The Mastermind

The Mastermind

He was a brilliant programmer and a vicious cartel boss, who became a prized U.S. government asset. The story of an elusive criminal kingpin.

By Evan Ratliff

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

Prologue

Paul Le Roux, a global criminal kingpin long held in secret U.S. custody, makes his first court appearance.

Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing

How a real-estate agent in the Philippines became the target of a criminal mastermind.

Episode 2: I’m Your Boss Now

When you don’t know who your boss really is, a dream job can turn into a nightmare.

Episode 3: He Always Had a Dark Side

How did a Usenet troll and encryption genius become a criminal mastermind?

Episode 4: Absolute Fear

The programmer transforms into an insatiable tyrant.

Episode 5: He Got Greedy

A yacht called ‘I Dream’ washes up in Tonga carrying drugs and a grisly cargo.

Episode 6: Eyes Everywhere

How a retired American soldier became a brutal enforcer for a global cartel.

Episode 7: The Next Big Deal

A shroud of secrecy, a legal gambit, and a mystery solved.

Updates

Revelations about Catherine Lee’s accused killers; Joseph ‘Rambo’ Hunter Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison

About 

“The Mastermind” was originally published in weekly installments between March and April 2016.

Evan Ratliff is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Wired, where he has contributed for more than two decades. He is the author of the book The Mastermind, based on his Atavist series of the same name. His writing has appeared in numerous Best American anthologies, and he is a two-time finalist for both the National Magazine Awards and the Livingston Awards. Evan was the founding story editor of Pop-Up Magazine, and he cohosts the Longform podcast.


Editors: Katia Bachko, Joel Lovell

Additional Reporting: Aurora Almendral and Natalie Lampert

Designer: Thomas Rhiel

Fact Checker: Queen Arsem-O’Malley

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Trailer: Paul Kamuf

Images: Courtesy of the National Bureau of Investigations

Design updated in 2021.

The Mastermind Episode 7: The Next Big Deal

The Mastermind Episode 7: The Next Big Deal

A shroud of secrecy, a legal gambit, and a mystery solved.

By Evan Ratliff

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

After Paul Calder Le Roux was captured in 2012, his status was guarded with fanatical secrecy by the United States government. His location and even his lawyer’s name were known only to federal law enforcement. At first his clandestine status made sense, of course: Through at least mid-2014, Le Roux was essentially an undercover DEA operative in U.S. custody. By virtue of his phone calls and emails, agents were able to build elaborate sting operations around the fiction that he was still out in the world.

The illusion was fragile. As early as December 2013, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that Le Roux had been arrested. Fortunately for the DEA, that story was published in Portuguese and didn’t spread widely. Then, a year later, The New York Times discovered that Le Roux was the cooperator behind the takedown of Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, arrested for plotting to kill a DEA agent. Le Roux’s time as a government asset was over.

The secrecy around Le Roux continued, however, propelled by its own internal logic. His name may have been made public, but Le Roux’s entire case file remained sealed. So did significant portions of the prosecution against Hunter, his team of would-be assassins, and the group of Le Roux functionaries arrested for trafficking North Korean meth. Soon many of those cases ended with guilty pleas, obviating the need for Le Roux to ever testify. I’d been following the cases since Hunter’s arrest in September 2013, and as one defendant after another admitted their guilt, I realized that I might never see Le Roux in a courtroom.

Then, in late 2015, a pair of lawyers in Minneapolis, Joseph Friedberg and Robert Richman, came up with a legal gambit to pull Le Roux out into the open. Their client, Moran Oz, had run Le Roux’s call center in Israel. In a federal indictment in Minnesota, Oz was charged with 83 counts of prescription-drug crimes and wire fraud. The case was based in part on communications between Le Roux and Oz, who believed that his boss was at large when in fact Le Roux was in U.S. custody, calling and emailing at the behest of the DEA.

Joseph Friedberg (left) and Robert Richman, who represent Moran Oz, devised a strategy to force Paul Le Roux to appear in court. (Photo: David Joles/AP Photo/The Star Tribune and Leila Navidi/The Star Tribune)

Digging through the evidence, Richman realized that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had collected some of those calls and emails without a warrant. He filed a motion to have the material suppressed, arguing that federal law required at least one party in the communication to consent to the monitoring. Richman knew that Oz hadn’t given his permission. Had Le Roux? The government produced statements from DEA agents claiming that he had. But Richman and Friedberg argued that Le Roux himself needed to testify to that fact. The judge overseeing Oz’s case agreed and ordered the government to produce Le Roux.

Here, after two years of chasing his shadow, at first online and then on the ground in numerous locations around the world, was my chance to see Le Roux face-to-face. I bought a ticket to Minneapolis and arrived on a clear, frigid early-March morning. The hearing was across the river in St. Paul, and walking to court through the city’s habitrail-like aboveground tunnels, I ran into Richman and Friedberg. They showed me a copy of what appeared to be a fake arrest record for selling cocaine, seemingly generated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a cover story for Le Roux’s transfer into the local jail. It was evidence that Le Roux was nearby—and of how far federal prosecutors had gone to keep him under wraps.

screenshot1-1478029124-33.png
The authorities appear to have produced a fake arrest record in order to bring Le Roux to Minnesota quietly. 

“Le Roux’s lawyer filed an emergency motion to seal the courtroom,” Richman told me. In a sealed letter to the court, the lawyer argued that Le Roux’s family would be put in jeopardy by allowing the media to report on the proceedings. I took a seat in the back of the courtroom, alongside some local reporters and Oz’s wife, and waited.

Oz arrived sporting a dark, trim beard, a yarmulke, a black jacket, and jeans that covered up the court-ordered electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle. The bracelet was a condition of his bail, ensuring that he didn’t leave Minneapolis, where he’d arrived some 18 months before. His wife moved their three kids to the U.S., after a battle with American immigration officials, and the family had been embraced by members of the city’s Jewish community. Some had loaned them an apartment and a car and came to the hearing to support Oz. For someone about to see the man who’d threatened to have him killed, then set him up to be arrested, Oz looked cheerful.

He joined Richman and Friedberg at the defense table, across from Linda Marks, the prosecutor in charge of the case at the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, who had flown in from Washington. The judge opened the hearing by noting that “the court has received a request from an attorney to close these proceedings.”

“Let me turn first to Mr. Oz’s counsel,” he continued. “Do you continue to assert your constitutional rights to have an open hearing, Mr. Richman?”

“Yes, your honor,” Richman replied. “I find this procedure somewhat baffling.” Le Roux, he pointed out, was a government informant. That his attorney would petition to close the courtroom was strange, at best. Le Roux’s name was public, and court hearings are typically sealed at the behest of the government, not a private attorney. “This is a matter that has generated great interest,” Richman continued. “There are members of the press in the back of the courtroom, as well as Mr. Oz’s family.”

Richman pointed out that Le Roux’s identity had been revealed over a year before and “no harm has fallen on the family. And that document”—meaning the attorney’s letter—“also suggests that the government has taken steps to protect the family.”

This was news: It was the first time anyone had acknowledged that the U.S. government was working to protect Le Roux’s family even as it tried to keep him out of court. Now the moment had arrived that could decide whether Le Roux would ever be asked to publicly answer for his past, from the murders to the arms shipments, and for his work on behalf of the U.S. government, from the Joseph Hunter plot to the North Korean methamphetamine setup. As the judge considered the motion, I realized that this decision could determine whether, after so much time trying to piece together his existence, I might ever see Le Roux in the flesh.

ratliffthem-1548354769-61.png

For a year, I’d been trying to understand what it was that Le Roux had accomplished as an informant that warranted the level of secrecy surrounding him. That tenure began in September 2012, soon after he stepped onto the DEA’s chartered plane in Liberia, bound for New York. He arrived north of the city at the White Plains airport the next morning, out of public view and into a new life of public service. In Manhattan federal court a few hours later, he was appointed a public defender named Jonathan Marvinny. “I was on the case for a while, and now I’m not,” was all Marvinny would tell me when I called him a few weeks ago.

