was Aaron Carp, the eager, 25-year-old IRS agent. Carp opened a thin file - spreadsheets of Akhil's bank records.

The numbers, grouped by account, showed tens of thousands of dollars moving every few days. It was good work, Pavlock told Carp, but just a beginning. There was no pattern. Or apparent motive, or hard evidence of a crime.

Carp was stumped. What should he do?

Pavlock lived for such moments - an agent who wanted to talk spreadsheets. They spoke for two hours.

"OK, now what?" Carp said.

They would subpoena U.S. banks and begin using diplomatic channels to seek foreign bank records. This meant getting cooperation from as many 10 countries. That might take months.

Pavlock didn't have months. Given the public-health threat - addictive pills sold willy-nilly to anyone with a credit card - prosecutors wanted a speedy indictment, maybe by late March.

Finding the money was vital: First, bank records would help prove that the Bansals were drug dealers on a wide scale. Second, the records could prove money-laundering, a charge that would increase any prison sentence. Third, money found could be seized, stripping the Bansals of all profits. Fourth, and not least, agencies seizing the money - millions - would get to keep it.

ROXBOROUGH

Akhil scanned his latest e-mail and fumed.

It came from his best client, Corrina Meherer in Costa Rica.

"There is a leak within your organization," she warned.

She was getting spam, she explained, from a new Web site, one that shipped pills from a familiar address in Queens, N.Y. - 5028 Utopia Parkway.

David Armstrong's house!

Armstrong was a thief! Akhil's shipper was stealing his pills, selling them through his own Web site.

Akhil resisted the urge to confront Armstrong. He needed more than suspicion. He needed irrefutable proof.

There was only one way to get that.

QUEENS

Akhil waited a week, until Armstrong traveled to India.

Akhil used his key to enter the pill depot - the one he paid Armstrong to supervise. It was night. The place was empty.

Akhil walked past the packaging tables, the empty boxes and the pill shelves. He stopped to pour himself a Coke, then entered Armstrong's office and flipped on the computer.

When the Windows password screen appeared, he moved the cursor over a green icon. After a second, the computer displayed a password hint.

"Sequence," it said.

Akhil stared at the screen, sipping his Coke. Sequence? He tried a series of dates, birthdays, numbers he could associate with Armstrong. Nothing. After a while, he figured, what the hell, and typed "12345."

It worked.

Inside, Armstrong had password-protected his e-mail, but Akhil was ready.

He took a thumb drive he had brought from Philadelpia and plugged it into the back of the computer. The thumb drive automatically began a program called Password Recovery 123.

Within seconds - almost magically - the asterisks hiding the Armstrongs' password fell away. Akhil was in.

He copied the files, then took a quarter-size device called a Key Catcher and connected it between the computer and the cord running to the keyboard. This tiny spy machine would record every stroke Armstrong typed.

It was as good as a wiretap.

What had taken federal agents weeks - and money and court orders and software headaches - to accomplish, Akhil pulled off in an hour.


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307746 - 11/28/06 03:52 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 6: Family Feuds
November 24, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Father and son squabble over streamlining drug sales, while federal agents fight over turf.

NEW DELHI

As a military policeman in Vietnam, and as a Philly cop for 24 years, Carlos Aquino had seen plenty of poverty.

But here in chaotic central New Delhi, where the DEA investigator had come hoping to listen to Indian phone wiretaps, he felt overwhelmed. Climbing the open-air stairs of the Indian drug agency's regional headquarters, Carlos did a double take. Atop the building next door, he saw a family sitting on a tattered couch watching TV on the roof.

He scanned the teeming skyline. Dotted across the horizon, residents had raised ragtag tents, grabbing space wherever they could. People cooked, washed laundry. Kids played up there. It hit Carlos: too many people, too little room.

No wonder Indians worried about corruption.

Carlos moved on. He carried his laptop past an empty jail cell, beyond a darkened room where servants squatted sipping coffee, and into a cream-colored conference room.

There Carlos began his pitch for the wiretaps with a PowerPoint presentation. He shared e-mail, surveillance and bank records of the primary targets - Brij Bansal in Agra and son Akhil in Philadelphia.

Shankar Rao, the Narcotic Control Bureau's zonal director for Delhi, talked about customs regulations, dealers and the Bansals' background, but refrained from mentioning the wiretaps, the most sensitive part of the case.

The Indians had begun tapping Brij's cell phone in November. They had scores of calls between father and son about their business - fulfilling 1,000 orders a day, one million tablets a month, to people buying online, no prescription required.

The Indians were reluctant to share the wiretaps. In India, taps were permitted only as an investigative tool and could not be used in court. They had to be burned 60 days after an arrest. NCB wanted to show it was serious, but feared losing control of the recordings.

Finally, the senior Indian agent glanced down the row of officials. He stared at Rao and then nodded. He said something in Hindi.

Rao translated, "We'll make the arrangements."

AGRA, INDIA

Brij answered his cell phone.

"Hello, Papaji." It was Akhil, the Temple MBA student, who ran the family's U.S. operations and oversaw its offshore bank accounts.

"You cannot go on like this," the son said.

"OK, OK, OK."

Once again, the son was chastising the father about sloppy business practices. Web site clients weren't paying on time. The Bansals were owed $954,262.

Brij, frightened he might sour future sales, refused to do anything about it.

The growing deficit gnawed at Akhil's business soul. He said, "It's like chopping your own foot with an ax."

"OK, OK, OK."

Brij thought he'd done all right for himself. He owned several businesses and an expansive home he'd bought new, back in the early 1970s, before Akhil was born. The home, surrounded by 10-foot-high walls and an iron gate, stood two blocks from the congested, dusty National Highway No. 2, the main route to New Delhi.

