Global Hunt Turns Pushers Into Prey A Temple grad student's double life puts agents here on the high-tech, high-stakes trail of rogue online pill dealers.

Posted: November 19, 2006

CHAPTER 1: FLIGHT

HENRY ON THE PARK APARTMENTS, ROXBOROUGH

Fighting a fever with pepper cardamom tea, the graduate student raced through his homework and e-mailed a PowerPoint presentation to classmates. American business school seemed so easy. Group homework assignments. Exam review sessions. Online classes. Open-book tests!

And now, on April 18, 2005, Akhil Bansal stood on the cusp of earning an MBA and a master's in health-care finance from Temple University, golden American degrees that would catapult his career back home in India.

He smirked at the irony of that evening's twin assignments, health-care marketing and generic-drug risk management, subjects in which he had more than a passing interest.

If they only knew . . .

Since his arrival in Philadelphia in 2003, this studious foreigner, with his rumpled flannel shirts and cocksure demeanor, had at age 26 blossomed into a global businessman.

While classmates studied case histories and created mock businesses, Akhil made real money. He controlled offshore accounts worth $6 million. He bought four cars and a sleek five-bedroom condo in a swank suburb of New Delhi. He could fly his fiance to London on a whim. The balance in his free student checking account stood at $401,881.

His family's business was simple. From its base in India, the company supplied Internet pharmacies on four continents. The Bansals were the guys who supplied the guys who sent that relentless spam, luring American consumers with cheap Viagra, no-prescription Ambien, next-day codeine.

Akhil oversaw the family's North American operations, shipping roughly 75,000 pills a day via UPS. In a little more than a year, the network had smuggled 11 million prescription tablets to more than 60,000 American addresses, an operation that grossed at least $8 million. These numbers did not include the steroids or the kilo shipments of the tranquilizer ketamine, a club drug called "Special K."

The family's Internet business represented a dark slice of the global economy so new, and so widespread, that national governments were still struggling to understand it, let alone police it.

Laws were vague, outdated, inconsistent. Technology - new medicines and ways to deliver them - was outpacing regulation.

Demand grew monthly. On this moonlit evening in April 2005, for example, the Bansal business had an additional six million tablets and 108 kilos of ketamine stockpiled in a cluttered garage and a warehouse in suburban Queens, N.Y.

There were risks, yes. Some clients paid slowly; some employees stole. More ominously, a valued client, one Web operator Akhil supplied, had been arrested on drug charges just days before.

Indeed, in an overseas phone call that very morning Akhil and his father, Brij Bansal, had discussed this arrest, spooked but reminding themselves again that what they were doing was legal: Both were doctors, after all, and in India most of the medicines they sold did not require a prescription.

Even so, the father sensed something wrong.

"Close all your bank accounts and transfer online," Brij told Akhil. "Keep an open ticket ready, and as soon as you smell trouble you can leave by the time they reach you."

"Yeah. . . . OK, Papaji."

ANJUMAN HOTEL,

AGRA, INDIA

Seven thousand miles away, a thin Indian drug agent with a rust-colored goatee perched over a laptop in a sweaty hotel room not far from the Taj Mahal.

The room's thick walls and tiny windows shielded the wire man from the blare of National Highway 2, a road so frenetic even cows gave way to its traffic.

Through headphones, the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau agent listened to a replay of the Bansals' father-son call. Then the wire man listened again to confirm what he had heard: "Start taking precautions . . . keep an open ticket . . . as soon as you smell trouble . . ."

Across the room, his boss and his boss' boss stood next to an agent from America's DEA. The stakeout, two blocks from Brij Bansal's upscale home, was the culmination of a 13-month global dragnet. The wire man knew this bust represented his country's biggest Internet pharmacy crackdown, and its biggest case with the Americans.

With a series of synchronized sweeps coordinated from Philadelphia, Indian and U.S. agents hoped to arrest 17 people worldwide and seize bank accounts from 11 countries.

This was what the wire man had been waiting for.

Over six months on the wire, he had come to know the Bansals. Despite the time difference - when it was day here, it was night in Philadelphia - father and son spoke daily. True, they talked about the son's schooling and the father's bad heart. But mostly they talked business: supply, demand, stock, delivery, debt, profit.

The wire man had also eavesdropped on the father's calls with his New Delhi courier. Again and again, Brij reminded the courier to use phony return addresses on the packages he shipped to the United States. Several times, Brij remarked that he was paying the courier six times the going rate, a fee for which he expected loyalty and secrecy.

In a way, the wire man felt sorry for the Bansals. Except for their crimes, they were educated, productive, respected members of society. It would be sad to see them yanked from their homes in handcuffs.

That inglorious end, he believed, lay hours away.

LANCASTER, PA.

Lynn, a 35-year-old mother who had not worked since a 2000 car accident, logged on to a familiar Web site, meds-warehouse.net.

Her doctor had prescribed Ambien in the past, but he was retired now, and insurance no longer covered the sleeping medication.

She ordered 30 tabs with her credit card.