Le Roux faced two indictments: The first one was in New York, where the main charge was conspiracy to import meth into the U.S., a product of the fake drug deal he intended to pull off in Liberia. In Minneapolis, he was accused of violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, wire fraud, and money laundering in connection with RX Limited, the online prescription-drug organization that had made him his fortune.

The morning he arrived in New York, Le Roux signed a proffer agreement, a common arrangement that allows individuals to admit wrongdoing without threat of prosecution. Essentially, Le Roux couldn’t be charged with any additional crime he confessed to the DEA or U.S. attorneys. Not only did he agree to spill what he knew, but he also decided to assist the government in bringing down associates like Joseph Hunter and Moran Oz.

In the ensuing years, very few people would be privy to exactly where Le Roux was held, but my two law-enforcement sources Jody and Sol (not their real names) told me that Le Roux was placed in special custody in New York City. The DEA immediately put him to work concocting irresistible, and imaginary, deals with new partners from South America. After Le Roux helped the agents create a Gmail account to mirror his address, john@fast-free-email.com, agents from the DEA’s Special Operations Division could also act the part of Le Roux themselves.

The agents needed a judge’s approval to pull Le Roux out of confinement, to transport him either to a DEA office near JFK airport or, in at least one case, to the airport Hilton. (In one inexplicable security slip, someone allowed Le Roux’s record to remain searchable on the Bureau of Prisons site. “Paul Leroux”—without the space—was listed as “Released On: 09/04/2013,” perhaps an artifact of one of those occasions when he was moved outside jail.) From these offices and hotel rooms, Le Roux would reach out to his former employees; if his handlers needed him to make late-night calls to other parts of the world, they might keep him overnight.

According to one source with direct knowledge of these sessions, Le Roux was an enthusiastic participant. “He clearly considered himself to be the smartest person there,” this source told me. “But he had a humor about him, too. He was clearly trying to provide the information so that he would not spend the rest of his life in jail.”

For the better part of 2013, the DEA and U.S. attorneys kept Le Roux busy orchestrating the stings against Joseph Hunter’s assassination crew and the former employees Le Roux had enlisted to procure and ship North Korean meth. Both operations required months of careful planning, executed at a delicate pace—deals good enough to keep the targets on the hook, but not so good that they became suspicious.

apstammers1-1478029046-82.jpg
On September 24, 2013, the Narcotics Suppression Bureau of Thailand thwarted the plot to ship meth from the Philippines to Liberia. (Photo: AP Photo/Banmuang Newspaper)

The RX Limited prescription-drug case, led by an investigator named Kim Brill, was a lower priority. But eventually, the agents decided to corner members of that operation as well. In 2013, Le Roux emailed Moran Oz, the former manager of his Israeli call center, to set the trap.


By the time Le Roux reached out to him, Oz had moved on from his strange role at the center of the prescription-drug business. It had been four years since he was floating in the waters off the coast of Manila, dodging gunfire from Le Roux’s enforcers. And it had been nearly two years since Le Roux asked him to wind down the call center and sell off the furniture and computers. He had left that life behind, almost.

Periodically, he wrote to Le Roux to ask about severance payments for former employees. As the company wound down, Le Roux had wired two-thirds of the money, which was owed under Israeli law, and promised that the rest would come later. Oz felt bad for the lower-level employees who’d been stiffed, including friends hired by him and Alon Berkman, the other longtime Israeli employee who ran the call center.

Then, in September 2012, Le Roux disappeared. There were rumors in the organization that he might be in Australia or Brazil. “We knew something had happened,” one former manager told me. “We prayed that he was dead.” Oz contacted Shai Reuven, one of Le Roux’s right-hand men in the Philippines; Reuven told him that the boss had gone underground.

Oz, meanwhile, was building a house in Jerusalem and starting a new business. Together with a few partners, he was working to open a burger place in Tel Aviv. But he felt responsible to the people who were owed money, most of whom had never heard of Paul Le Roux. “He was getting phone calls from employees saying, ‘You shut down the company, you disappeared, you have to pay us, by law,’” a close friend of Oz’s, whom I’ll call Rafael, told me. So Oz was relieved when Le Roux reappeared in 2013. Then in early 2014, Le Roux called to say that he had the money. He just needed to see Oz in person to finalize the transfer. In March, Oz agreed to meet him in Romania.

Oz invited Rafael to come along on the trip; they had an Israeli expat friend in the country whom they visited often. Rafael took a few days off work, and they flew to Bucharest, spending two days hanging out and gambling in the local casinos. Oz won a few thousand Euros at his preferred game, roulette.

Oz was supposed to meet Le Roux on the third day, but as the time approached he grew nervous. He asked the friend in Bucharest if he could arrange security, “just to make sure that there are no surprises.” “He was worried that the boss was going to do something to him,” Rafael said. They managed to find a couple of burly bodyguards they could pay by the hour.

Le Roux had set the meeting at a large hotel not far from the airport. Oz, Rafael, and their friend arrived in the morning, and Oz and his bodyguards walked to a distant part of the lobby, out of sight. Rafael and the friend waited at the lobby entrance; after a half-hour, Oz texted to say that his boss hadn’t shown up yet. When Rafael texted a while later, Oz didn’t respond.

Worried, they decided to look for him. They found him at another hotel entrance, surrounded by several men and at least one woman. Oz explained to Rafael that they were plainclothes police officers, that they’d shown up looking for him and wanted to take him to the station to ask questions. The bodyguards seemed to have slipped away.

The officers asked Rafael and the other friend to accompany them to the station, and the three men climbed into the back of an old unmarked car. Oz seemed terrified. “Look, they don’t wear police uniforms,” he said in Hebrew. “I hope it’s not one of his tricks.” He was afraid the cops were actually Le Roux’s men.

The two were relieved when they arrived at a Bucharest police station. Oz’s local friend found him a Romanian lawyer while Rafael went to their hotel to retrieve their passports, hoping the whole thing could be cleared up by the evening. After he returned, the lawyer told Rafael that his friend had been arrested on behalf of an American agency. The woman at the arrest had been Kim Brill, from the DEA, the brains behind a seven-year investigation into RX Limited.

“Go back to Israel, meet Moran’s parents, and tell them to get a good lawyer,” the attorney told Rafael. “Because they are going to move him to the U.S. for a trial.”

Moran Oz would be among the last of the former Le Roux employees lured into U.S. custody by their old boss. In three years, Le Roux’s clandestine handiwork generated at least 11 arrests in addition to Oz’s. The DEA picked up at least seven more without his direct involvement.  

The ensuing prosecutions were divided among three groups. Oz and the former employees of RX Limited had been indicted in Minnesota, where they would be prosecuted by Linda Marks from the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch. The five defendants—Scott Stammers, Philip Shackels, Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, and Adrian Valkovic—whom Le Roux had coaxed into supplying North Korean meth to a bogus Colombian cartel would be prosecuted in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan.

The Southern District would also try Joseph “Rambo” Hunter’s crew, which Le Roux had helped lure into monitoring drug shipments and plotting to kill a DEA agent for those same “Colombians.” Within a few days of Hunter’s arrest in Phuket, Thailand, in late September 2013, he was extradited to New York and charged with conspiracy to murder a law-enforcement officer. So too were the members of his assassination team, Denis Gögel and Timothy Vamvakias, who’d been picked up in Liberia preparing to carry out the hit. The last two, Slawomir Soborski and Michael Filter, had been arrested in Estonia and were extradited in the ensuing months.

All of the New York defendants had been busted in reverse stings, set up for airtight prosecutions. The participants had been told that any drugs would eventually be sold in New York, for example, to make sure that the U.S. would have jurisdiction to prosecute them. The meetings with the “Colombians” had all been taped, creating evidence that was almost impossible to dispute. And the DEA had let the plots proceed almost to completion, to show the defendants’ intentions to see them through.