Brij ran storefront medical clinics in India and Nepal, including one in Agra, where tourists often succumbed to the searing heat or blistering cuisine on visits to the Taj Mahal.

Former patients appreciated Brij's willingness to refill prescriptions overseas, and he leveraged this demand into a multimillion-dollar business. Brij focused on the $4.6 million he had earned, not the million he was owed.

Akhil saw it differently. Sure, the enterprise was successful, but now it needed sophisticated management.

He offered a radical plan: Cut the number of online pharmacies served from 25 to six. Deal only with the biggest - and only with those who paid on time. Let Julie, Akhil's sister, who lived in Jaipur and handled marketing, including spam, have the little clients.

"I'm telling you," Akhil continued. "The problem with you is that you are too old-fashioned."

"OK, OK, OK."

The son sensed that Brij was patronizing him.

"You're an ass," Akhil said. "You'll remain an ass."

"It's my money," Brij said. "I'll burn it if I like."

Akhil tried a different tack: A smaller client base, he said, might help his father's health. A former smoker, the 57-year-old had diabetes and hypertension. A terrible patient, Brij had to be scolded to keep doctor appointments. In January, he had suffered a minor heart attack.

"Take your medicine," Akhil urged. "Take your rest."

"OK, OK, OK."

CENTER CITY

The Bansals weren't the only ones engaged in a family squabble. FBI and DEA agents in Philadelphia were feuding, too. In early February, things boiled over, and everyone was called to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a come-to-Jesus meeting.

"Look," senior prosecutor Timothy Rice said sternly. "There's plenty of work for everybody, and everybody will get credit and some of the money."

None of the two dozen agents crowded into the 12th-floor conference room spoke. They avoided eye contact. But the grudges remained. DEA supervisors believed FBI was trying to bigfoot the case, using its technical and homeland security expertise as a wedge to grab control.

Meantime, FBI bosses were sure DEA wanted to hog the glory and the cash. Why else were FBI agents left with menial tasks, such as Googling names? Why wasn't FBI getting copies of routine DEA reports?

Rival agencies bickered all the time. But here it was starting to affect the investigation. This case, with its global, Internet and public-health components, needed speed and coordination, not backbiting. Prosecutors Barbara Cohan and Wendy Kelly couldn't believe professional men indulged in such juvenile, testosterone-laden crap.

Rice laid down the law.

DEA would continue to lead the case, he said, but not alone. They had 60 days until indictment and takedown.

"We have a lot of work to do," Rice said, "and a short time to do it. We need to spend our time on that and not waste time on who's going to get credit."

Rice took no questions.

AGRA

To: matthewm@ourpresecriptionsforless.com

From: Stunkee

Subject: Dexocol pill reaction.

Hi. I recently received an order that myself and a colleague split to save cost... . Dexocol 60 mg., 110 tablets... . I received the order in 10 days, which is nice. However, I and my friend have been on many different pain treatments over the years... . Never have either of us had a reaction... .

The pills I received from your Web site came blank... . I cannot verify the contents by looking up the imprint code... . After the first day we both had excessive itching and rashes and swollen fingers. Please let me know as I am too concerned to take any more of these and did spend $198. Thanks.

The e-mail was forwarded to Brij. He responded:

Dear sir,

This seems to be an isolated case. There are possibilities that these two persons may have taken some other drugs... which caused an allergic reaction. Until now, from 2 million tabs sold, none of the other clients have reported this.

Thanks, Brij.

NEW DELHI

Narcotics Control Bureau agents who listened to the phone taps found the case odd.

Dr. Brij Bansal was an educated, respected member of the Baniya business caste. He held a license to dispense medicine in India as well as an export license. But the way Indian drug officials read the law, those documents didn't allow Brij to ship pills to America.

The agents listening in NCB's high-tech, air-conditioned wiretap room were convinced Brij knew he was breaking the law. Why else would he caution shippers to use phony manifests? Why else pay six times the going price for shipping? Why stockpile the pills in the humid basement of someone's home?

The wiretaps showed that Brij prided himself on performance. Sloppy service and poor products made him angry. He never gloated about the money.

So why break the law so brazenly? Why put his son and daughter, the spammer, in such peril? Brij was already worth tens of millions of rupees.

And why hadn't he tried to hide the money? Many drug dealers cloaked ill-gotten gains through hawalas, the ancient, informal money-transfer system.

Not Brij. He bought real estate and opened routine bank accounts.

How about the phone? To avoid detection, most dealers switched cell phones monthly.

Not Brij.

The wiretaps offered a few explanations. First and foremost, father and son doubted they would ever get caught. And if they did, they figured they could simply claim that they thought their license was valid for export, or that they had never authorized shipments under false names.

Besides, the Bansals figured, what was the worst that could happen? A warning? A fine? A few seized packages? Please.

ROXBOROUGH

IRS agent Aaron Carp, young, eager, was relaxing inside his Wissahickon apartment, fiddling with his new TiVo gadget shortly before midnight, when it hit him.

He dialed James Pavlock, the prosecutor for money-laundering.

"Jim, I've got this really cool idea."

For a month, Carp and Pavlock had struggled to trace and verify Akhil's overseas accounts, which could prove what the Bansal e-mails seemed to show - drug dealing on a global scale. Normally, U.S. authorities would use international treaties to subpoena the accounts, but because the arrests were only 60 days away, they didn't have enough time.

Carp's shortcut was devilishly simple: He exploited a cog in the global banking system. Unbeknownst to Akhil, virtually every overseas wire transfer was routed through one of a handful of large American "correspondent banks," including J.P. Morgan Chase, all under U.S legal jurisdiction.

