Jonny Auping | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,367 words)
Paul Le Roux is unequivocally a criminal mastermind, and if you’ve never heard his name, that only proves the point. After all, a criminal mastermind isn’t just defined by the audacity of his crimes, but the extent to which he gets away with them, and by that measure Le Roux is nothing short of brilliant.
Journalist Evan Ratliff has spent years piecing together who Le Roux is and the unbelievable nature of his crimes. In his recently released book, The Mastermind, Ratliff paints a picture of a man considered by one source to be the “most versatile criminal in history.” Throughout the mid-aughts, Le Roux, a South African computer programmer, ran an illegal online pharmaceutical scam that sold addictive painkillers to Americans at astonishing rates. Real doctors signed off on the scam. Real pharmacists sold the drugs. But it was Le Roux, usually operating from a computer in Manila, who was pulling all the strings. The painkiller scheme grossed him hundreds of millions of dollars.
That money would go on to fund a global criminal enterprise that included literal boatloads of cocaine, shipments of methamphetamine from North Korea, weapons deals with Iran, and a team of ex-military mercenaries who were ordered to kill anyone who threatened Le Roux’s bottom line.
The Mastermind is an incredible feat of reporting that takes the reader step by step into the journeys of Le Roux’s employees, accomplices and hired killers, as well as the law enforcement teams trying to take him down. Most of these parties were largely unaware of the scope of Le Roux’s enterprise. The shocking details and twists that Ratliff reveals are unrelenting; they tell a story that would be impossible to believe if Ratliff didn’t bring the reader along on the reporting upon which it all rests.
Ratliff took the time to talk to Longreads about his reporting process, what it was like having more information than some of his sources, and how Le Roux’s machinations may still be at play.
Jonny Auping: How did you first come to hear about Paul Le Roux?
Evan Ratliff: The first part of the story that I heard about was the arrest of a guy named Joseph Hunter — his nickname was “Rambo,” which was part of his claim to fame — in 2013. Hunter was arrested in a sting operation by the DEA for agreeing to organize a hit team to murder a DEA agent. There was no actual DEA agent in that situation. It was all a setup. They had been luring Hunter into this trap.
That news came out in September 2013, and then there was another DEA bust of a group of guys who were trying to import methamphetamine into the United States. The bust happened right around the same time, and there were some similarities between them in terms of the prosecutors involved and the people being arrested. I started following along the story then and doing a little bit of reporting on it, trying to figure out what the connections were.
Then about a year later someone leaked the name Paul Le Roux in a New York Times story and that kind of unified all the reporting that I’d been doing before, in terms of connecting what brought these groups together. What brought them together was this guy named Paul Le Roux, who had basically started his own international drugs and arms cartel, and he was actually the person behind all these other operations.
I had been hooked on it since Joseph Hunter, but once a little bit of information came out about Paul Le Roux — but no one was really putting it all together — that’s when I started really, really reporting hard on it.
So when you found out that there was this guy that linked all of these things together you knew then that you wanted to write about that guy?
For sure. I could glean enough about him at a glance that I sort of knew that I would be fascinated with not just how he built what he did but who he was. He was a computer programmer, who initially made hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers over the Internet to American customers. Then he became this sort of criminal mogul, who diversified into every type of crime that you can pretty much imagine on an international scale.
So there was this question of how did he actually do that? It’s not the way that the Colombian drug cartel comes about, for instance. He was entirely unknown, and he was South African, and he was doing it out of the Philippines and yet a lot of the stuff was happening in the U.S., and he had these mercenary teams of ex-military guys. There were so many elements that made me wonder how is this even possible? Once I got deeper and deeper into it the question became how did these other people get involved?
One expert I interviewed… basically said to me, ‘I think he may be the largest individual contributor to the painkiller epidemic.’ That’s as an individual person.
When you originally wrote about Le Roux it was for a series of stories for Atavist Magazine. You wrote in the book that a number of new sources came forward reaching out to you after that series came out. Did those new characters unlock perspectives you needed to write the book?
Yeah. Absolutely. The series was long, and we did it very quickly, so it didn’t exactly feel like I got to sit down and do my best writing necessarily because I was writing a couple thousand words a day and we were doing them weekly and churning them out based on what I could do in the time. I knew there was more to say, but I didn’t want to just say Oh here’s this series and, I’ve added some words, and now it’s a book.
It was really the secondary reporting that came about after that that really allowed me to take it all apart and form it as a book. Part of that was, yes, the people that got in touch with me who read it and would say things like, “You nailed it. You got everything right except you didn’t mention me.” That’s such a gift, because at varying levels, it’s so hard to even find people that were part of an international criminal network or to get them to talk.