Joseph Hunter’s appointed lawyer, a New York criminal defense attorney named Marlon Kirton, hoped to exploit Hunter’s history with Le Roux. In January 2015, he filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case partly on the basis of duress, arguing that Hunter had only gone along because he believed Le Roux would kill him if he didn’t. Years before either man was arrested, Hunter claimed that Le Roux threatened him and his family, in connection with a Malian gold deal gone bad. “Mr. _________ literally killed and threatened his associates with the full knowledge of his other associates,” Kirton wrote in the motion. Le Roux’s name was still officially sealed, and Kirton was required to blank it out despite the fact that The New York Times had revealed it a month earlier. “How then can law enforcement use this man to engage the same person as part of a reverse sting operation? What choice did Mr. Hunter have? The answer is death, death of a family member or continued membership in the group.”

hunter14616-1478029125-66.jpg
Joseph Hunter, extradited from Thailand, claims that he agreed to plot the killing of a DEA agent only because Le Roux had previously threatened him. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The government called those claims “uncorroborated,” although later, Lulu, Le Roux’s relative who knew and worked with Hunter, confirmed to me that the threats did take place. But the government argued that even if Le Roux had threatened Hunter, it was at a much earlier time, and that Hunter could have quit the organization or gone to the police.

Several weeks later, before the judge in the case could rule on Kirton’s motion, Hunter changed his plea to guilty.

So it went, over the course of 18 months, with the rest of the defendants. Timothy Vamvakias and Dennis Gögel pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder the DEA agent and received 20 years apiece in federal prison. Michael Filter, charged only with surveillance of a plane carrying cocaine, got eight years. Slawomir Soborski still awaits sentencing.

Adrian Valkovic, the “ground commander” of the North Korean meth gang, was sentenced to over nine years. Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, the middleman between Le Roux and Ye Tiong Tan Lim, from the Hong Kong criminal gang that planned to supply the meth, received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence. Peralta’s girlfriend was pregnant when he was arrested, and he now has a two-year-old son he’s never met. Stammers, Lim, and Philip Shackels have yet to be sentenced.

In Hong Kong, which had once been the financial hub of Le Roux’s operations, Le Roux’s Israeli employees were prosecuted by the Hong Kong government. Doron Zvi Shulman, who managed Le Roux’s gold stores there, pleaded guilty to two charges of “property known or reasonably believed to represent the proceeds of an indictable offence” and was sentenced to more than five years in prison. Omer Gavish and the other Israeli guards denied any knowledge of where the gold had come from but were convicted of the same offense and sentenced to between four and five years apiece. At least two of them were released early and returned to Israel. Through an intermediary, they declined to speak with me when I traveled there in February.

Joseph Hunter, meanwhile, is currently scheduled to be sentenced in mid-May, facing a possible life sentence on each of the four murder and drug counts to which he pleaded guilty. Kirton has asked for a lower sentence of ten years, arguing that Hunter was entrapped and that he worked for Le Roux because of the threats. Kirton has also filed reports from a psychologist diagnosing Hunter with severe PTSD from his time in the military and as a contractor in Iraq. The filings assert that Hunter had sustained that trauma in part by participating “in classified missions for the United States government,” which Hunter refuses to discuss. The government has called those claims “speculative” and argued that there is nothing causal between Hunter’s PTSD and his crimes, which “involved careful long-term coordination with others in connection with the planning and carrying out of international murder-for-hire conspiracies.”


When I tallied the results of Le Roux’s cooperation—at least the part of it in the public record—I wondered what it really amounted to. The DEA had captured a prized criminal they’d been after for the better part of a decade, then spent several years and tremendous resources setting up the people beneath him. In legal circles this is called “cooperating down.” He’d given them three people, including two former U.S. soldiers, willing to kill a DEA agent for money, and eight more happy to help import drugs. But the DEA knew that Le Roux had ordered at least a half-dozen murders and had been the mastermind behind arms and drug deals that dwarfed what his flunkies had been prepared to carry out.

stillwell14-1478028611-90.jpg
Carl David Stillwell (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Perhaps the most confounding case was the brutal murder of the real estate agent Catherine Lee. In late 2015, I traveled to Taytay, the city outside Manila where her body was found. In the case file at the local police station, I found a note indicating that the DEA had been there several months after Hunter’s guilty plea, to investigate Lee’s killing. Witness accounts and other evidence helped U.S. attorneys charge Adam Samia and David Stillwell with the murder. Arrested last July in Roxboro, North Carolina, they are currently awaiting trial in New York.

samia145747-1478028612-2.jpg
Adam Samia (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

But the person who had allegedly paid Samia and Stillwell $35,000 each to carry out the assassination, in retribution for a real estate deal Lee had failed to carry out, was Paul Le Roux. The person who had allegedly arranged for the murder, and the guns with which to carry it out, was Joseph Hunter. Neither Le Roux nor Hunter have been charged with Catherine Lee’s murder. Whether they might be witnesses in the case none of the defense attorneys seemed to know.

The government, meanwhile, continued to protect information concerning Le Roux with almost pathological secrecy, even as his identity and exploits found their way into court documents and international news. Spokespeople from all parts of the DOJ have declined to speak on the record, citing the fact that cases involving Le Roux are still pending.

Many of the defense attorneys began to wonder if there was a larger issue in all the secrecy, something more than just Le Roux’s cooperation in the sting operations. In 2014, the anonymous developers behind TrueCrypt, the decade-old, unbreakable open-source disk-encryption software originally based on Le Roux’s code, had suddenly announced that the technology was no longer secure. Encryption experts puzzled over possible explanations, and I wondered if it might have something to do with Le Roux’s arrest. Perhaps Le Roux was helping the government break his own code, but then the TrueCrypt announcement could have been a coincidence.

In a closed proceeding in August 2013, Le Roux dispensed with Marvinny, his appointed attorney, and hired a New York criminal lawyer named Bernard Seidler. Sometime later he fired Seidler and hired another attorney, whose name has been sealed. One defense attorney told me that when they asked federal prosecutors how to contact Le Roux’s new lawyer, they were told that the information wasn’t public, because that attorney feared for their own safety. No one I spoke with, including a former federal prosecutor who had worked on sensitive terrorism cases, could find any precedent for sealing an attorney’s name when the defendant’s is public. The secrecy “is ludicrous,” Robert Richman, one of Moran Oz’s attorneys, told me.

After his arrest, Oz spent two months in an overcrowded Romanian jail, housed with seven other inmates in a stifling seven-by-ten-foot cell. One of his cellmates had a heart attack and died. Oz’s family hired a local lawyer to fight his extradition, but the hearings were all conducted in Romanian, and Oz often had little idea what was going on. His only contact with the American government was through the agents who had questioned him briefly after his arrest. According to what he later told his attorneys, he was baffled that the U.S. had used Le Roux to get to him and not the other way around. He would have helped them, he said, if they’d asked him. He told them about how Le Roux had ordered him thrown off the boat and shot at. “You’re hunting people that feel like they are dead wherever they go,” he said.

Finally, on the last day he could be legally held in Romania, a judge overruled Oz’s opposition to extradition and he was put on a plane to the U.S. He was held at the Sherburne County Jail, outside Minneapolis. His family back in Israel pitched in to hire a pair of prominent Minneapolis criminal defense attorneys, Richman and Friedberg.

One morning last November, I met them in a downtown Minneapolis high-rise. Friedberg, a garrulous litigator with pronounced jowls and wispy brown hair, exuded a witty charm that had served him well in some of the most high-profile criminal cases in the city. Richman, quiet and reserved, has parted gray hair and a reluctant smile. He had taken on much of the heavy lifting for the upcoming trial. “This case is extraordinary,” he said. “There are a million documents and probably tens of millions of pages.” He was trying to grapple with “the web of internet connections and phone connections and bank connections,” he said.

In addition to Oz, the indictment included a menagerie of Le Roux associates. Three of the defendants, including Alon Berkman and Shai Reuven, were still at large overseas. (The third, Lachlan Scott McConnell, was later picked up by the Philippine Immigration Bureau and now awaits extradition.) Omer Bezalel, an Israeli who served as a logistics man for RX Limited, had been lured to Romania at the same time as Oz. Not long after he was extradited to the U.S., in 2014, Bezalel was released on bail to a halfway house and walked away, presumably out of the country. He hasn’t been seen since.

ozindictmen-1478029126-62.png
Federal prosecutors indicted Moran Oz, Alon Berkman, and nine other defendants in the RX Limited case. 

