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Millions of US tax dollars spent to catch online Viagra vendors

By Beeker, Nov 27, 2006 | |
  1. Beeker
    http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/16096937.htmDrugNet, Chapter 8: Trap's Ready, Set - Go

    Akhil makes a dash for Canada, an FBI agent plays a hunch, and the feds hope an intricate global snare gets their prey in time.

    By John Shiffman

    INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

    [​IMG]
    MICHAEL BRYANT / Inquirer
    Lead FBI agent Jason Huff (right) asked permission for his squad to keep an eye on Akhil Bansal, in case he tried to flee. It was a good call. Huff and Special Agent Special Agent Shannon E. Clark (left) were among the agents who arrested Akhil. Agents rounded up suspects on the East County and in India.


    THE STORY SO FAR
    In the middle of the night, hours before DEA and FBI agents are to arrest Internet drug dealers in a worldwide sweep, Temple grad student Akhil Bansal senses something is wrong and races from his Roxborough apartment to catch a plane back to India. Today's installment begins as Akhil flees. It is April 19, 2005.
    ROXBOROUGH
    The driver had the SUV's engine running.
    Akhil Bansal hustled from his apartment, rolling a black canvas suitcase into the cool, clear night.
    He carried $1,500 and a printout of an hours-old airplane ticket to India.
    It was 1:39 a.m. on April 19, 2005.
    The day's events swirled in Akhil's head: He had exams at Temple University in 11 days. An online-pharmacy client had been arrested in New York. That morning, Akhil's father had instructed him to flee "as soon as you smell trouble." That evening, Akhil discovered his bank accounts frozen. His mother called to say his father had fallen ill again.
    Akhil put the bag in the car. His fiancée, Foram Mankodi, trailed behind, barefoot, into the glare of the parking lot's bright lights.