The person at meds-warehouse.net did not require a prescription, nor did he have any medical training. He didn't even understand the purpose of half the drugs he sold.

After validating Lynn's credit card, the Web site operator entered the order onto an Excel spreadsheet, one of 24 Ambien orders this day - orders from Little Rock, Ark.; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Plano, Texas; Wichita, Kan.; and Philadelphia.

The operator forwarded the spreadsheet to his suppliers, Akhil and Brij Bansal, who fulfilled more than 1,000 orders each day from their Queens warehouse, shipping them by UPS across America.

DEA OFFICES,

CENTER CITY

Whenever DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden grew nervous, he would rub his forehead with his left hand. Now, as the arrest briefing began, Breeden dug deep into his brow.

Tomorrow's worldwide takedown of the Bansal network was to be monitored from this drab conference room overlooking Independence Mall.

The network supplied a rainbow of pills - painkillers, sleep aids, sedatives, stimulants, steroids, psychotropics, erectile-dysfunction medication. Thousands of orders a day.

Who knew who made this stuff, where it came from, what was in it? The public health risk that Internet drugs posed, Breeden thought, was incalculable.

Yet no one in DEA had ever worked a major global online pharmacy investigation. He knew it was a career case, one colleagues would always link to his name. Breeden? Yeah, he's the guy who supervised the Internet pill case out of Philly.

To take down the network, agents were using a number of weapons - surveillance, undercover buys, cell-tower pings, trash pulls, e-mail wiretaps, bank subpoenas, immigration reports, even provisions of the Patriot Act. Agents here had flown to Australia, Costa Rica and India.

As Breeden listened to the arrest briefing, he thought about everything that could go wrong.

Would foreign banks and governments cooperate? Or would they protect the targets, allowing Akhil and others to flee with millions? Would magistrates in several states authorize search warrants in time? Would the bad guys be there when agents raided their homes at dawn? Had any of them gotten wind of the premature arrest in New York? Did Akhil, as he implied in e-mails, really have a mole inside U.S. Customs?

Had they overlooked anything?

James Kasson, the top DEA official in Philadelphia, a weightlifter with a New York accent, began with a pep talk. What they were doing, he reminded the agents, was important, cutting-edge.

"The administrator is personally watching," Kasson said, citing Karen Tandy, DEA's top official in Washington.

Congress was pressuring Tandy to do something about illegal online pharmacies. She recognized the emerging public health threat. After all, any kid with a credit card and Internet access could order highly addictive drugs from the safety of home. But so far, DEA had struggled to take down the rogue pharmacies.

Tandy was counting on the Bansal case to make a splash.

In D.C., there was talk that the attorney general himself would announce the bust. In New York, DEA agents were going to let ABC News go along on the raids. In Philadelphia, U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan prepped for his news conference.

As the briefing broke up, the FBI agent on the case, Jason Huff, a bright young techie, approached the lead DEA agent, Eric Russ, a no-nonsense former Marine. Huff proposed an overnight stakeout of Akhil's Roxborough apartment, in case he and his roommate tried to flee.

Russ liked Huff, but Russ had a lot to coordinate, too much to accomplish before morning, and a stakeout wasn't part of the plan. He doubted anyone would run. These targets were computer nerds, not street thugs. If they hadn't detected surveillance trailing them for the last nine months, they weren't likely to be spooked at the eleventh hour.

Huff offered to have his FBI squad sit on the Roxborough apartment. Russ wasn't in the mood to argue. He thought, Knock yourself out, bud. I'm going home. I've got to be back here at 5 a.m. to coordinate arrests in five countries.

In the meantime, Kasson walked over to chat with Breeden, the nervous supervisor.

Kasson could see Breeden was tense. He tried some DEA humor.

"All right, Breeden," he said. "It's all on your shoulders now."

Wonderful, Breeden thought, knowing the boss was half-joking. He rubbed his forehead.

NEW DELHI

The deputy director of investigations for India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) was senior enough to rate an air-conditioner in his office. Yet Ahmad Payam Siddiqui was sweating anyway.

As the top official involved in the country's first Internet investigation, he knew the next 24 hours were vital.

For six months, Siddiqui had kept the Bansal case a closely guarded secret. Leaks and corruption were endemic in the Indian government, and Siddiqui feared someone would tip the targets in Agra or Delhi.

Akhil Bansal's father, Brij, was wealthy. If he knew what was coming, he might flee to nearby Nepal.

On the eve of the arrests, Siddiqui had had no choice but to let dozens of officials know about the case - agents, their superiors, local police. Who knew whom they might tell?

Siddiqui felt helpless. So much was at stake. The case. His reputation. The reputation of NCB. Of India.

If we screw this up, he thought, the Americans will think we are incompetent.

DUNKIN' DONUTS, NORTHEAST PHILA.

Prosecutor Barbara Cohan handed the search warrants to the magistrate judge on call.

It was well past 9 p.m.

Cohan ordered a large black coffee and an egg-and-bacon bagel, her first meal since breakfast, her first chance to exhale.

While the judge reviewed the paperwork, Cohan joined two cops at another table. They toasted her silently, clicking styrofoam. This was her last case as a federal prosecutor, probably the last time she would meet a magistrate after hours to get warrants approved. After 24 years - a career that included the successful prosecution of a KGB spy - Cohan was leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office.

That her last case was so important, so fascinating, so challenging, gave Cohan special satisfaction. Akhil's business acumen both impressed and repulsed her.

The prosecutor bit into the bagel, sipped some coffee. She looked up at Lower Merion Police Officer Christine Konieczny.

"Do you think he has any idea what's about to happen to him?"

"If he did -" Konieczny said.

"He'd run," Cohan said.

Everyone laughed.

They talked about that sweet moment - hours away - when agents would cuff Akhil.

Cohan said, "Wouldn't you just love to see the look on his face?"

ROXBOROUGH

About 10 p.m., Akhil received a call from India.

It was his mom, worried about his dad. Brij had a serious heart ailment, and twice since January Akhil had flown home to take him to specialists. Now Brij's hands and feet were swelling, a sign his heart wasn't pumping properly. Though he was a doctor, Brij was a stubborn patient.

Akhil tried to calm his mother. He promised to see her soon.

He hung up and sat down.

The timing couldn't be worse: He was days away from buying a $400,000 medical transcription business; his best friend and his roommate were in South Carolina to close the deal. He was feuding with his sister over control of their father's business. And, in 12 days, he had final exams at Temple.

Then there was that odd New York situation. When his client, a New York Web site operator, had failed to respond for a few days, Akhil had Googled the man's name. The headlines shook him: "Internet Drug Ring Smashed," "Cyber Gangs Charged."

Akhil recalled his father's warning: Keep an open ticket . . . leave . . .

Akhil got online and checked his favorite airline, Virgin Atlantic. A flight was leaving Newark, N.J., for London in nine hours. He booked it and pulled out his Bank of America debit card.

The card was rejected.

Akhil tried again. Rejected again. He tried another card. It didn't work, either. He tried an Air Canada flight from Toronto, leaving in 19 hours. No luck.

How could the bank screw up this badly? He had $401,881 in that account!

He logged on to bankofamerica.com. The account showed a negative balance.

He dialed the bank's 800 number. A woman who answered told him to call a Philadelphia number in the morning. She said, "Legal restrictions have been placed on the accounts."

Legal restrictions?

Legal restrictions. An arrested customer. A warning from his father.

Akhil hunted through his wallet and found a credit card that worked. He bought two tickets home - one departing Toronto on Air Canada and one departing Newark on Virgin Atlantic. Booking two flights gave him a backup, and a decoy.

Then Akhil called a classmate. He needed a big favor; there was trouble. Could the friend come over?

Akhil explained that he needed to leave for Toronto right away but didn't want to use his own car. Akhil's friend could sleep in the passenger seat while Akhil drove all night. To cross the border, Akhil reserved a rental car in Detroit, a Ford Escape.

At 1:40 a.m., Akhil emerged from his apartment into the crisp night air. He rolled his canvas suitcase to his friend's SUV and put his laptop in the backseat. He pocketed a handful of the pick-me-up Provigil, his drug of choice.

Then Akhil got behind the wheel and headed west.

BREEDEN'S HOME, DOWNINGTOWN

The DEA supervisor's cell phone woke him from a deep sleep at 1:42 a.m. He groped for the phone, but the call slipped to voicemail.

As Breeden fumbled to retrieve the message, the phone rang again. It was a DEA agent on the other side of the world.

The guy in India got right to it: There was a new wiretap from Brij's phone. It looked like Akhil planned to flee his Philadelphia apartment and probably leave the country. In fact, he might already be gone.

"Jeff," the agent said, "we need to get out there."

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

TOMORROW: ORIGINS

The making of a millionaire, and suspicious packages at the airport.

THE BANSAL PILL NETWORK

The Bansals smuggle pills into the U.S.

1 To avoid U.S. Customs, which targets small pill packages from overseas Web sites, Dr. Brij Bansal in India and his son, Akhil Bansal in Philadelphia, ship millions of pills in bulk from Delhi to their Queens, N.Y., distribution center.

2 A customer orders pills

American consumers, responding to spam or using Google to search for drugs, place a credit card order with a Web site. Unregulated sites do not require a legal prescription and are not registered with DEA.

3 The Web site forwards the order

The Web site charges the consumers credit card, then forwards the order to the Bansals operations in Agra, India, and Queens. Immigrants at the Queens depot fulfill the order, stuffing pills inside envelopes for UPS pickup.

4 Pills arrive

Within a day or two, UPS delivers the pills to the consumers doorstep.

5 Bansals get paid

Every few weeks, the Web-site operators wire payment to one of Akhils bank accounts.

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 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 Gerald Goebin; and eight current and former prosecutors, including Barbara Cohan. People who bought drugs online are identified by first name only because they have not been charged with a crime.

philly.com

For online extras throughout the series, including audio, video, photos and more, go to http://go.philly.com/drugnet

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