What do a pharmacist in Wisconsin, a doctor in Pennsylvania and an ex-Army sniper from Kentucky have in common? Wittingly or not, they all found themselves caught in the web of computer programmer Paul Le Roux.
In the 1990s, the Zimbabwe-born South African created a free, open-source encryption software that was later used to write better-known and more successful programs. The experience left Le Roux bitter, frustrated that he missed out on profits and recognition. For his next act, Le Roux sought out success, and found it, in building a business through the nascent online pharmaceuticals industry. It wasn’t long before he moved on to more illicit and dangerous exploits.
From 2003 until his capture in 2012, Le Roux transformed his pill mill operation into a global empire that trafficked in painkillers, cocaine, meth, guns and missile technology. Based in Manila, Le Roux ran his operation largely from his laptop, protected by impenetrable encryption software he wrote, and gained power through threatened violence and assassinations. The United States is still struggling with the consequences of his nefarious activities; Roux accrued hundreds of millions of dollars selling prescription opioids and played a significant role in accelerating the epidemic currently ravaging the nation.
For the past several years, journalist Evan Ratliff has worked to make sense of Le Roux’s operation, motivation and transformation from a software programmer to an enterprising criminal. “He knew how to leverage the power of the internet, to actually do it all out in the open,” Ratliff said in a recent interview. “And he had the technical acumen to keep them from really being able to get back to him and pin it on him.” Ratliff first wrote about Le Roux in an acclaimed multipart series in The Atavist and returns to and expands on the crime boss in his new book The Mastermind.
After a U.S.-led sting operation caught Le Roux making a meth smuggling deal, he struck a plea bargain and became an informant on his own hires for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He’s likely to be sentenced in the first half of this year. Smithsonian spoke with Ratliff about Le Roux, his empire and how it impacted Americans.
What was Le Roux’s grand “pill mill” scheme? How did it work?
Le Roux would recruit local pharmacies and local doctors in the United States and patch them into this brilliant network that he had built, so that orders would come through online spamming and search results. So if someone wanted a pain killer, they would Google it, they would end up at a website that was controlled by Paul Le Roux or one of his associates, and then they could buy through that website.
When they placed an order, they filled out a survey about their condition that required them to get this painkiller. The survey went to a real doctor who wrote a real prescription. That real prescription then went to a real pharmacy—usually a small-town pharmacy competing against big box drugstores— who had signed on with Le Roux. Then, that painkiller got shipped out to them via FedEx.
The whole thing was overseen and controlled by Le Roux who was making at first tens of millions and then hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers—some of them opioids, some of them non-opioids—to American customers. The original genius, if you will, of Le Roux was, that he could do this all from the Philippines where he was based, never step foot in the United States, and yet control a massive drug distribution operation inside the United States.
For many years, the DEA tried to stop it or tried to track it. Part of the problem was none of the drugs were controlled substances, so they weren't officially designated as illegal in the U.S. You still need a prescription, but they were sort of always chasing the tail of this giant network without being able to find a way inside of it.
Le Roux later metastasized his operation into a true, global cartel. He started dealing in arms. He started dealing in hard drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, and moving them all around the world, in yachts, by planes, with drones. He set up a militia in Somalia. He was buying gold all over Africa. He was laundering money in Hong Kong. He had dozens of shell companies through which all of this was operating. He was hiring mercenaries then to enforce his debts and intimidate and kill people. Then, the U.S. got him.
You write that a trip to the U.S. inspired Le Roux somewhat. Can you explain how?
Le Roux was born in Zimbabwe and moves to South Africa as a teenager. He was a natural programmer. He got into computers and video games as a teen and dropped out of school to take his own computer courses.
When he was 17 or 18, he took a trip with his family to the U.S. and all this technological wizardry, whether it was just ATMs or personal computers, opened his eyes to a world that was out there. According to his relatives, that was the moment where he said that he no longer wanted to stay in South Africa, that he was going to leave home; not just leave his home, but he was going to leave the country.
He bought a plane ticket, took a bunch of programming books, flew to London and got a job as a programmer at a company there.
Most of his empire was overseas in the Philippines or Israel or Brazil, but it had a direct impact on several Americans. Can you talk about some of those who became major figures in his world?
Over 100 pharmacies at any given time were being used inside the United States to sell these drugs, and a somewhat smaller number of doctors that were recruited too. They probably knew at some level they were doing something wrong, but a lot of them were either willing to look the other way in selling these pills, or offered themselves an explanation that they were filling gaps in the American healthcare system by offering people with chronic pain drugs that they had prescriptions for, or had previous prescriptions for that were totally valid. That's what they were telling themselves.
Then, there was this more sinister group, which included ex-American soldiers who were recruited into Le Roux's security teams who were essentially, for lack of a better term, mercenaries. They would do everything from protecting his gold stashes to intimidating or killing people who stole from him or who he suspected stole from him, even the slightest, slightest amounts. Le Roux had turned very violent as his empire got bigger, so he used these American soldiers, trained by the U.S. Army, who had then worked for American security contractors during the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. They then turned their skills to use for Le Roux and his various ends, many of them violent, around the world.
What do you think drew these Americans into it?
