THE STORY SO FAR: Pills discovered at Philly's airport launch DEA's first global Internet pharmacy case, leading agents to a rendezvous with a mysterious shipper and a clue from overseas. Today's installment begins as Akhil Bansal, smuggling a half-million pills a month here from India, prepares for the biggest business meeting of his young life. It is July 2004.
"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.
How This Series Was Produced
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.
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 "Carlito's Way."
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?
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.
By midsummer, Carlos and Breeden had finished assembling a team for Operation Carlito'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.
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.
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.
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? 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.
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?"
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.
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."