There were people who were very afraid to go on the record or be identified by name, who as time went on, saw the depth that I was trying to achieve with the way I was telling the story and they changed their minds.
The book’s chapters are divided into perspectives from various characters like, “The Investigators,” or “The Doctor,” or “The Mercenaries,” or “The Pharmacist.” One of those perspectives is “The Reporter.” When did you know that you would insert yourself as character into the story, and what went into that decision?
Part of the argument was that this story is big and complicated and kaleidoscopic in a way with all these different perspectives, and one way that you can help a reader get through all that is to have them climb on your back and see what you’re seeing.
I almost didn’t do it for the book. But then the way the reporting went, I just felt very strongly that I wanted to be transparent in how I got the information, because in this type of reporting, you’ve got people who were part of the criminal network. You’ve got law enforcement. You have all these interests. You’ve got people who don’t tell the truth. They have a lot of incentives for not telling the truth. You get stories that are very difficult to check or triangulate. So I just wanted to be as open as possible about where all this was coming from so you can sort of see “Ah I see where he pieced this together.” I pieced it together over many years. That’s why I put in 50 pages of source notes, also, to show this is not a story from one perspective or the official account or anything like that. It’s a story that was built off of a lot of reporting.
I think it was helpful in the sense that a lot of these characters that were sources didn’t know about the stuff that was happening with the other sources and characters. You were that thing, besides Le Roux, that tied all of them together.
That was another reason. That happened so much that I would be trying to interview someone and they would be asking me questions about the other people or the other side of it. Even people in law enforcement who had been tracking it for a long time didn’t know some of the things I knew. I felt like that was an additional reason to put myself in there to sort of show that I was also weirdly serving that role.
In your reporting you scoured thousands of reports and documents, trying to piece together who Le Roux really was. But you also traveled to places as far as the Philippines and Israel. Maybe this is a silly question, but how much pressure did you feel to come back from those trips having uncovered more? If answers were easy to find in those places he probably wouldn’t have been getting away with his crimes in the first place.
Yeah, there was certainly that sense of pressure that I would generally put on myself on any reporting trip, especially if I’m funding it, which was the case here. So there is a feeling that I have, and that I think most reporters have, of If I’m here for two or three weeks I have to get as much as possible and stack up these interviews. Also you have to leave yourself open to the possibility that one interview leads to an unexpected interview. I tried to be as organized as possible.
The pressure mounts when you have a family. It’s an even bigger deal to leave for an extended period of time. You think Okay, If I’m going to be here I need to make the most of every possible minute in Hong Kong or wherever. This is not half-vacation. When I was younger and single I would tack on extra days and hang out, but this was not that.
I had a lot of people giving me these warnings, saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t talk to this guy,’ or ‘You need to be careful,’ or ‘There are people out there that will kill you.’
At one point a police officer in the Philippines told you, “You know what you are looking into, it’s very dangerous?” Were there specific points when you feared for your safety? Your own reporting showed that Le Roux had people killed over a lot less than trying to write a book uncovering his entire criminal enterprise.
I wouldn’t say there were many moments where I felt personally in danger. Partly because Le Roux was in custody from the time that I started, but the nature of his custody was very mysterious. There were people who were like, “He could be out tomorrow. He could already be out under witness protection.” No one knew what was going on. There were a lot of people who had told me that the U.S. had already let him out, they just hadn’t told anyone.
I had a lot of people giving me these warnings, saying, “Oh you shouldn’t talk to this guy,” or “You need to be careful,” or “There are people out there that will kill you.”
But I always felt like, for someone who was being approached by a reporter, who already knows that they were part of something, there’s just not that much incentive for someone to do me harm. Mostly people wanted to know what I knew. If I show up to their door and they’re going to beat me up, it’s too late. They know that I know something. I’m obviously going to write it or have already written it. Doing harm to me is not going to make their situation better.
Le Roux’s criminal empire began with illegal online pharmaceutical sales. Compared to the types of things that he would later venture into, that might seem like the most mild of his crimes. But considering the time period that he was doing this [around 2004-2012], is it fair to say that he played a large part in the United States’ current opioid crisis?
I think it’s fair to say he played some part.
There’s one expert I interviewed for the book named John Horton, who founded this company called LegitScript that monitors online pharmacies and reports them. He basically said to me, “I think he may be the largest individual contributor to the painkiller epidemic.” That’s as an individual person. Not counting, like, Purdue Pharma or Oxycontin. That’s a different scale than what any one person’s organization is doing, but he was making hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers to American citizens.