    The driver, fellow student Prakash Bhavnani, wearing only plaid boxers and an undershirt, slid into the passenger seat.
    Akhil got behind the wheel.
    Foram shuffled back to the apartment and waved goodbye.
    Akhil was headed for Detroit, where he had reserved a Ford Escape. He planned to drive the rental across the border to Toronto, where he would catch a nonstop to New Delhi.
    He hit the accelerator.
    Fifty yards ahead, a gray Ford Taurus jerked into the middle of the road, blocking the SUV's path. Akhil squinted into the car's headlights.
    He saw a young man in jeans and an untucked polo shirt bolt from the car. The guy leveled a large black pistol at him.
    "FBI! Let me see your hands!"
    DOWNINGTOWN
    DEA supervisor Jeff Breeden was asleep in his suburban Philadelphia home. As far as he knew, agents would be assembling at 5 a.m., an hour before Akhil's planned arrest. He did not know the FBI was already out there.
    So when his cell phone woke him at 1:41 a.m., and a DEA agent in India reported that a new phone wiretap had just caught Brij Bansal urging Akhil to flee, Breeden panicked.
    Would Akhil run? He banked online, and the feds had frozen his bank accounts. One of his big online pharmacy clients had been busted in Rochester, N.Y. Did Akhil know?
    That New York arrest had been a nightmare. An independent investigation had led state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to the suspect, and Spitzer wanted to make his own splash. The feds had begged him to hold off, at least for a week, so as not to spoil DEA's much larger case. But Spitzer, who aspired to be governor, made the arrest anyway and publicized it.
    As Breeden struggled to dress, he dialed his deputy to relay the warning from India. His heart raced. Would he blow the biggest case of his career? Would the drug dealers and their millions vanish hours before takedown?
    But when Breeden reached agent Eric Russ, he got surprising news. Akhil was in custody.
    Russ explained: Jason Huff, the lead FBI agent, had asked whether his squad might keep an eye on Akhil's apartment overnight - just in case. Russ had doubted Akhil was going anywhere, but had said OK.
    Now, Huff was a hero.
    AGRA, INDIA
    Narcotics Control Bureau agents streamed into the gated Bansal residence.
    It was afternoon in India. The mercury topped 100 degrees, and the NCB agents found the home's air-conditioned second floor filled with pharmacy employees, computers, and thousands of prescription pills.
    "Don't get carried away with the drugs," NCB supervisor Raj Kumar reminded his men. "Get the computers."
    Agents found Akhil's father on the ground floor, in bed.
    Kumar tried to show respect. He did not relish arresting a prominent physician in front of his wife and servants.
    He also worried about Brij's weak heart. Kumar couldn't afford to bungle one of India's most significant drug cases. What would the Americans think if the target died in custody?
    Besides, these were probably the doctor's last moments of freedom. At 57 and with a diseased heart, Brij was unlikely to live long inside India's crowded prisons.
    An NCB agent took a photo of Brij in bed. Someone read him the arrest warrant.
    Kumar explained what was happening: Brij's son, Akhil, had been arrested in Philadelphia. Agents were moving to arrest Jaya Swami, the Bansal pill supplier in Bombay; the courier, Praveen Dua, in New Delhi; and a dozen Web site operators in America and Canada. Brij's daughter Julie, who lived in Jaipur, was next.
    Brij said nothing.
    Then his pupils rolled back. His eyes fluttered and closed. He seemed to slip into unconsciousness. The DEA agent there thought Brij might be faking. Not Kumar.
    Brij's wife shook his arm and got no response.
    "You've killed my husband!" she shrieked in Hindi. "You've killed my husband!"
    DEA OFFICES, CENTER CITY
    Akhil sat alone, uncuffed, in DEA's 10th-floor interrogation room on Arch Street. He stared at the faded blue walls and cheap one-way mirror. It was 5 a.m.
    He thought about his father.
    The door opened. Huff, the FBI guy, sat down. Russ from DEA brought Akhil a cup of water. They shut the door.
    To the agents, the 26-year-old student slumped before them didn't look like the menacing, controlling guy behind so many e-mails. Where was the arrogance?
    Akhil gave up easy.
    For the next 90 minutes, he spoke freely. Mostly he confirmed what agents already knew. He did fill in a few holes, such as how the Bansals smuggled pills from India: Brij bribed a New Delhi customs agent, then shipped the pills via routine air-cargo to JFK, labelling them as cough medicine to avoid U.S. Customs scrutiny. It was that simple.
    Akhil looked tired. He'd been up for 24 hours.
    Russ and Huff didn't tape their conversation; federal agents rarely record interrogations. But Huff took 15 pages of notes on a legal pad, trying to jot down Akhil's exact words whenever he said something incriminating:
    "... for sure that this is illegal business... this is a business in India that is easy money... never received prescriptions from customers... knew the consequences every time."
    Akhil asked about his father.
    He's under arrest, the agents said. They offered no details.
    Akhil wondered whether his father might be extradited. U.S. prison might not be nice, but prison in India was hell on earth. His dad would not live long there.
    Akhil's eyes began to water, but he held back tears.
    NEW DELHI
    With search and arrest warrants, NCB agents arrived outside No. 87, Prakash Mohalla, beside a thin ditch of a road bisected by a meandering stream of refuse.
    Here, the Bansals' courier, Praveen Dua, stored the prescription pills, the last stop before shipment to America.
