DrugNet, Chapter 5: Wiretaps

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

drugnetakhilcellphone
Cell phones, laptops and wiretapping software were among the surveillance tools used by federal agents to zero in on the Bansals' online drug-selling operation.

THE STORY SO FAR

Now that agents know Temple grad student Akhil Bansal is Mr. Big - the brains behind the biggest global Internet pharmacy network DEA has ever seen - they call in reinforcements from Washington. Today's installment begins as agents try to wiretap Akhil's e-mail. It is January 2005.

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.

How This Series Was Produced


This series is based on multiple interviews with more than 50 sources; U.S. and Indian judicial, e-mail and bank records; and secret U.S. grand jury transcripts, Indian wiretaps, and DEA and Homeland Security and investigative reports obtained by The Inquirer.

Quotes, details, interpretations, thoughts, conversations, even facial expressions, have been substantiated by firsthand observation, documents or multiple sources.

Interviews were conducted in New Delhi and Agra, India; Washington; and Philadelphia. Those interviewed include Akhil Bansal, Foram Mankodi and Bansal relatives; six Indian drug agents; 22 American federal agents, including DEA's Carlos Aquino, Eric Russ and Gerard Gobin; FBI agent Jason Huff; and eight prosecutors, including Barbara Cohan.

People who bought drugs online are identified by first name only because they have not been charged with a crime.

For an exhaustive list of sources, click here.

 

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.


Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 215-854-2658 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

THE REST OF THE STORY
Click here to read the other chapters in the serial.