The interesting thing about it was that the ones that he was selling were, for the most part, under the radar. They were potentially addictive, one of them being Tramadol. There’s a huge addiction crisis with Tramadol in other parts of the world, but they weren’t [designated as] controlled substances [in the U.S.] so they never got the attention of an Oxycontin. Even when the crisis was becoming something in the news, they still weren’t controlled substances. So he was kind of skirting the edges of the law in this gray area very smartly, because he knew that he could get in bigger trouble if he was just peddling Percocets.
I would certainly say the volume of prescriptions that he was responsible for certainly contributed to many people likely being addicted or fueling their addiction to painkillers and other drugs.
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It seemed like a huge part of his brilliance was his ability to compartmentalize everything so that thousands of his employees or people he worked with directly didn’t seem to understand the extent to which they were breaking the law, or even that they were breaking the law. Having talked to a lot of these people, do you chalk that up to naiveté or voluntary ignorance or Le Roux’s manipulation?
In the organization, there was definitely willful blindness. If some of these people had bothered to pay attention they would have known that what they were doing was illegal, and they were sort of studiously trying to not pay attention.
That was across the range of different operations. He was also, not necessarily charismatic, but he is a brilliant guy, and the force of his intellect was very strong. He had obviously come up with this Internet scheme, which was technically brilliant, entirely architected by him and made hundreds of millions of dollars. So whatever level he was a genius at all the other things, people thought of him as a genius. People just didn’t really question what he was doing. So if he didn’t tell you what your project was for, there was no one to ask because he ran everything from his laptop in Manila. So if he told you, “I want to you get on a plane and go here and buy a house” or “Go here and register this boat” or “take this stack of a million dollars and fly into Ghana” then all you had was your instructions. You didn’t know anything else. He would actually wall off people entirely from knowing anything about the other side of the business. The people who worked from the pharmaceutical side had no idea that he was involved in arms dealing and drug dealing. They were as surprised as anyone when all that stuff came out.
So it’s a combination of his manipulation being almost a little cult-like and then a willingness from people involved in something they were getting paid pretty well to ignore what was maybe right in front of their faces.
The Minnesota side of the DEA, who tracked him for a really long time and were responsible for really generating all the evidence about him initially, they think the government has been a little bamboozled by Le Roux.
It definitely blew my mind that there never seemed to be any sort of right-hand person or anyone working under him who seemed remotely as smart as him. There was one genius and a bunch of pawns.
Yeah, he was running what was essentially an Internet startup that was incredibly successful on the level of straight businesses or startups that we know about now like Facebook or PayPal. It was that type of organization except there was no one else to run it. There was no one else even with the kinds of skills that he had. He did everything himself. And then it became a diversified conglomerate that was involved in all sorts of online and non-online businesses. He was the only one coming up with the deals and deciding how deals got made, how they would transport drugs, or what they would sell to Iran. It was all him.
It was, in a way, an incredibly unique operation, even if you take away the fact that it was a criminal operation.
I think it’s fair to say he’s an objectively brilliant person who maintained this empire. Do you think his ambition was too wrapped up in greed and vanity and maybe some sort of weird insecurity for him to have been able to leverage that brilliance for good or honest means the way he did for evil?
There’s that classic thing with any smart criminal where you say, “What if he or she had just applied himself to some straight world business, could they have done it?” But I think it’s particularly apt for Le Roux because there were two moments when he really could have done that.
One was that he was a computer programmer before he started the pharmaceutical business, and he had already written this well-regarded encryption software that he gave away for free so he never made money off of it. Then he decided, “Now I want to make money.” There were people making all kinds of money on the Internet. He could have gone the traditional startup route. I think, as happened in many cases along the way, he just wanted so much so fast. He didn’t want to wait. He didn’t have the patience. So he found the pharmaceutical business because it had incredible returns, and the scheme that he concocted, it wasn’t full proof, but it was so clever that it could operate almost out in the open without anyone prosecuting it.
The other moment was when he had already made all of his money from that, he could have — as many criminals tend to do — reorient himself into straight businesses and get legitimate businesses going and leave the criminal element behind. But instead he doubled down. He wanted to do things that were more criminal, that were true drug trafficking and true arms trafficking. That decision was just because the returns on those businesses were just manifold compared to, you know, investing your money. He was gambling for big wins and he wanted to be the biggest. He was on his way to being the biggest criminal in the world. Part of that was maybe the megalomania and the power and the feeling of knowing that you have this power projected all around the world.
You had reported on Le Roux for over two years when you finally sat in the same courtroom as him. You wrote that you thought you locked eyes for a split second. Did he fit the image of him in your head when you finally saw him?
