THE STORY SO FAR
DEA agents working their biggest online pharmacy case find a smoking gun: a brazen PowerPoint presentation made by Temple grad student Akhil Bansal, outlining his entire pill network. Today's installment begins as Akhil flies back to India, where his father has suffered a heart attack. It is March 2005.
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.
How This Series Was Produced
"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.
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."
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..."
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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.