THE STORY SO FAR: Hours before DEA agents are to arrest Internet drug dealers in a worldwide sweep, Temple grad student Akhil Bansal races from his Roxborough apartment to flee home to India. Today's installment takes us back to the day the case began. It is February 2004.
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.
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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."
Akhil's sister, Julie, was in charge of marketing, or spam.
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:
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.