Why not subpoena these correspondent banks for all wires related to Akhil Bansal?

CHANTILLY, VA.

An investigation this significant, this cutting-edge, needed branding, a new name.

DEA couldn't keep calling it Operation Wronguy's Way, the eponymous name Carlos Aquino had picked, half in jest, months ago.

Wronguy's Way was an Al Pacino movie, for heaven's sake. People would be confused.

Renaming the case fell to DEA's Special Operations Division, which coordinated international cases from an unmarked suburban office building near Dulles International Airport.

To make a splash, the new name needed to pop. The agency hoped the case would scare other dealers, make consumers think twice about buying knockoff drugs online.

The task fell to DEA's Terence Reilly, who began to brainstorm. He sent three dozen possible names to his boss, Mary Irene Cooper:

Firewall, Cyber Force, Cyborg, Cyber Sleuth, E-Force, Pill Matrix... Cyber Pharm, Cyber Chase, Cyber Narc, Net Narc... Mouse Click, Web Sentinel, Web Sentry, Web Reaper, Net Death...

Cooper chose Cyber Chase.

That evening at Reilly's home, a title in his video library caught his eye - a movie called The Cyber Chase. He flinched.

The star was Scooby-Doo.

AGRA

Brij didn't cut off deadbeat clients, but he did harden his tone. In an e-mail to the Florida-based operator of myemeds.com, he wrote:

The government of India has imposed restrictions on many medicines and declared them Narcotic Substance. There are huge penalties and even imprisonment as a punishment if someone is found selling them without a prescription. Till now we were supplying you with the stock we maintain as a buffer but it is now coming to a near end...

We have no choice but to pay bribes and premiums to get our medicines. This is possible (and in our benefit) only because of some helpful corrupt people in India.

ROXBOROUGH

Snug in his three-bedroom apartment, with its familiar curry, cardamom and garam masala aromas, Akhil startled his roommate with the news:

In three months, he planned to quit his father's business.

What began as an easy chore now threatened to ruin his plan to run hospitals in India.

His family's pharmacy clients called at all hours from Australia and Europe. He was falling behind at Temple, and doubted his professors would understand. It might even jeopardize his summer job at Mercy Hospital.

Each week brought new hassles.

The list of deadbeat clients continued to grow, and his father refused to cut them off.

A favored offshore bank now demanded to know the source of Akhil's large deposits.

Governments, under pressure from global drug companies, were cracking down on Internet pharmacies. Recent Canadian raids had cost the Bansals $200,000.

Then there was David Armstrong's betrayal.

Armstrong ran the Bansals' depot in Queens, N.Y., the place where shipments arrived from India. Armstrong supervised the immigrant women there who fulfilled customer orders.

Acting on a tip, Akhil had hacked into Armstrong's computer and discovered that he had been stealing pills and customer data. Armstrong was using the data to spam customers, directing them to his own Web site, ontimeviagra.com.

Akhil planned to fire Armstrong as soon as he could find a new shipper and depot. He had his eye on rental homes in Bucks County.

Though discouraged, Akhil took time to devise a business innovation he hoped would increase efficiency. He introduced it to clients in an e-mail:

We would like to invite you to our Web site www.orderspanel.com. In our pursuit for continuous improvement of our services... you can now directly upload orders... . You can also see and download tracking sheets online... .

We also request you to zip your file with password protection (8 alphanumeric)...

With warm regards,

Dr. Akhil Bansal

This new system would be more professional and less haphazard than the current, cumbersome system, which relied on e-mail. It would give Akhil more control over the network.

If a client didn't pay, he could block access to orderspanel.com. If an employee couldn't be trusted, or became a problem, he wouldn't get a password.

Akhil's father did not get a password.

CENTER CITY

DEA agent Eric Russ, a no-nonsense former Marine, was not an excitable guy. But he rarely found evidence this good.

He rushed it across Market Street to the prosecutors' offices. Barb put the evidence - a PowerPoint presentation Russ had discovered in Akhil's e-mail - into her computer.

The file was amazing. The PowerPoint presented a detailed history of the Bansal pill distribution network, as written by Akhil. Apparently, it was something he had put together for his Costa Rican connection, back in July.

As Barb and Kelly scrolled down, they could not contain their outrage. After all, here was a doctor dispensing generic prescription pills without even talking to patients.

Barb had always figured Akhil's enterprise was all about money, not health care. Now the PowerPoint confirmed it.

The prosecutors began reading Akhil's presentation aloud, their booming voices carrying into the hallway. They scoffed at the way Akhil presented his rise to success - sections labeled Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Revolution.

"The arrogance of this guy," Kelly thought. "He's proud of what he's done."

The evidence prosecutors already had - bank records, e-mails, invoices - was incriminating, but dull. Here was something dramatic, visual, and in Akhil's broken English. A jury would eat it up.

The last slide posed a series of questions. "Can we process more orders?... Till how long we can get this going? What if anything bad happens?"

The prosecutors howled.

Barb mimicked Akhil. " 'What if anything bad happens?' "

She began to chant: "What if anything bad happens? What if anything bad happens?"

Barb kicked off her black pumps, dancing now. "What if anything bad happens? You're about to find out."


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307756 - 11/28/06 03:56 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 7: Betrayal
November 25, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer

Akhil loses his family's trust, his father loses his health, and the business loses security. Agents prepare to move.



AGRA, INDIA

For the flight from New York to Kiev to New Delhi on Ukraine Airlines, Akhil Bansal numbed himself with his favorite prescription: 30 milliliters of Black Label, 6 ounces of Coke, and 5 milligrams of generic Valium.