He did physically because he’s a big guy. Every single person that I talked to and interviewed, that’s the first thing they say about him. They would call him “The Fat Man” behind his back. He dressed really slovenly for a rich man. T-shirts and shorts and flip-flops.
Physically he didn’t really surprise me that much, but at the time I hadn’t even heard a recording of him or seen a video of him. There was nothing available in terms of what he was like, I only had what people had told me about him. He does have a kind of real presence. In the courtroom in particular that presence was striking because he did not even make the slightest attempt to show remorse for the crimes that he admitted to, including murders that he had ordered, murders that he helped commit against people that worked for him. His nominal number-two, right-hand man was murdered by him. That was the part that was the most striking to me. He was very analytical and very calm and completely emotionless talking about what he had done.
So he didn’t even seem defeated or broken down for having been in custody for a few years at that point?
There were later times that, physically, I could see the toll it had taken on him, in terms of walking and, I don’t know the specifics, but I think he has some health problems. But in terms of being a broken man because of being in custody, he did not seem that way at all.
In fact, one of the things that was fascinating was the different sides. When the defense lawyers would question him [in a case in which he testified against others] he was a very, very defiant and resistant and confident witness. When he was questioned by prosecutors he was very on-script. Whether they had scripted him or not, he was clearly practiced. He knew what to say and he stuck to it and he was very smart in the way he answered questions. He always seems sort of in command. He never seemed like they had broken the life out of him.
He turned them into criminals. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be prosecuted, but it does call into question the idea of giving leniency to Le Roux.
When Le Roux was arrested he quickly turned informant, and he was treated like an important asset. He testified against men who committed murders that he admitted to have ordered. You suggest a possibility that he only spend 15 years in prison, and others have implied he might have riches hidden all over the world for him to start again. For years he outsmarted his competition, local law enforcements, and his victims. Is it possible that, even now, he’s outsmarting the United States government?
The ultimate verdict on whether or not he’s outsmarted the DEA and the federal prosecutors will come down to his sentence. He’s probably going to be sentenced in the first half of 2019. It’s not entirely clear. There’s a date, but I think the date is probably going to get moved. There’s some possibility that he gets extradited or released and deported to the Philippines where he would be prosecuted in the Philippines. It really depends on the outcome of that.
He was able to cut a deal very quickly — partly reliant on the potential national security benefits of his information about Iran and North Korea — that prevents him from ever being prosecuted here for the murders that he ordered. There are disputes between two sides of the DEA about Le Roux. The Minnesota side of the DEA, who tracked him for a really long time and were responsible for really generating all the evidence about him initially, they think the government has been a little bamboozled by Le Roux with these big claims that he’s going to help them with national security issues that never panned out. Then the people who arrested him would say “Well, we got these other murderers and that’s a big deal, including U.S. ex-military people who are now going to prison for decades or life for their crimes.” They’d say that’s a good bargain—
But they’re crimes that Le Roux was the man behind, correct?
Yes, that’s what makes it so fascinating. All the people that were prosecuted worked for him. So in some sense, you have to wonder, once he was arrested, would any of these people have committed a crime ever again? Some of them probably would have, but all the crimes that they committed were just for Le Roux. He turned them into criminals. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be prosecuted, but it does call into question the idea of giving leniency to Le Roux and saying, “You’ll never be prosecuted for certain things that others will be prosecuted for despite the fact that you ordered them.” So he testified against the people who committed a murder and the guy who organized it and paid them, but ultimately he was the one who ordered it. There’s a paradox there for sure.
Have you thought of the possibility of Paul Le Roux reading this book?
I have. Yes.
What do you think about when you think that?
He was very cognizant of what had been written about him in the past. One of the defense attorneys asked him a question, and his response was basically, “That’s something that’s been in the press, but it’s not true.” That sort of gave me the sense, along with some people I’d talked to — including one person who at one point was incarcerated alongside him — that he was paying attention, and to an extent he does like being written about. He told people “I’m going to be on CNN when I’m arrested.” He told people that he wanted to be the biggest criminal in the world. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that, at some level, he wants someone to write his story. Whether or not all the details of that he would or wouldn’t want out there is I think an open question. I’ve never spoken to him so I can’t really judge whether or not he would appreciate my efforts or not.
Do you think he would respect you for having uncovered as much as you did?
That’s not really my concern. I would have liked to talk to him, and I made an effort to talk to him. Anyone who I’m writing about I would like to think they would read it and, even if they don’t like it, say, “Wow, that’s fair” or “Wow, a lot of reporting went into that.” I would hope for that from him, too, but at the same time, there is no sense in which I wrote it considering how he would react to it.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky