THE STORY SO FAR
Temple grad student Akhil Bansal and his dad in India are making millions smuggling pills to Americans who buy them online. Today's installment begins as DEA agents race to Australia, hoping to head off a move that could ruin their big case. It is October 2004.
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."
How This Series Was Produced
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.