One defendant, Jonathan Wall, has already pleaded guilty. Wall, an Israeli-American who’d once worked as a call-center manager for Le Roux in the Philippines, was arrested in Kentucky. He had returned to the States a few years earlier and worked for Le Roux from there, providing him with “hard goods” as variable as cars, computer servers, dive equipment, and a private plane. The arrests also included three doctors who had prescribed drugs for the network and a pair of pharmacists, one of them Babubhai Patel, the Detroit-area businessman who was soon convicted in an entirely separate Medicare fraud case.

In Oz, Richman and Friedberg were representing the only major figure from inside Le Roux’s operation willing to take his defense to trial. Oz freely admitted that he ran CSWW, Le Roux’s call-center business in Israel. He knew that the company was part of the RX Limited network, which had sold millions of prescription drugs for hundreds of millions of dollars. His email address, ron_oz11@hotmail.com, turned up again and again in the messages gathered under warrant by Kim Brill and the other Minnesota investigators. But Oz asserted that he’d always believed the business was legal, and that many people in the office used his email account to deal with customer-service issues.

Oz also told Richman and Friedberg about the incident in which Le Roux had him thrown off a boat and shot at, and they thought it could form a basis for a duress defense. The problem was, how would they get Le Roux into court to prove it? As in the other cases, prosecutors had declined to produce their star cooperator and said they had no plans to call him as a witness. “The government is embarrassed,” Richman said. “They don’t want to admit that he is involved.”

Then Richman hit on the idea of making a motion to suppress the phone calls between Le Roux and Oz, arguing that neither had given consent for them to be recorded. If the government wanted to prove that Le Roux did so voluntarily, Richman said, the man himself would need to say it under oath. On January 15, the judge handed down a decision on Richman’s motion: “IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant Moran Oz’s Motion to Produce Government Informant Paul Calder Le Roux for a Motion Hearing is GRANTED.”


So it was that in early March, I was sitting in the St. Paul courtroom wondering if Le Roux’s attorney’s last-minute plea to close the hearing would succeed and Le Roux would stay hidden yet again.

“I am going to deny the request,” the judge finally said. “Nothing has been established that would override the strong interest that the defendant has in a public proceeding.”

15177443487-1478029126-87.jpg
Linda Marks, of the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice, prosecutor on the Oz case (Photo: Partnership for Safe Medicines/Flickr)

And with that the hearing began. First, Linda Marks, the U.S. attorney, called two DEA agents to testify about Le Roux’s arrest. Then it was Richman’s turn. “Your honor,” he said, “we would call Paul Calder Le Roux.”

Le Roux entered the courtroom through a side door, escorted by two plainclothes United States Marshals. He wore a gray, slightly unruly beard and a billowy lemon yellow T-shirt over orange correctional pants. He looked heavier than he seemed in the few photos I’d been able to find. Later, my sources sent me more images of him, and I realized that it was likely he’d actually lost weight in custody.

The Marshals unshackled his arms and pointed him to the elevated witness stand. He scanned the courtroom intently as he settled into the leather-back chair, as if puzzled by who had shown up to see him. For a moment we locked eyes, but he quickly moved on, expressionless.

If Le Roux’s lawyer was in attendance, they didn’t make their presence known. So, in a confusing legal setup, Le Roux was functionally represented by Marks, as if he was an agent of the government.

Richman approached the podium and began by asking Le Roux his profession.

He thought for a moment. “Essentially,” he finally said, “I worked as a programmer for many years.” That was certainly one way of putting it.


For the next hour, Paul Calder Le Roux was forced to answer publicly, for the first and potentially only time, for his endeavors of the past decade. As Richman calmly and sometimes amusedly fired questions at him, Le Roux leaned back in his chair, his arms folded. When he answered, he bent in close to the microphone, his tone polite, cold. “Please restate it, if you would,” he said numerous times, his Zimbabwean accent still strong. The judge at one point agreed with Richman that he was questioning a “hostile witness,” but Le Roux betrayed no emotion beyond a periodic hint of annoyance at what his demeanor implied was the stupidity of the questions.

But his testimony also provided confirmation of the facts—or, in some cases, Le Roux’s versions of the facts—that I’d been chasing for years. Le Roux admitted that he had created the encryption software E4M but denied that he had developed TrueCrypt, its famous progeny. He confirmed some of his aliases, including Johan Smit, Bernard Bowlins, and John Smith. He admitted having organized the 200-kilo cocaine shipment on the JeReVe, out of Ecuador.

The casualness of Le Roux’s admissions was striking. Besides the two real estate agents, he admitted that he also ordered the murder of Dave Smith with a flat-toned “that’s correct.” The judge didn’t allow Richman to ask whether Smith had first been placed in a freshly dug grave. (Later a U.S. law-enforcement official told me a different story of Smith’s demise, one that offered an ironic counterpoint to Smith’s incident with Oz. According to the official, Smith had been thrown out of a boat and then shot. Le Roux himself had fired several bullets from a .45 as Smith floated in the water, already dead.)

Then Richman walked Le Roux through his decision to cooperate with the U.S. government, fishing for evidence that he’d done so under pressure from the DEA or in exchange for promises that he could, for instance, avoid the death penalty.

“The government has given no assurances in the plea deal,” Le Roux replied, sounding well practiced. “They simply state that they will make it known to the court if I’m truthful and I provide information that’s of substantial assistance.”

When he’d first decided to cooperate, however, Le Roux acknowledged that he’d only been facing charges in the meth deal he’d traveled to Liberia to finalize. The possible sentence was ten years to life, but as Le Roux helpfully pointed out to Richman, the recommended sentence was “only around 12 years.” Richman prodded at why such a light possible sentence would induce Le Roux to instantly cooperate.

Q. You knew that your legal situation was far worse than just a methamphetamine charge, correct?

A. In what way?

Q. Well, for example, you ordered multiple murders, correct?

A. Yes, that’s true.

Q. And, for example, you ordered the murder of a Filipino customs agent, correct?

A. That’s not correct.

Q. What is not correct about it?

A. The individual wasn’t a customs agent.

Q. So it was a real estate agent, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And then there was a second real estate agent, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. Who was also murdered on your orders, correct?

A. That’s true.

Q. And you know that there are two individuals, Mr. Samia and Mr. Stillwell, who are under indictment for one of those murders, correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. And do you understand that if you were charged in that case, you could face potentially the death penalty?

MS. MARKS: Objection, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Overruled.

THE WITNESS: Charged where in respect to that case?

MR. RICHMAN: In New York.

A. I’m not aware of how the laws relate to that case, so I couldn’t answer that.

Q. You don’t know whether you could face the death penalty if you were charged with a murder in the United States?

A. I don’t know the law here, so I couldn’t answer that. If you say so.

When it came to other countries’ laws, Le Roux claimed a rather detailed knowledge. He was vulnerable to criminal charges in the Philippines and Ecuador, he admitted, the latter “since the cocaine shipment originated there.” But he’d committed no crimes in Brazil, he said, because it “lacks a conspiracy law.” As for his adventures in Somalia, he said, “Somalia lacks any government, so I am not concerned about whatever actions took place there because they are not crimes.”

Le Roux also showed a keen awareness of his own media coverage. “We were not growing any hallucinogenics in Somalia,” he responded to one question. “This is something reported in the press which is not accurate.” When Richman asked him about the quantity of gold that had been confiscated, he replied that “I can only go by what’s been reported.”

By this point, it seemed like Richman had achieved his goal. He’d flushed Le Roux out into the open. If he called Le Roux as a witness at Oz’s trial, he’d clearly be able to establish his criminal and murderous past. Richman tried one more gambit. “Isn’t it true that you had a reputation for killing people who stole from you?” he asked. Le Roux replied, “That is an exaggeration.” Richman had nothing further. After a brief cross-examination, in which Marks reestablished that Le Roux had agreed to have his phone calls and email monitored, the hearing was over. Two Marshals reshackled Le Roux and escorted him back through the side door.

Outside the courtroom, Friedberg seemed almost triumphant, even though ultimately they would lose the motion to throw out the phone and email records. “Certainly, the phone calls will come into evidence, we always knew that,” he said. “Getting a look at this guy is worth a lot to us.” The defense team still plans to call Le Roux as a witness in Oz’s trial, scheduled for October.