Usually, Akhil flew home via London on Virgin Atlantic, but when his father suffered a heart attack, he rushed back on the first available flight.

The Temple graduate student landed in New Delhi 30 hours later in a medicated, jet-lagged haze. He pushed past a throng of taxi drivers to find the chauffeur his mother had sent to ferry him the final three hours to Agra.

When Akhil arrived home, he expected a warm welcome. Instead, he was greeted with hard stares from his mother, Kamlesh; sister Julie; and her husband.

Julie thrust her finger at him.

"This is because of you!" she said. "You've become so arrogant with the money."

They were blaming Akhil for the heart attack! All those arguments over the phone, they told him - the way Akhil browbeat Brij to collect from deadbeat clients - had pushed the father over the edge.

Stunned, Akhil retreated to his room. When he returned, he took his mother by the hand and led her to his father's bedside.

"Papaji," he said. "I'm not doing this for the money. I'm doing this so you don't lose money. I have my classes and summer internship."

Brij said nothing. Kamlesh tried to explain: Akhil's control of the bank accounts had made his sister suspicious.

"Why don't you transfer them to your father?" Kamlesh said.

"Fine," Akhil said. "I don't even think of the money."

Akhil returned to his room. He closed the door, switched off the lights, and began to cry.

CHINATOWN

Even now, a year into the case, the numbers astounded DEA investigator Carlos Aquino.

It wasn't just the money. It was the volume. At the end of each week, Carlos totaled the spreadsheets DEA had intercepted and calculated the Bansal inventory.

He looked at one week's tally in early March:

Generic pills sold online: codeine, 54,590; Valium, 73,130; sleeping, 83,380; antianxiety, 104,270.

Pills in stock: sleeping, 424,820; antianxiety, 452,953; pain, 1.1 million.

Who needed a million tabs of codeine?

Carlos shook his head. Akhil had a medical degree. Yet here he was, running a multimillion-dollar pill network from a dumpy apartment in Roxborough, storing pills in a garage in Queens, shipping 75,000 pills a day. No prescription required, no directions included. What was he thinking?

One other set of figures grabbed Carlos' attention: Akhil's stock on hand exceeded the highest category on a chart that judges used to calculate prison sentences. The numbers were literally off the chart.

Carlos shared this nugget with partner Eric Russ: "The dude has maxed out."

AGRA

Akhil paced his childhood bedroom and called his friend Sanjeev Srivastav, a doctor back in New York.

"Sir, they say I'm killing my father."

He called Srivastav "Sir," a term of affection dating to their days in medical college. Srivastav had helped Akhil out of a couple of jams in India. Once, he defended him in a feud with the dean's son. Another time, Srivastav gave Akhil $30,000 to cover a margin call in the gold market. Akhil owed him.

So in 2004, when Srivastav moved to New York, Akhil let him live in the Queens home they used as a drug depot. Akhil also bought him a $50,000 SUV. In his spare time, Srivastav helped Akhil sell kilos of the tranquilizer ketamine.

Now Srivastav gave Akhil calming advice. Akhil hung up and worked until dawn.

After breakfast, Akhil carried a stack of spreadsheets and bank records to his father's bedside.

"There are the total assets," Akhil said. "These are the accounts. These are the passwords. Here are powers of attorneys for all the accounts. Here are signed blank checks."

His father studied the papers.

His mother said, "It's not that we don't trust you..."

CENTER CITY

DEA agents watched the wire with interest. It was Millerlight, the guy ordering bulk ketamine, a club drug. Ever since FBI had figured out who he was, DEA had been waiting for him to place another order.

Now Millerlight was e-mailing Brij about a package. Instead of being delivered to a home, it was waiting for Millerlight at the local post office.

To: DrBrij@hotmail.com

Fr: millerlight@safemail.net

"Dr: I really need to know if your shipper waived the signature on the package sent to me or not. I tracked it and it said it had to be signed for. I don't think that will be a good idea. That would mean it is probably a set up..."

Four hours later:

"Dr: I went by the house and checked the box and the house doors and there was no notice left anywhere. Now I know something is wrong! I don't think I should mess with the package your shipper sent. Something is not right with it. What happens if I never get the package??? We are talking about $26K out of my pocket. I have done a lot of business with you..."

A curt reply from India:

"Dear Sir: ... USPS attempted delivery but was unsuccessful. So the parcel is holding for 5 days. So please pick up from there."

Millerlight, wary:

"Dr: I really do not think that it would be wise... . I feel something must be wrong."

From India, 24 hours later:

Dear Sir: ... The only solution is that you go to the post office... . If the package is returned, it would end nowhere as the return name and address do not exist. I don't really think that post office is suspicious.

That evening, from southern Virginia, Millerlight typed a response:

Dr: I got it today, thank you. I will be in touch with you later. Take care! Millerlight

Millerlight - a.k.a. William R. Reed - did not mention that as he was writing, federal agents were dictating his every keystroke. When he had tried to retrieve Brij's package, DEA nabbed him.

He'd confessed immediately, said he had the goods on a corrupt local sheriff, and agreed to send Brij the fake e-mail.

In a year, Millerlight claimed, he had purchased at least 20 kilos of ketamine from the Bansals, paying Akhil $200,000, most of it sent via UPS to the Roxborough apartment.

Millerlight was going to make a great witness at trial.

CENTER CITY

Lead prosecutor Barbara Cohan was an unrepentant workaholic, but now she was working until 2 or 3 in the morning. A good day ended by midnight, enough time for her to drive up Interstate 95 to her tan-and-brown Northeast Philadelphia split-level, sleep four hours, shower, and return by 7 a.m.