    Following Indian police procedure, agents chose two random citizens to witness the search.
    Dua let them in.
    Inside the humid basement, the agents found 57 cardboard boxes filled with more than three million prescription pills.
    Agents asked Dua for licenses or pill manifests, as required by Indian law. Dua didn't have any.
    U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICES, CENTER CITY
    Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Cohan arrived at work in time to see the sun rise over Independence Hall.
    Stoked on caffeine for the climax of her last big case, she longed for details. What had happened in India? Florida? New York? How much money had been seized? Was Akhil talking? What would agents find on his computers?
    Her phone rang.
    It was investigator Carlos Aquino, calling from DEA offices across Market Street.
    Akhil was in custody, Carlos said, nabbed as he tried to flee. And get this: The friend with him wore only boxers.
    Barb said, "The guy didn't take the time to put on a pair of pants?"
    Carlos continued: In India, agents had moved on Akhil's dad and sister. In New York, DEA agents busted David and Elizabeth Armstrong, managers of the Bansals' U.S. pill depot.
    Two of Akhil's closest accomplices, roommate Atul Patil and best friend Sanjeev Srivastav, were traced to a South Carolina motel room. Apparently, they were there on some business deal for Akhil.
    The rest of the takedown, Carlos said, went well, too. They got Corrina Mehrer of Costa Rica at JFK Airport (4.1 million pills sold); a couple nude in bed at their waterfront condo in Sarasota, Fla. (2.3 million pills); a baby-faced radio personality, Vic DeVore, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (188,000 pills).
    But they hadn't nabbed everyone. Two Canadians and three Australians remained at large. One of the Aussies was Andrew Shackleton, the case's first big target. Interpol was issuing a red flag on these guys.
    All in all, Carlos said, "God was on our side on this one."
    "Yeah," Barb replied. "And she's smiling."
    DEA OFFICES, CENTER CITY
    After Carlos hung up, he heard that the young, eager IRS agent, Aaron Carp, was interrogating Akhil. Unlike the FBI and DEA guys, whom Carlos knew well, this kid was an unknown. If Carp didn't do things by the book, Carlos worried, he could screw up the entire case.
    Carlos entered the room, blew past Carp, and smacked a palm on the table, inches from Akhil's face.
    "Listen, are you OK with this interview? You know, you don't have to talk. You can have a lawyer."
    "No," said Akhil, tired. "It's not a problem."
    Even so, Carlos pulled the IRS agent outside. "I want to make sure he is giving you this statement freely, because if he is not, then we need to stop the interview... . I don't want this to be a problem down the road."
    Carp nodded.
    "You sure?"
    "Yes."
    When the interview resumed, Akhil tried a different tack: Everything he did, Akhil told Carp, he did for his father. He opened U.S. and offshore bank accounts for his father. He met with online pharmacy owners in the United States for his father. He looked after the New York distribution depot for his father. In India, Akhil explained, a son must do whatever his father asks.
    Carp wasn't satisfied.
    "You're young," he said. "You're smart. You're working on your MBA at Temple. You have a girlfriend. You have your whole life ahead of you. Why would you think you would not get caught?"
    Carp saw Akhil's lip quiver.
    He had no answer.
    FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER, CENTER CITY
    Mail call, sixth floor, north cell block, a month later. Akhil gathered with other inmates around the guard holding a handful of letters.
    "Laine!"
    A hefty gray-haired Texan with glasses stepped forward.
    Akhil eyed him. "Chris Laine?"
    "Yeah."
    It was the guy behind ourprescriptionsforless.com, a big Bansal client. The two men, who had spent the last year making each other rich, had never met.
    Akhil stuck out his hand. "Akhil Bansal."
    They had a lot to talk about. And plenty of time to do it.
    AGRA
    Akhil's mother was visiting Brij in his dank Indian prison when her cell phone rang.
    It was Akhil, calling from prison in Philadelphia.
    She handed the phone to Brij. After his collapse during the arrest, agents had rushed him to a hospital, where he recovered. Within days, guards moved him to prison. Brij was not expected to stand trial until 2007.
    "Papaji, it's me. Akhil."
    Brij wheezed.
    "It's OK, Papaji. I'm OK."
    Brij began to sob. Akhil didn't know what to say. He had never heard his father cry.
    U.S. COURTHOUSE, CENTER CITY
    In a sterile wood-paneled courtroom, the prosecutor rose before the jury and pointed at Akhil, who sat expressionless at the defense table.
    "Ladies and gentlemen, this man supplied the drugs...," prosecutor Bea Witzleben began. "It was a family business... and the evidence will show you that... they did it for money. And they made lots of it. Millions."
    Eleven months had passed since the big takedown. It was now March 2006. Barb Cohan had retired, Witzleben was arguing the case in her stead, and Akhil had decided to risk a trial.
    It was a huge gamble: If convicted, Akhil faced a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. A plea, on the other hand, might mean five to 10 years.
    But pleading guilty was out of the question. It would wreck his medical career, his reputation, and, he believed, his ability to marry Foram.
    Besides, Akhil told anyone who would listen, he was innocent. The arresting agents had twisted his words; the interrogation was not a confession.