There was another bombshell hidden in Le Roux’s testimony, one that held a key to the incredible secrecy surrounding him. As part of the proceedings, Marks introduced documents outlining some of the crimes that Le Roux had admitted to, including one that startled everyone: Le Roux, it seemed, had confessed to selling technology to the government of Iran. In a charging document that Le Roux pleaded to, the allegation reads:

plriran1461-1478029126-61.png

Later, both Sol and Jody, the law-enforcement sources who had been briefed on the case, confirmed to me that Le Roux had sold, or at least claimed to have sold, some sort of missile-guidance systems to Iran. The revelation was of a piece with other rumors I’d heard about Le Roux from high-level employees, including that he’d become increasingly interested in ventures in North Africa and the Middle East, and that he’d also dispatched a deputy to Pakistan, looking to buy and sell weapons. In addition to helping the U.S. government take down former employees, he’d promised them information about his Iranian contacts.

Everything beyond that, Sol and Jody told me, was classified. Whether it was truly helpful to the U.S., Sol was skeptical. “His pipe dream was that he was dealing directly with some general in the Iranian army, and Iran was talking about building missiles for nuclear weapons,” he told me. “It would have been front-page news. But people in that world think they are bigger than they are.”


What will the U.S. government do with Paul Le Roux now? With everyone I talked to, from former managers in Le Roux’s companies to Philippine federal agents—in coffee shops in Manila, over lunch in Tel Aviv, and during late-night encrypted chats—the conversation ultimately came back to that question. They feared that someday he would end up back on the street, with access to millions of dollars that he’d squirreled away around the world; this fear led most of them to demand anonymity in exchange for speaking to me.

Part of Le Roux’s case file was unsealed in March, after the St. Paul hearing. For now, his fate lies with Loretta A. Preska, a federal judge who will decide his sentence. It’s unlikely that Preska will do so until the other cases in which he could be called as a witness, including Oz’s and the Catherine Lee murder prosecution, are concluded. Le Roux’s possible futures range from life in prison—on a combination of the meth, Iran missile-technology-sales, and prescription-drug charges—to as little as ten years. He will not be charged for any of the seven murders he admitted to after signing his proffer agreement, although the judge is allowed to factor them into his sentence.

If the case follows the path of other cooperators, an attorney from the Department of Justice will stand before Preska and argue that Le Roux’s cooperation entitles him to a lesser sentence. There is a chance that he could get less prison time after admitting seven real murders than some of his former employees got for plotting two imaginary ones. He would only be the latest in a long line of famous cooperators, from heroin trafficker Frank Lucas, whose cooperation was later memorialized in American Gangster, to mob enforcer Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who earned a five-year sentence by helping bring down John Gotti. But as Le Roux himself noted in his testimony, there are no guarantees.

In the past few days, I was finally able to confirm with multiple sources the identity of Le Roux’s current attorney, the one who requested to close the courtroom in Minnesota: Joseph DiBenedetto. Based in Manhattan, DiBenedetto is known for taking on highly publicized criminal cases, including the defense of John Gotti’s brother Peter, once accused in a plot to kill Gravano. He also appears regularly on Fox News and in other media outlets to discuss legal cases in the headlines. He did not return my phone calls or emails this week about Le Roux’s case and why, in this instance, he had chosen to work anonymously. Nor did the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District respond to my inquiry about why DiBenedetto’s name is mysteriously absent from Le Roux’s unsealed case file, which includes the names of his two previous attorneys.  

plrmeth1461-1478029128-72.png

If and when Le Roux is released, federal authorities could place their former asset in witness protection. They could deport him, setting him adrift to find a new life—or restart his old one. Officially, the DEA confiscated only $300,000 from Le Roux, on top of the Hong Kong gold seizure. In his testimony, Le Roux claimed that this constituted “the bulk of my assets at the time of arrest,” but I was hard pressed to find someone from his former organization who believed him. Sol told me that the DEA had found one Le Roux bank account with $8 million in it, which was drained before they could seize it. By whom, he said, they have no idea. “He’s betting he’s going to do ten years,” Sol told me, “and he’s got millions.”

One source in Manila told me that not only were there tens of millions of dollars of Le Roux’s gold buried in the Philippines, but that the government was racing Le Roux’s former associates to find it—a modern version of Yamashita’s treasure, a supposed cache of loot left by the Japanese after World War II that has spawned decades of fruitless hunts.

Buried gold aside, most former Le Roux employees I spoke with believe that he has hidden millions, money he could use to reconstitute his empire. Last week in an online chat, I asked Lulu whether he thought Le Roux would come after him if and when he was released from prison. “Yes,” was his full reply. Did he think there was any chance that Le Roux’s time on the other side of the law could change him? “I really doubt it,” he said. Le Roux “loved what he did and wouldn’t give it up. I think it was fun for him, I think he really wanted to be the biggest thing. He wanted the infamy.”

What Le Roux wanted and why is a subject I’ve asked dozens of people about. For some the answer was obvious: money. He was corrupted by it, enamored with his power, enraptured by the feeling of it flowing toward him, more than he could ever spend. Others speculated that his drive was fueled by something deeper—his feelings about being adopted, or another childhood affront for which he was forever exacting an imprecise revenge. For my part, I always suspected that part of the answer lie in his life as a programmer. Le Roux had found his place inside code, a universe in which he could bend reality to his will. It seemed to me that he tried to apply the detached logic of software to real life. That’s why the DEA schemes must have appealed to him as much as his own. His approach was algorithmic, not moral: Set the program in motion and watch it run.

But Lulu’s comment about infamy stuck with me. Perhaps that wasn’t Le Roux’s aim at first, but over time it became something he coveted. Le Roux had known all along that he’d get caught—ultimately, the program could only lead to one outcome. But that meant that I, too, was part the design.

One afternoon, two months ago, I met an Israeli former employee of Le Roux’s at a quiet upstairs table in a café inside a Tel Aviv mall. I’d had a difficult time persuading this man to talk to me at all. He was free of Le Roux’s organization, on to new things. He hadn’t been indicted in the prescription-drug case, despite working in one of the call centers, although he said he planned to wait a few years before traveling to the U.S., just in case. I asked him this question, too: What did Le Roux want? “He wanted to be the biggest ever caught,” he said.

As we said good-bye, he told me, “What’s important is that justice be done, for what Paul did.” Then he leaned in, pointing at my notebook. “If you publish this story, ultimately you are giving him what he wanted. And by talking to you I guess I am, too. This is what he wanted. This story to be told, in this way.”


Read the latest updates on “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 6: Eyes Everywhere

The Mastermind Episode 6: Eyes Everywhere

How a retired American soldier became a brutal enforcer for an international cartel.

By Evan Ratliff

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

Among Paul Le Roux’s former employees, Joseph Hunter was perhaps the most mystifying. He was also the man whose story had pulled me into Le Roux’s world in the first place. And like Le Roux himself, Hunter was often described in larger-than-life terms, a remorseless mercenary who was bred by the U.S. military, then went horribly rogue. On Le Roux’s behalf, he’d allegedly arranged the murder of Catherine Lee, the Filipino real estate agent, and bragged about it, critiquing the assassins for their tactical blunders. He was, in the words of one Le Roux employee, “a real hardass”; he picked up the improbable nickname Rambo, and he looked the part. In photos he was a hulking, barrel-chested man with a gaze that alternated between penetrating and vacant. As an assassin he was famous the world over, but the further I delved into Le Roux’s empire, the more complicated the story seemed. 

A former soldier from Kentucky, the 47-year-old Hunter was one of a few Americans in the upper reaches of Le Roux’s operation, which was full of Israelis, South Africans, and Brits. Hunter had enlisted in the Army in 1983 and joined the Rangers two years later. But in 1986, a friend in his unit was killed during a training exercise. Hunter, deeply traumatized by the death, was medically discharged from the Rangers after just eight months. He spent the rest of his 21-year military career as a drill sergeant and sniper instructor, with posts in Germany, Panama, and Puerto Rico, rising to the rank of sergeant first class. By his own description, Hunter also worked as “a special-reaction team commander, serving high-risk warrants, doing law-enforcement training, and providing security for doctors and nurses.” Hunter earned both a National Defense Service Medal and a Global War on Terrorism Medal. His home state named him a Kentucky Colonel, an honorific reserved for Kentuckians “unwavering in devotion to faith, family, fellowman, and country.”

Discharged in 2004, Hunter returned to his hometown of Owensboro, a city of 50,000, with his wife, his two boys, and a pair of dogs. His mother and sister lived nearby. Law enforcement seemed like a logical next step, so he took and passed the New York City police exam, but decided the city was too expensive. Instead he got a job as an inmate counselor at the Green River Correctional Complex, an hour drive from home.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peak, as were the jobs with private security firms, which promised large paychecks and the chance to see real action. Bored with civilian life, Hunter quit the prison in 2006 and signed on with Dyncorp, a McLean, Virginia, contractor with close ties to the U.S. military. After a two-year stint, he spent another year with a similar outfit, Triple Canopy.(The Panama Papers leak recently revealed that Triple Canopy, which has received more than a billion dollars in U.S. government contracts over the past decade, operated a series of shell companies overseas.) Hunter’s assignments included providing security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and investigating suicide bombings.

While he was in the Army, Hunter’s family had found him increasingly short-tempered. His time in Iraq, by his own account, exacerbated his moodiness and explosive anger. He had trouble sleeping and startled easily.

In 2007, a former soldier introduced Hunter to Le Roux, describing him as a wealthy South African businessman looking for security personnel. Hunter jumped at the chance to leave the war behind. Soon he was traveling the world for and with Le Roux, from Mali to Hong Kong to Brazil—work for which he acquired a fake Zimbabwean passport with the name Frank Robinson and a South African one as Andrew Hunter.

Le Roux employees who crossed paths with Hunter were often struck by his presence. In our chats, Lulu, my source in Africa, told me that he’d met Hunter during one of Hunter’s early assignments. Some of Le Roux’s employees had either lost or stolen more than $1 million in a bad gold deal, and Hunter was dispatched to Zambia to locate them and collect the debt. According to Lulu, Hunter eventually “came back with nothing.”

Hunter would later claim to have experienced Le Roux’s wrath firsthand, saying that his boss had threatened to kill him after Hunter’s own gold deal went bad in Mali. Lulu confirmed that threat to me and recalled that Hunter and another employee eventually sorted out the losses with Le Roux.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hunter was involved with the gold business, one of Le Roux’s sprawling gambits on the continent. The operation bought gold at a discount from small-scale miners and then smuggled it out of the country to be stashed away or sold for a profit in the legal gold market. Lulu told me that one of Le Roux’s right-hand men, Shai Reuven, had once been robbed of a significant sum when he’d traveled to the country to buy gold. “You can’t go to the Congo with a bag full of cash and expect to come out with it,” Lulu said. Hunter was hired to make sure that didn’t happen again.

“Hunter seemed very professional actually, wanted to get in, do what he had to do, and get out,” Lulu said. He’d encountered him again in Hong Kong and in Manila. “He was quiet, didn’t say much, didn’t look you in the face,” Lulu told me. “He wasn’t a cowboy. But he had this dark, ominous presence.”

I got a similar reaction when I brought up Hunter with Gil, my source in Manilla, who once had a high post in Le Roux’s organization. In the two hours that we talked, Hunter’s was the only name that seemed to genuinely rattle him other than Le Roux’s. “He was a loose cannon,” Gil said of Hunter; they’d done several operations together, until Gil refused to work with him anymore. “He was always a very angry person, somewhat disturbed mentally. I wouldn’t deal with him because he just wasn’t right.”

Gil told me that Dave Smith, Le Roux’s former head of security, had fired Hunter “because he was considered too hot headed.” In 2010, Hunter returned to Kentucky. But Smith’s opinion was soon overturned, after Le Roux discovered that Smith had been selling off some of the company’s gold for himself. Le Roux had Smith executed, and Hunter returned to the organization in 2011. “Well, Dave got killed for stealing money, and then I took his job,” was how Hunter summed it up later for some new recruits. Stealing from Le Roux was, he observed, “the number one thing that will get you killed.”

“Everybody says, ‘No, I’ll take the money and I’ll hide. I’m not scared,’” he continued. “If they don’t find you, they’re gonna get your family. They’re gonna get your children, your mother, your father.” As it happened, “they” often included Hunter and his men.

Hunter had first joined Le Roux’s organization while it was rapidly expanding, but by the time he returned, Le Roux’s downfall was already quietly in motion. Soma, one of the three medications that fueled Le Roux’s online prescription-drug business, had been declared a controlled substance by the U.S. government. Le Roux was delving deeper into large-scale criminal activities to make up the lost profits, directing an organization rife with paranoia and violence. “That one year, we killed nine people,” Hunter told the recruits, possibly exaggerating for effect but, from the killings I’ve been able to confirm, probably not by much. As the bodies piled up, Le Roux moved underground, and in September 2012, he disappeared entirely. 

Then, in late 2012, Hunter suddenly got a flurry of calls and encrypted emails from Le Roux. He had a new project, a big one, involving a group he would refer to only as the “South American partners.” Le Roux wanted Hunter to assemble a team of skilled, reliable ex-military men who could handle what Le Roux referred to as “specialist jobs.” Hunter knew exactly what kind of work he was talking about.


At the same time, other Le Roux employees around the globe were hearing from Le Roux as he launched himself into several new ventures. One of those employees was Scott Stammers, a security contractor who worked for Le Roux in Manila. A 43-year-old Brit, Stammers sported a shaved head and a goatee, and had retained his English pallor despite several years in the tropical climate. He coordinated gun- and drug-related operations for Le Roux and was skilled at sourcing everything from heavy weaponry to methamphetamine precursor chemicals and the cooks to prepare them.

scottstamme-1478029043-9.jpg
Scott Stammers worked for Le Roux in Manila. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Le Roux wanted Stammers to help put together a meth deal for his new South American associates. Stammers had previously managed a sizeable meth shipment from Ye Tiong Tan Lim, a balding Chinese man in his fifties with wire-rim glasses who purportedly operated an import-export business, actually a front for a criminal organization in Hong Kong. Now Le Roux wanted Lim to provide drugs again.

Le Roux also reached out to Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, a 39-year-old Filipino who had once worked as a manager at Sid’s, Le Roux’s bar in Manila. Peralta’s role in the organization was pure happenstance; Dave Smith had met Peralta in the coastal town of Barretto, just outside Subic, when Peralta was the manager of a dingy tiki bar called the Blue Rock Resort. Smith hired him to work at Sid’s. (In perhaps the most bizarre chain of connections I encountered, I learned that John Nash, the mysterious figure who was the last person to see two of Le Roux’s alleged murder victims alive, had been the head of security at the Blue Rock. Later, authorities discovered that “John Nash” was the identity of a deceased American and arrested him in a dramatic raid just steps from the Blue Rock. Nash now sits in a Philippine prison, refusing to admit his real name or country of origin.)

Peralta had met Lim through his brother and had served as an intermediary between Le Roux’s people and Lim for the first meth deal. Now Le Roux wanted him to do so again for the South Americans. Sid’s closed in 2009, and by the time Le Roux got in touch with Peralta, he was out of work. Peralta agreed to make the deal.

Peralta contacted Lim and invited him to meet Le Roux’s associates. In early January, Lim and Peralta traveled to Bangkok, where the two South Americans disclosed that they were senior figures in a Colombian cartel, looking for a large amount of high-quality meth. They wanted the drugs to be shipped to Liberia, but they planned to sell them in New York. First, however, they’d need to test a sample.

The request didn’t faze Lim. “My boss,” Lim said, “only gets [it] from the original source.”

That source, Lim had told Le Roux, was North Korea. It was an unverifiable claim but not a far-fetched one. According to a congressional report, the country’s contribution to the meth trade dates to the mid-1990s, when heavy rains wiped out its thriving poppy production, opening a lane for lab-made drugs. By 2007, North Korea was producing “10-15 tons per year of the highest quality product for export,” the report notes, usually smuggled across the border into northeast China. North Korea’s meth manufacturing has long been reported to be either tacitly approved or even sponsored by the state. In 2013, however, the State Department observed that “state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or… the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs.”