At 30 days to takedown, there was too much to do. Produce search warrants. Read e-mail wiretaps, and write regular reports for the judge. Coordinate agents. Write the indictment. Draft a news release.

Making the case especially difficult, the details kept shifting, the numbers kept growing, the suspects kept traveling.

Every few days, Jim Pavlock, the prosecutor for money-laundering, would walk down the hall to Barb's cluttered office, with its 14 gargoyles and glass paperweights, and crow, "I've found another account!"

So far, he had traced $7 million. Each new account led to another rogue online pharmacy, adding another branch to DEA's investigative flow chart. Prosecutors were already talking about a second and third round of indictments, once Akhil's network was taken down.

Not everything had gone so well. Barb had spent weeks writing an application to tap Akhil's cell phone. Everything in Philadelphia had been approved and the paperwork was being faxed to Washington when suddenly Akhil canceled his service.

Barb freaked. Was Akhil wise to the investigation? Was he pulling a typical drug-dealer stunt, switching cell phones every few weeks? But really, she didn't think so. He was probably trying to duck his clients.

In one secret report to the judge, Barb wrote: "E-mail messages intercepted between March 3 and March 12 disclose an organization in chaos... . Complaints from... customers... shipments have been delayed, tracking numbers have been late or erroneous, and the organization's U.S. depot has been out of stock of frequently ordered drugs."

Barb faced another, more personal, deadline.

After 24 years on the job, she planned to quit once Akhil had been arrested. She would bake desserts for her husband's French-Mexican restaurant, Paloma. She would make glass beads and jewelry. She would read. She would spend time with her elderly parents.

Someone else could prosecute Akhil.

JFK AIRPORT

Trips to India usually refreshed Akhil. Dad would dote on him; Mom would feed him. He'd return ready to resume his studies, eager to succeed.

But when his fiancée, Foram Mankodi, met him at the airport, his brown eyes no longer sparkled. He was not the cocksure man she had fallen for two years ago. He looked defeated.

As they drove the SUV south to Philadelphia, he told Foram he might quit Temple and return to India.

"Maybe I'll go and not come back," he said in Hindi.

She changed the subject. Arguing was pointless.

"You look tired," she said.

Like Akhil, Foram was a doctor, and knew that Brij's prognosis was grim. On his trip home, Akhil had ferried his father to specialists in New Delhi. Brij had incurable heart disease. If he took his medicine, he might live two, maybe three years.

In the car, Foram asked for a medical update.

"Dad is stable," Akhil said.

"It will be fine," she lied. "I'm sure."

INTERSTATE, NEAR CHESTER

In the predawn darkness, Barb drove south.

She gripped the steering wheel and cursed. This is going to be such a waste of time.

Barb was headed to suburban Washington for an all-day briefing by DEA's Special Operations Division. SOD wanted everyone involved to attend so it could coordinate the global takedown.

Certainly this was important for the agents, Barb thought, but why prosecutors? Barb felt exhausted, annoyed.

She pulled into a Home Depot parking lot to pick up Frank Costello, the prosecutor who would replace her after the arrests.

This was the first chance they'd had to talk. Barb discussed the charges, the targets, the personalities. She mentioned two deaths, but quickly added that they'd been ruled suicides and were not part of the case. Her briefing was scattershot, fueled by caffeine and tension.

Costello looked into her bloodshot eyes. "How much sleep did you get last night?"

"I left the office at 2 a.m."

"Pull over. I'm driving."

CHANTILLY, VA.

"Chin straps on!"

SOD agents used this gung-ho phrase to psych themselves up for raids.

Now, as folks from Philadelphia, New York, Washington, India, Costa Rica and Hungary gathered at SOD's unmarked building near Dulles Airport, someone invoked the mantra.

Barb rolled her eyes.

Yet over the next few hours, Barb's contempt melted.

As agent after agent outlined the case and the takedown, Barb grew to appreciate the scope of what DEA, FBI and IRS had done, and the challenges everyone faced on arrest day:

Agents planned to execute a global sweep, timed for dawn April 19 on the East Coast, dusk April 20 in India. Twenty people, maybe more, would be arrested, ideally all at once. Authorities would seize bank accounts in 11 countries.

Timing was paramount. Given the computer savvy of the targets, one premature arrest might tip conspirators to flee or, with the click of a mouse, transfer millions to untouchable overseas accounts.

In Philadelphia, Akhil Bansal would be arrested with his roommate and righthand man, Atul Patil. In New York, agents would grab David and Elizabeth Armstrong, who supervised the shipping depot. In India, agents would arrest Akhil's father, sister and four others.

The Bansals' best clients, the online pharmacy operators, would be busted, too: a radio personality in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a high-flying couple in Sarasota, Fla.; a pair of Texans who taught English overseas; some Germans who ran strip clubs in Costa Rica; an Indian running Web sites from Toronto; and a Rochester, N.Y., man who stashed his money in Ireland.

As the briefing neared conclusion, she heard an agent say Chin straps on! Barb chafed at the machismo.

But now, she had to admit, she felt goosebumps, too.

ROXBOROUGH

"Here's what we'll do."

After some good sleep and a return to classes, Akhil's entrepreneurial drive revived. He laid out his new plan to Foram.

First, he would not quit Temple.

He would complete the semester, his summer internship at Mercy Hospital, and his final semester that fall. He would earn his MBA and the master's in health-care finance.

Next, he would turn the pill business over to his sister. Let her try to run it from India.

Finally, he would start his own business. He wanted to take advantage of the global market's hottest industry, outsourcing.

Akhil planned to buy two American medical-transcription companies. He planned to replace the American typists with cheaper English speakers in India, and use the time difference to his advantage: Audio from an American doctor's dictated diagnosis could be e-mailed to India in the evening U.S. time and be transcribed by the next morning.