Well, for some of them, it was just greed. It was easy money. In many cases, they didn't want to think about the true source of that money or the true impacts of what they were doing, whether it was prescribing drugs for customers or protecting gold shipments
In other cases, especially with the mercenaries, there was sort of a sense of adventure to it. I mean here you have a rich man who's paying you to fly all over the world and engage in truly insane and sometimes dangerous ventures, whether it's logging in Vanuatu or gold buying in back alleys in Accra. These kind of adventures, especially to ex-military guys, were particularly appealing when the alternative was to go work for a contractor in Iraq or Afghanistan, where it's much more dangerous.
Le Roux also had a certain magnetism. Especially as he became more wealthy and powerful, people got pulled into his orbit and would do things that later they could not believe that they had done. That was really almost a cult of personality. He was so much smarter than many of them that they felt overpowered by his intellect and by the number of things he could keep track of. Combine that with his wealth, and then the sort of violence threatened if they left the organization, and that all rolled up into people ending up just completely absorbed in this organization.
How is Le Roux connected to the opioid epidemic in the U.S. today?
The whole opioid epidemic flew under the radar for a long period of time. But even as it became more prominent, the three main drugs that Le Roux was selling, all of which are painkillers, and one of which is an opioid, were not scheduled substances like Oxycontin or fentanyl. Those drugs have a lot of prominence in the discussion of opioids because of the way Oxycontin was over-prescribed. These other drugs within Le Roux's network were being overprescribed, but with much, much less publicity.
The stories [about Tramadol and Fioricet] are the same stories that you hear about the opioid epidemic. It's someone who got into an accident and got some drug from their doctor, and then when the prescription ran out, they'd go online, they Google Tramadol, and they ended up on one of Le Roux’s websites. People who lost their insurance who were looking for a cheaper place to buy them, and then that spirals into an addiction.
It's all sort of laced together. It's not the drug that's the same profile, they don't have the same overdose potential, but in terms of being stepping stones to those drugs or heroin or other drugs, it's all of the same family.
Le Roux is now in U.S. custody, awaiting sentencing. How did the authorities catch him?
The DEA tracked Le Roux for years. By 2008 and 2009, they started to get a pretty good picture of his online prescription pill network. The problem was the way he had constructed it, including building his own email servers and his own domain name registrar. It shielded him from the authorities developing the kind of evidence that they could use to actually prosecute him. He was also bribing authorities in the Philippines and Brazil to protect himself.
A DEA division in Minnesota was looking into him as was another division called the Special Operations Division, based out of Virginia. It was the latter that eventually caught him. They set up a sting operation around a methamphetamine deal.
They had a person who had been inside of Le Roux’s organization who they recruited to return to the organization with a fake deal, a big methamphetamine-for-cocaine deal to take place in Liberia. Le Roux by this time was very into expanding his empire and connecting with Colombian cartels and shipping drugs all over the Pacific. He essentially fell for the ruse. He ended up in Liberia for a meeting with a supposed Colombian drug dealer. That's where they arrested him and then quickly brought him back to United States.
There was one person at the DEA who was particularly instrumental in tracking him.
Kimberly Brill is one of the most amazing stories in this whole thing. She was working as a diversion investigator at the DEA. She doesn't carry a gun. Generally, she doesn't go bust drug dealers. A diversion agent is more concerned with prescription drugs, legal drugs that are then diverted onto the illegal market in some way.
They take down shady pharmacies and shady doctors and play a big role in trying to take on the opioid epidemic in particular. When she started looking into Le Roux, she and Steven Holdren, her partner, were young diversion agents, relative rookies in this office in Minneapolis. They hit a bust of a pharmacy in Chicago. These pharmacies are busted all the time for doing online sales of drugs, and then you take down one, and another one just appears.
What Brill and Holdren figured out was the huge network behind the pharmacies. They wanted to get to that. They started by subpoenaing the FedEx shipment number and determining that there was not just one pharmacy on there, there were hundreds. Then, Brill in particular spent almost a decade tracking this organization, at times as almost the only person doing it. You're talking about an organization that has hundreds of millions of dollars, the best technology at its disposal, mercenaries, soldiers, call centers with thousands of representatives, and there's one DEA agent in a cubicle in Minneapolis who's spending her days and nights trying to unravel this thing.
Eventually, she did. She got to sit in a room across from Paul Le Roux after he was arrested and debrief with him. It was the moment where the two people who knew the most about this operation in the world were sitting across from each other. Her pursuit of him, despite the fact that ultimately her division wasn't the one that arrested him, is pretty incredible.
You've been reporting on this story for years. Why were you drawn to it?
Initially, I was interested in the mercenary side of it. The first person who was publicly arrested was Joseph Hunter, a decorated former soldier in the U.S. Army, whose nickname was Rambo. He was an intriguing character because he was arrested for the potential murder of a DEA agent and was part of the sting operation. There was a lot of mystery around it. First, I was just sort of trying to get to the bottom of where this guy came from and why he had been wrapped up in this sting operation.
Then a year into it, it leaked that Le Roux himself had been the person atop the whole organization and that he was this programmer. That's when it really grabbed me because Le Roux exists at this intersection of interests that I've had for a long time, which include technology and illicit endeavors and identity. He's the ultimate figure in terms of leveraging the internet to create a totally self-made, not only persona, but also an empire that was at its height, as big as Facebook was at the time. He was making as much money, according to one DEA source, as Facebook was making during the same general time period. If this was a legitimate business, he would be on the cover of magazines, but because he took this illicit route, he ended up being the most infamous, rather than the most famous, tech person.