Lim made a similar point to the Colombians. “The North Korean government already burned all the labs,” he told them, “to show the Americans they aren’t selling it anymore.” But, despite the crackdown, Lim said that his organization had roughly one ton of ultra-pure North Korean meth to offer. “Only our labs are not closed,” he said. The Colombians asked to visit the labs inside North Korea to verify its origins, but Lim said that non-Korean speakers would raise suspicions.

The next month, Lim provided two small meth samples to Peralta, who delivered them to Philip Shackels, a tattooed Brit in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Stammers had been communicating with both the Colombians and Le Roux by encrypted email. The cartel wanted the samples sent to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and Stammers took charge of shipping the meth there. Shackels and Stammers sent the samples by FedEx, and Stammers emailed the tracking number to Le Roux. On arrival they tested at 96 and 98 percent pure, respectively. The deal was on.

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

By March, Joseph Hunter had spent several months collecting and sorting résumés from mercenary fighters around the globe. He forwarded his top picks to Le Roux for approval. Eventually, they settled on three men.

Dennis Gögel was a 27-year-old German former soldier who’d been raised by his grandmother in Stadthagen, a manufacturing city in northern Germany. His mother died of asthma when he was a small child, and his father abandoned him; he’d joined the army, he later said, “to take control of my life.” He’d served in an elite unit, the equivalent of the U.S. Army Rangers, deployed for peacekeeping in Kosovo. Upon his discharge, in 2010, he’d shifted into private security, first in Afghanistan and then in Africa, working as an anti-piracy specialist on boats threatened by Somali pirates. When Hunter approached him about joining what he called “a highly specialized security group to protect and secure high-profile clients,” Gögel recalled that “Hunter and I built a strong bond as he took me under his wing. After a short while our relationship expanded, and I began to view Hunter not only as mentor but as a father figure, something I never had before.”

gogelfb2146-1478029043-18.jpg
Prior to joining Le Roux’s organization, Denis Gögel worked as a security contractor guarding ships from Somali pirates. (Photo: Facebook)

Gögel, in turn, connected Hunter with another former German soldier named Michael Filter, who had left the service in 2010. He’d bounced around, managing a bakery and doing a bit of roofing. With young twin daughters to support, he “felt useless because he wasn’t able to find a proper job,” his sister Nancy later wrote in a letter recounting the period. Then, in early 2013, Filter got a call from Gögel, who said he knew someone who was putting together a security team. Filter saw it “as a possibility to do something useful and be able to provide for his girls properly,” Nancy recalled.

The third team member, Slawomir Soborski, was a Polish ex-policeman. He’d worked for 15 years in the military and in civilian law enforcement, and would later claim to have “provided protection for President Bush and Pope John Paul II while in Poland.” He had drifted into contract work, and eventually joined the French Foreign Legion, but struggled to make ends meet. In February 2013, Soborski received Hunter’s job solicitation from a friend in the Foreign Legion, and he wrote to Hunter directly. “I am convinced that my experience, commitment, and professionalism, confirmed by my references, will lead to the success of your company and mutual satisfaction,” he said. His résumé included such qualifications as “sniper,” “close-combat specialist,” and “parachutist.”

soborskion1-1478029044-84.jpg
Slawomir Soborski worked as a policeman in Poland and a security contractor before a friend connected him to Hunter. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Between the three of them, Hunter felt he was ready to get to work for the South Americans. He wrote to Le Roux that Soborski and Gögel in particular were “two highly qualified individuals that will get a lot of stuff done for us.”

Hunter and Gögel, in turn, exchanged a series of charged-up emails about the job.

“I full understand what ‘Ninja’ means and I’m available for your request!” Gögel wrote. “See you soon, I’m ready to go Hard.”

“I told the client you are my number 1 guy for this job, so don’t let me down!!!” Hunter responded.

“Ready to rock hard!” Gögel replied.

In March, Hunter traveled to Phuket, Thailand, and met Le Roux’s South American contacts at one of Le Roux’s houses, a one-story stucco ranch with a red terra-cotta roof near the Loch Palm Golf Course. Afterward, Gögel, Soborski, and Filter arrived for their first in-person meeting. Hunter had told them to dress like tourists for the trip—“nothing military police looking”—and had wired them expense money for their tickets.

Once everyone was present, Hunter disclosed the identities of their clients: two men from a Colombian cartel, associates of Le Roux’s, whom they would know only as “the Boss.” Hunter told them that the Colombians had said “you’re gonna see tons of cocaine. You’re gonna see millions of dollars. You’re gonna see gold.”

The team’s work could include collecting money from people who hadn’t paid the Colombians, carrying cocaine, or “bonus work,” the term within Le Roux’s organization for paid assassinations. “Once a mission is received, that mission becomes sacred to you,” Hunter told them. “You will accomplish it to the end at all costs.”

For the next hour, Hunter delivered a sermon extolling mercenary life under the Boss, pausing only for the occasional “yeah” from his team. “It’s just like a military mission,” he said. “You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Well, you’re gonna do it now. Everything you see or you’ve thought about, you’re gonna do. It’s, it’s real and it’s up to you. You know how the government says, ‘If you work through the government, ah, if you get in trouble, we don’t know you?’ Same thing with this job. No different, right? So that’s how it is. Same thing you do in the military, except you’re doing for these guys now? If you get caught in war, you get killed, right? Unless you surrender, if they let you surrender, or if you get, you know, the same thing. This is—everything’s just like you’re in war enemy territory now.”

Hunter’s soliloquy wandered from dramatic recounting of his own exploits to detailed instructions on kidnappings and assassinations. “When we did it, we did it all,” he said. “We hand-grenaded, threw it, hand-grenaded the people’s houses. We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him; he gave us the money back. Ah… assassinated people. Ah, what else we did? We smuggled gold. We smuggled weapons. Ah… We took weapons from Jakarta to the Philippines on the ship.”

“You gotta use your head,” he continued. “You never know what the scenario is gonna be. If you gotta kidnap somebody to recover funds, you know how you gotta plan a kidnapping, right? Knock the fucking… you knock the guy out in your minivan or your SUV. You already gonna have a place to hide, right? A place to hold him. You just gotta drive there and get to the place, and then once he’s inside the building it’s no problem. You’re gonna handcuff him and all that shit, and then I’m sure he’s gonna give you the money, right, or arrange for the money right away. If you have to waterboard him, it’s easy, you just put a wet towel on his face and pour water on him about, you know, 15 to 20 seconds till he talks.”

Ultimately, he told them, it was each man’s decision whether he could handle the demands of this kind of job. “They’re going to come back tomorrow,” he said of the Colombians. “If you’re here tomorrow, you’re in.”  

The next day the Colombians returned to the house, where the whole team awaited them. The cartel representatives were similarly explicit in their expectations. “You do whatever you have to do,” one of them said. “If we call you and say, ‘This fucking guy ain’t gonna pay,’ that’s it. We want you to be magicians.… You disappear people.”


At first, though, the Colombians had more pedestrian jobs for the crew. They announced that they were moving a large shipment of drugs from Thailand to China and needed “counter-surveillance” on the operation to determine whether the Thai police were monitoring the boat. Gögel, Soborski, and Filter traveled to Koh Samui, a port city on an island off the coast of Thailand, and photographed the vessel as it sat docked in the harbor.

Hunter remained at the Phuket house, in close communication with Le Roux and the Colombians. After five days, Hunter told Le Roux that, based on the reports, he was not impressed with the Colombians’ ship’s crew. “The guys are continuing to watch the boat. No detection of any surveillance as of yet,” he wrote. “No one comes out of the cabin during the days. The Captain is going to another boat every night and picking up some guys and then they go out partying.”

After the Koh Samui job, the Colombians wanted the team to travel to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar, to provide “counter-surveillance of several important meetings.” Hunter drew up a budget, $15,000 for expenses, including travel and international driver’s licenses, plus a “telephoto lens that can reach 100 meters for facial recognition and plate numbers.”