Akhil also wanted to bring his parents to Philadelphia, at least for the summer. His father would receive better medical care here, and he could help proofread the transcribers' work.

Proceeds from the pill network would finance the deal. Akhil would go legit.

Negotiations were going well. One company could be bought for $400,000, another for $220,000.

The whole family - Akhil, his parents, his fiancée - would remain in the United States as long as possible. Then they would all move back to the gleaming, $425,000 condo the good son had bought them in a swank New Delhi suburb.

Akhil had it all figured out.


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InvisibleveggieM

Registered: 07/26/04
Posts: 14,312
Re: Drugnet [PA] [Re: veggie]
    #6307761 - 11/28/06 04:00 PM (14 years, 5 months ago)

DrugNet, Chapter 8: Trap's Ready, Set - Go
November 26, 2006 - Philadelphia Inquirer



Akhil makes a dash for Canada, an FBI agent plays a hunch, and the feds hope an intricate global snare gets their prey in time.

ROXBOROUGH

The driver had the SUV's engine running.

Akhil Bansal hustled from his apartment, rolling a black canvas suitcase into the cool, clear night.

He carried $1,500 and a printout of an hours-old airplane ticket to India.

It was 1:39 a.m. on April 19, 2005.

The day's events swirled in Akhil's head: He had exams at Temple University in 11 days. An online-pharmacy client had been arrested in New York. That morning, Akhil's father had instructed him to flee "as soon as you smell trouble." That evening, Akhil discovered his bank accounts frozen. His mother called to say his father had fallen ill again.

Akhil put the bag in the car. His fiancée, Foram Mankodi, trailed behind, barefoot, into the glare of the parking lot's bright lights.

The driver, fellow student Prakash Bhavnani, wearing only plaid boxers and an undershirt, slid into the passenger seat.

Akhil got behind the wheel.

Foram shuffled back to the apartment and waved goodbye.

Akhil was headed for Detroit, where he had reserved a Ford Escape. He planned to drive the rental across the border to Toronto, where he would catch a nonstop to New Delhi.

He hit the accelerator.

Fifty yards ahead, a gray Ford Taurus jerked into the middle of the road, blocking the SUV's path. Akhil squinted into the car's headlights.

He saw a young man in jeans and an untucked polo shirt bolt from the car. The guy leveled a large black pistol at him.

"FBI! Let me see your hands!"

DOWNINGTOWN

DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden was asleep in his suburban Philadelphia home. As far as he knew, agents would be assembling at 5 a.m., an hour before Akhil's planned arrest. He did not know the FBI was already out there.

So when his cell phone woke him at 1:41 a.m., and a DEA agent in India reported that a new phone wiretap had just caught Brij Bansal urging Akhil to flee, Breeden panicked.

Would Akhil run? He banked online, and the feds had frozen his bank accounts. One of his big online pharmacy clients had been busted in Rochester, N.Y. Did Akhil know?

That New York arrest had been a nightmare. An independent investigation had led state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to the suspect, and Spitzer wanted to make his own splash. The feds had begged him to hold off, at least for a week, so as not to spoil DEA's much larger case. But Spitzer, who aspired to be governor, made the arrest anyway and publicized it.

As Breeden struggled to dress, he dialed his deputy to relay the warning from India. His heart raced. Would he blow the biggest case of his career? Would the drug dealers and their millions vanish hours before takedown?

But when Breeden reached agent Eric Russ, he got surprising news. Akhil was in custody.

Russ explained: Jason Huff, the lead FBI agent, had asked whether his squad might keep an eye on Akhil's apartment overnight - just in case. Russ had doubted Akhil was going anywhere, but had said OK.

Now, Huff was a hero.

AGRA, INDIA

Narcotics Control Bureau agents streamed into the gated Bansal residence.

It was afternoon in India. The mercury topped 100 degrees, and the NCB agents found the home's air-conditioned second floor filled with pharmacy employees, computers, and thousands of prescription pills.

"Don't get carried away with the drugs," NCB supervisor Raj Kumar reminded his men. "Get the computers."

Agents found Akhil's father on the ground floor, in bed.

Kumar tried to show respect. He did not relish arresting a prominent physician in front of his wife and servants.

He also worried about Brij's weak heart. Kumar couldn't afford to bungle one of India's most significant drug cases. What would the Americans think if the target died in custody?

Besides, these were probably the doctor's last moments of freedom. At 57 and with a diseased heart, Brij was unlikely to live long inside India's crowded prisons.

An NCB agent took a photo of Brij in bed. Someone read him the arrest warrant.

Kumar explained what was happening: Brij's son, Akhil, had been arrested in Philadelphia. Agents were moving to arrest Jaya Swami, the Bansal pill supplier in Bombay; the courier, Praveen Dua, in New Delhi; and a dozen Web site operators in America and Canada. Brij's daughter Julie, who lived in Jaipur, was next.

Brij said nothing.

Then his pupils rolled back. His eyes fluttered and closed. He seemed to slip into unconsciousness. The DEA agent there thought Brij might be faking. Not Kumar.

Brij's wife shook his arm and got no response.

"You've killed my husband!" she shrieked in Hindi. "You've killed my husband!"

DEA OFFICES, CENTER CITY

Akhil sat alone, uncuffed, in DEA's 10th-floor interrogation room on Arch Street. He stared at the faded blue walls and cheap one-way mirror. It was 5 a.m.

He thought about his father.

The door opened. Huff, the FBI guy, sat down. Russ from DEA brought Akhil a cup of water. They shut the door.