    In his opening statement, defense lawyer Rich Harris told jurors that Akhil believed what he had done was legal because his father held proper Indian licenses to dispense medicine.
    "The government wants you to believe that this is some kind of Indian mob case, La Cosa Nostra in India...," Harris said. "This case is about a legitimate businessman who used the technology that's at his disposal to fill a niche in the marketplace."
    The trial ran four weeks. Prosecutors introduced thousands of incriminating e-mails, invoices and bank records. Akhil's roommate, Patil, and some Web site operators, including Laine, testified for the prosecution.
    Akhil took the stand, eager to set the record straight.
    His lawyer asked: "Did you think that your father's business, from start to finish, as you understood it, was legal?"
    Akhil: "It was legal."
    "Did you have a conspiracy with anyone to commit any crime?"
    "No. I don't know the Web site operators. I have never seen them, never met them... ."
    "If your father had asked you to do something illegal, would you have done it?"
    "He would never ask me to do anything illegal. I'm the only son for him. It just cannot happen."
    On cross-examination, prosecutor Frank Costello skewered Akhil with sarcasm.
    "Are you trying to tell this jury that you had nothing to do with this business?"
    "I was helping him in his business."
    "They were your customers, too, weren't they?"
    "Sir, I was helping my father. I don't have any choice."
    "Nobody forced you to do it, did they?"
    "Nobody forced me to work; I was obliged to do it, it's -"
    "You had $8 million in accounts in your and your friends' names, didn't you?"
    "Yes, sir."
    "Not bad, was it?"
    "I have seen more money than that."
    FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER
    Visiting room, two months later. Akhil leaned forward in his hard prison chair and explained the law to his lawyer.
    Yes, the jury had quickly convicted him on 19 drug and money-laundering charges. Yes, he faced a minimum mandatory 20 years in prison, maybe even 30 years. But he had been up late in his cell studying American law books, reviewing evidence in his case, especially some suspicious entries in his Hotmail account records. Foram, who was not charged, was helping when she could from the outside.
    As the lawyer listened, Akhil rattled off avenues of appeal: The wiretaps were illegal, the Patriot Act was misused, his dad's licenses were proper, prosecutors misapplied conspiracy law, witnesses lied, the judge hated him, the bank accounts were his father's, DEA agents violated their own rules, they were unfairly making an example of him...
    The lawyer nodded.
    MANHATTAN
    In late October, Carlos and Russ were feted at an awards ceremony at the Taj Pierre Hotel. Carlos was sipping pinot grigio when he saw DEA Administrator Karen Tandy making her way to their table.
    He put his glass down. Tandy hugged the agents.
    "In my office," she told them, "I have only one newspaper article framed on my wall. It's about Operation Cyber Chase."
    Tandy keeps the clipping as a memento of DEA's accomplishment, and the worldwide warning the bust sent to consumers and online pharmacies. It also reminds her of a lingering challenge.
    The Bansals and their associates are in prison, but, as she often says, rogue pharmacies are an ever-growing threat to public health.
    Thousands of them could be out there. There was no way to know for sure.
    CHINATOWN
    The next week, forwarded spam arrived in Carlos' in-box. He settled into his office on Arch Street and opened the e-mail.
    Subject: Very important note. You must to read.
    Dear Customers,
    Halloween is coming up, and we are very happy to announce crazy discounts for meds. Get ready for scary low prices! PLUS for a limited time we add 5 FREE pills to any order!
    Carlos clicked on the Web site.
    Up popped a picture of a virile man with a wide smile, a glowing girlfriend, and offers of $2 Viagra, $3 Cialis, $3.33 Levitra.
    Thank you for visiting our store!
    We hope that you will find it to be a good source of qualitative generic medications. All the medicines one can see in our product list are manufactured by the most respectable plants of India.
    We've efficiently streamlined our service, letting you buy from us in a very discreet, non-embarrassing and hassle-free manner.
    Carlos forwarded the e-mail to a supervisor, the first step toward opening a new case.
    EPILOGUE
    Every law enforcement official who chased Akhil Bansal has enjoyed a career boost.
    At DEA, Jeff Breeden now lives in South Africa, where he is the agency's country attache. Eric Russ is about to embark on a major heroin assignment. Carlos Aquino has been promoted to supervisor in Philadelphia.
    FBI's Jason Huff has become the bureau's go-to agent for pill cases.
    Aaron Carp, looking for more action, left IRS to join FBI; the bureau sent him to Kansas City, Mo.
    Christine Konieczny, who led surveillance for DEA, returned to the Lower Merion Police Department and was promoted to detective.
    James Pavlock, the money-laundering expert, won a permanent transfer from D.C. back to Philly.
    Wendy Kelly, the first prosecutor on the case, is now assigned to coordinate terrorism trials in Guantanamo.
    Barbara Cohan keeps busy making beads and baking for her husband's restaurant. She is weighing a return to law enforcement.
    Brij Bansal remains imprisoned, awaiting trial in India. Akhil's fiancée, Foram Mankodi, now a pediatrician out West, says she still plans to marry him.
    Akhil Bansal will be sentenced early next year. Meantime, he has sued Barb, Carlos, and almost everybody else who hunted him down.

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