To the agents, the 26-year-old student slumped before them didn't look like the menacing, controlling guy behind so many e-mails. Where was the arrogance?

Akhil gave up easy.

For the next 90 minutes, he spoke freely. Mostly he confirmed what agents already knew. He did fill in a few holes, such as how the Bansals smuggled pills from India: Brij bribed a New Delhi customs agent, then shipped the pills via routine air-cargo to JFK, labelling them as cough medicine to avoid U.S. Customs scrutiny. It was that simple.

Akhil looked tired. He'd been up for 24 hours.

Russ and Huff didn't tape their conversation; federal agents rarely record interrogations. But Huff took 15 pages of notes on a legal pad, trying to jot down Akhil's exact words whenever he said something incriminating:

"... for sure that this is illegal business... this is a business in India that is easy money... never received prescriptions from customers... knew the consequences every time."

Akhil asked about his father.

He's under arrest, the agents said. They offered no details.

Akhil wondered whether his father might be extradited. U.S. prison might not be nice, but prison in India was hell on earth. His dad would not live long there.

Akhil's eyes began to water, but he held back tears.

NEW DELHI

With search and arrest warrants, NCB agents arrived outside No. 87, Prakash Mohalla, beside a thin ditch of a road bisected by a meandering stream of refuse.

Here, the Bansals' courier, Praveen Dua, stored the prescription pills, the last stop before shipment to America.

Following Indian police procedure, agents chose two random citizens to witness the search.

Dua let them in.

Inside the humid basement, the agents found 57 cardboard boxes filled with more than three million prescription pills.

Agents asked Dua for licenses or pill manifests, as required by Indian law. Dua didn't have any.

U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICES, CENTER CITY

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Cohan arrived at work in time to see the sun rise over Independence Hall.

Stoked on caffeine for the climax of her last big case, she longed for details. What had happened in India? Florida? New York? How much money had been seized? Was Akhil talking? What would agents find on his computers?

Her phone rang.

It was investigator Carlos Aquino, calling from DEA offices across Market Street.

Akhil was in custody, Carlos said, nabbed as he tried to flee. And get this: The friend with him wore only boxers.

Barb said, "The guy didn't take the time to put on a pair of pants?"

Carlos continued: In India, agents had moved on Akhil's dad and sister. In New York, DEA agents busted David and Elizabeth Armstrong, managers of the Bansals' U.S. pill depot.

Two of Akhil's closest accomplices, roommate Atul Patil and best friend Sanjeev Srivastav, were traced to a South Carolina motel room. Apparently, they were there on some business deal for Akhil.

The rest of the takedown, Carlos said, went well, too. They got Corrina Mehrer of Costa Rica at JFK Airport (4.1 million pills sold); a couple nude in bed at their waterfront condo in Sarasota, Fla. (2.3 million pills); a baby-faced radio personality, Vic DeVore, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (188,000 pills).

But they hadn't nabbed everyone. Two Canadians and three Australians remained at large. One of the Aussies was Andrew Shackleton, the case's first big target. Interpol was issuing a red flag on these guys.

All in all, Carlos said, "God was on our side on this one."

"Yeah," Barb replied. "And she's smiling."

DEA OFFICES, CENTER CITY

After Carlos hung up, he heard that the young, eager IRS agent, Aaron Carp, was interrogating Akhil. Unlike the FBI and DEA guys, whom Carlos knew well, this kid was an unknown. If Carp didn't do things by the book, Carlos worried, he could screw up the entire case.

Carlos entered the room, blew past Carp, and smacked a palm on the table, inches from Akhil's face.

"Listen, are you OK with this interview? You know, you don't have to talk. You can have a lawyer."

"No," said Akhil, tired. "It's not a problem."

Even so, Carlos pulled the IRS agent outside. "I want to make sure he is giving you this statement freely, because if he is not, then we need to stop the interview... . I don't want this to be a problem down the road."

Carp nodded.

"You sure?"

"Yes."

When the interview resumed, Akhil tried a different tack: Everything he did, Akhil told Carp, he did for his father. He opened U.S. and offshore bank accounts for his father. He met with online pharmacy owners in the United States for his father. He looked after the New York distribution depot for his father. In India, Akhil explained, a son must do whatever his father asks.

Carp wasn't satisfied.

"You're young," he said. "You're smart. You're working on your MBA at Temple. You have a girlfriend. You have your whole life ahead of you. Why would you think you would not get caught?"

Carp saw Akhil's lip quiver.

He had no answer.

FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER, CENTER CITY

Mail call, sixth floor, north cell block, a month later. Akhil gathered with other inmates around the guard holding a handful of letters.

"Laine!"

A hefty gray-haired Texan with glasses stepped forward.

Akhil eyed him. "Chris Laine?"

"Yeah."

It was the guy behind ourprescriptionsforless.com, a big Bansal client. The two men, who had spent the last year making each other rich, had never met.

Akhil stuck out his hand. "Akhil Bansal."

They had a lot to talk about. And plenty of time to do it.

AGRA

Akhil's mother was visiting Brij in his dank Indian prison when her cell phone rang.

It was Akhil, calling from prison in Philadelphia.

She handed the phone to Brij. After his collapse during the arrest, agents had rushed him to a hospital, where he recovered. Within days, guards moved him to prison. Brij was not expected to stand trial until 2007.

"Papaji, it's me. Akhil."

Brij wheezed.

"It's OK, Papaji. I'm OK."

Brij began to sob. Akhil didn't know what to say. He had never heard his father cry.

U.S. COURTHOUSE, CENTER CITY

In a sterile wood-paneled courtroom, the prosecutor rose before the jury and pointed at Akhil, who sat expressionless at the defense table.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this man supplied the drugs...," prosecutor Bea Witzleben began. "It was a family business... and the evidence will show you that... they did it for money. And they made lots of it. Millions."

Eleven months had passed since the big takedown. It was now March 2006. Barb Cohan had retired, Witzleben was arguing the case in her stead, and Akhil had decided to risk a trial.

It was a huge gamble: If convicted, Akhil faced a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. A plea, on the other hand, might mean five to 10 years.

But pleading guilty was out of the question. It would wreck his medical career, his reputation, and, he believed, his ability to marry Foram.

Besides, Akhil told anyone who would listen, he was innocent. The arresting agents had twisted his words; the interrogation was not a confession.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Rich Harris told jurors that Akhil believed what he had done was legal because his father held proper Indian licenses to dispense medicine.

"The government wants you to believe that this is some kind of Indian mob case, La Cosa Nostra in India...," Harris said. "This case is about a legitimate businessman who used the technology that's at his disposal to fill a niche in the marketplace."

The trial ran four weeks. Prosecutors introduced thousands of incriminating e-mails, invoices and bank records. Akhil's roommate, Patil, and some Web site operators, including Laine, testified for the prosecution.

Akhil took the stand, eager to set the record straight.

His lawyer asked: "Did you think that your father's business, from start to finish, as you understood it, was legal?"

Akhil: "It was legal."

"Did you have a conspiracy with anyone to commit any crime?"

"No. I don't know the Web site operators. I have never seen them, never met them... ."

"If your father had asked you to do something illegal, would you have done it?"

"He would never ask me to do anything illegal. I'm the only son for him. It just cannot happen."

On cross-examination, prosecutor Frank Costello skewered Akhil with sarcasm.

"Are you trying to tell this jury that you had nothing to do with this business?"

"I was helping him in his business."

"They were your customers, too, weren't they?"

"Sir, I was helping my father. I don't have any choice."

"Nobody forced you to do it, did they?"

"Nobody forced me to work; I was obliged to do it, it's -"

"You had $8 million in accounts in your and your friends' names, didn't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Not bad, was it?"

"I have seen more money than that."

FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER

Visiting room, two months later. Akhil leaned forward in his hard prison chair and explained the law to his lawyer.

Yes, the jury had quickly convicted him on 19 drug and money-laundering charges. Yes, he faced a minimum mandatory 20 years in prison, maybe even 30 years. But he had been up late in his cell studying American law books, reviewing evidence in his case, especially some suspicious entries in his Hotmail account records. Foram, who was not charged, was helping when she could from the outside.

As the lawyer listened, Akhil rattled off avenues of appeal: The wiretaps were illegal, the Patriot Act was misused, his dad's licenses were proper, prosecutors misapplied conspiracy law, witnesses lied, the judge hated him, the bank accounts were his father's, DEA agents violated their own rules, they were unfairly making an example of him...

The lawyer nodded.

MANHATTAN

In late October, Carlos and Russ were feted at an awards ceremony at the Taj Pierre Hotel. Carlos was sipping pinot grigio when he saw DEA Administrator Karen Tandy making her way to their table.

He put his glass down. Tandy hugged the agents.

"In my office," she told them, "I have only one newspaper article framed on my wall. It's about Operation Cyber Chase."

Tandy keeps the clipping as a memento of DEA's accomplishment, and the worldwide warning the bust sent to consumers and online pharmacies. It also reminds her of a lingering challenge.

The Bansals and their associates are in prison, but, as she often says, rogue pharmacies are an ever-growing threat to public health.

Thousands of them could be out there. There was no way to know for sure.

CHINATOWN

The next week, forwarded spam arrived in Carlos' in-box. He settled into his office on Arch Street and opened the e-mail.

Subject: Very important note. You must to read.

Dear Customers,

Halloween is coming up, and we are very happy to announce crazy discounts for meds. Get ready for scary low prices! PLUS for a limited time we add 5 FREE pills to any order!

Carlos clicked on the Web site.

Up popped a picture of a virile man with a wide smile, a glowing girlfriend, and offers of $2 Viagra, $3 Cialis, $3.33 Levitra.

Thank you for visiting our store!

We hope that you will find it to be a good source of qualitative generic medications. All the medicines one can see in our product list are manufactured by the most respectable plants of India.

We've efficiently streamlined our service, letting you buy from us in a very discreet, non-embarrassing and hassle-free manner.

Carlos forwarded the e-mail to a supervisor, the first step toward opening a new case.

EPILOGUE

Every law enforcement official who chased Akhil Bansal has enjoyed a career boost.

At DEA, Jeff Breeden now lives in South Africa, where he is the agency's country attache. Eric Russ is about to embark on a major heroin assignment. Carlos Aquino has been promoted to supervisor in Philadelphia.

FBI's Jason Huff has become the bureau's go-to agent for pill cases.

Aaron Carp, looking for more action, left IRS to join FBI; the bureau sent him to Kansas City, Mo.

Christine Konieczny, who led surveillance for DEA, returned to the Lower Merion Police Department and was promoted to detective.

James Pavlock, the money-laundering expert, won a permanent transfer from D.C. back to Philly.

Wendy Kelly, the first prosecutor on the case, is now assigned to coordinate terrorism trials in Guantanamo.

Barbara Cohan keeps busy making beads and baking for her husband's restaurant. She is weighing a return to law enforcement.

Brij Bansal remains imprisoned, awaiting trial in India. Akhil's fiancée, Foram Mankodi, now a pediatrician out West, says she still plans to marry him.

Akhil Bansal will be sentenced early next year. Meantime, he has sued Barb, Carlos, and almost everybody else who hunted him down.


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