That April, he dispatched the team. The first meeting in Mauritius was between the Colombians, an arms buyer named TC, and Scott Stammers and Philip Shackels. TC was in the market for guns, which Stammers had agreed to provide, sending along a “sales package” that included photos of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In exchange, the Colombians wanted Stammers to buy 15 surface-to-air missiles. Gögel, Filter, and Soborski kept watch outside as the three parties finalized the deal.

stammersroc-1478029045-87.jpg
Stammers sought to obtain surface-to-air missiles from this catalog for the Colombians. (Photo: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York)

The next day, Stammers, Shackels, and the Colombians met with a pair of Serbians. The topic of that meeting, as Le Roux explained to Hunter in an email, was “some product that we lost recently in the South Pacific.” He was referring to the disappearance of the JeReVe, Le Roux’s boat, which had washed up on a reef in Tonga in the fall of 2012 with $120 million worth of cocaine and a dead Slovak onboard. The loss seemed to have sent Le Roux into deeper hiding; after he had made arrangements for the boat to depart from Ecuador, none of his associates ever saw him again.

Now Stammers was looking for a new supplier to replace Le Roux’s lost shipment. The Serbians said they were interested in funneling 700 to 1,000 kilos from South America to Australia, Stammers told Le Roux afterward.

screenshot1-1478029045-2.png
Stammers (left) and Shackels during a trip to Thailand to meet with the Colombians. (Photo: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York)

Hunter’s team returned to Thailand, and he conducted a full debriefing; in the manner of a football coach reviewing film, he “pointed out some minor mistakes,” he reported to Le Roux. “I will send you a slide show of some of the surveillance they did, so you can see their work.”

Looking over the surveillance photos, Hunter noted that he “knew two of the guys there for the meetings”; that is, he recognized Shackels and Stammers, whom he’d met before within Le Roux’s organization. Yet Hunter had no idea that the two men had also come to Mauritius on Le Roux’s behalf. Later, that detail struck me as an extraordinary example of the compartmentalization that I’d heard Le Roux required, something his employees must have been accustomed to. Here were two major operations, involving the same Colombian cartel, yet Le Roux’s teams seemed to have little or no awareness of one another’s involvement. Their paths crossed without a whisper on Mauritius. The same wouldn’t be true when they crossed again later.


In mid-May, Stammers and Shackels returned to Thailand to meet with the Colombians about the logistics of the meth shipment. Lim had told them that he’d been forced to move his stockpile out of North Korea and to the Philippines for safekeeping. The shipment would travel from there to Thailand, then on to Liberia. For the Thai portion of the trip, Stammers brought on a man named Adrian Valkovic, a former member of the French Foreign Legion who worked in private security and was the sergeant-at-arms for the Outlaw Motorcycle Club in Bangkok. Valkovic, whom Stammers called the “ground commander” for the shipment, would be marshaling eight armed comrades from the club to protect it.

In a meeting with Lim and Peralta, the Colombians proposed starting off their relationship with a 60-kilo shipment of meth, at $60,000 per kilo.

“My friends, can you do the 60, a little bit, a little more, like 100?” Peralta asked.

The Colombians agreed, and over the next few months, the group held a series of meetings in Thailand to sort out the details. In emails about the arrangement, they referred to the drugs as “car parts.”

vamvakiasli-1478029046-1.jpg
Tim Vamvakias was assigned to guard Le Roux’s stash of prescription drugs before Hunter recruited him. (Photo: LinkedIn)

In the spring of 2013, Hunter proposed adding another member of Le Roux’s organization to his crew. Tim Vamvakias was an American who’d grown up in a violent household in San Bernardino, California, dreaming about a career in law enforcement. He’d joined the Army during the Gulf War, left to study at the University of California at Santa Barbara, then returned to active duty as a military policeman. An expert K-9 handler, he’d worked in bomb detection and on a SWAT team. He left the military, hoping to join the police force in Phoenix, but he failed a physical due to an unspecified health condition. He fell into a depression, got divorced, and signed on with Dyncorp and then another security contractor, using dogs to hunt for improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. Eventually, his health cost him his job again. Unemployed and temporarily homeless, he’d joined Le Roux’s organization sometime in the late 2000s, connected through a colleague from his contracting days.

Now 41, with slicked-back hair and prominent eyebrows, Vamvakias had been stationed by Le Roux at a stash house in Texas. For $7,500 a month, Vamvakias guarded a large supply of tramadol—one of the three main prescription drugs that helped float Le Roux’s online pill business. (In 2011, Le Roux had decided to fulfill orders by smuggling pills from Mexico.)

Hunter thought Vamvakias, whose nickname was Tay, could be of more use on the security team. Le Roux agreed to a transfer and a raise, $10,000 a month with Hunter’s crew, Le Roux said, as long as he was willing to engage in “bonus work.” “I told Tay previously that his salary would be 10K starting the 1st of May,” Hunter wrote to Le Roux on May 6. “He has confirmed that he will do bonus jobs.”

In May, the Colombians had another task for Hunter’s team: more counter-surveillance, this time of a plane in the Bahamas that was scheduled to deliver 200 kilos of cocaine to the U.S. Vamvakias arrived in Thailand to join the team, and Hunter made him leader of the mission.

Around the same time, Le Roux informed Hunter that he and the Colombians had found a snitch in their organization. On May 30, Le Roux wrote to Hunter at an address for Jim Riker, one of Hunter’s aliases, about someone leaking to the DEA and the Australian Federal Police:

From: john <john@fast-free-email.com>To: Jim Riker <mrtiberius2@yahoo.com>Sent: Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:50 AMSubject: Re:

… the situation is our contact in the f b i in ecuador has been looking into the jereve incident for us, the man who is responsible has been providing tips to the d e a and a f p, he is a boat captain that is working for us, he does jobs for us mainly in the carribean and in africa, he was the one who handled the jereve for us, and leaked the info to the u.s agent, him and a particular agent are problems for us, this is a priority job that will pay allot of money, i need your suggestion on the best way to handle it, I need your input on what is needed to fix this issue asap as we already lost 3 shipments and allot of money, please be advised he does not know anyone except his handler but he knows some of our boats, so we need to get this issue resolved before we loose more money, sis this something your team can handle? or should i assign it to my south african guys, the jobs will probably be in africa as the captain is based there

“My guys will handle it,” Hunter replied, meaning Vamvakias and Gögel. “Are you talking about both the Captain and the agent or just the Captain?”

“Both are a problem, both need to be handled,” Le Roux replied. He also laid out the incentives: “Informer is 200 000 and 500 000 for the agent,” he wrote. Hunter would get $100,000 for organizing the hit.

“They will handle both jobs,” Hunter replied. “They just need good tools.”

In Hunter’s budget and detailed equipment list for the operation, he outlined what that meant:

From: Jim Riker <mrtiberius2@yahoo.com>
Date: 7/6/2013 11:02 AM
To: “john@fast‐free‐email.com” <john@fast‐free‐email.com>

Hey,

Here is a list of items needed for the job. It includes everything that they can think of, because they don’t exactly know the plan and how it will be executed, that’s why it’s so much.

Two Submachine Guns with silencers (Mac 10, MP5, P90, MP7,,,something small) Magazines for the Weapons

Two .22 pistols with Silencers (these are a must)

Magazines and ammo for these

One 308 Rifle with Scope and Case for it

Ammo for it

Two Level 3A Concealment Vests

2 GPS’s for the evac (one for each guy)

2 Black Guy Masks (like the ones we have, but all ready in county)

2 Two way radios preferably with ear pieces and push to talk capability

2 Motorcycles at least 250cc with helmets that have a black tinted visor

2 Cars or SUVs with tinted windows

Stolen License plates for both motorcycles and Cars

Once they are in place and have a plan additional items might be required depending on the assesment

zdjcie14146-1478029046-50.jpg
A source connected to Soborski provided this photo of him posing on the beach. Data embedded in the photo shows that it was taken in Nassau during the surveillance trip.

In June, the team, absent Hunter, traveled to the Bahamas for the surveillance job. It was a leisurely gig, and Soborski posed for photos on the beach in Nassau, shirtless and with a drink and cigar in hand. The crew scouted out a surveillance location behind a chain-link fence off a runway at the Nassau airport and watched through a car window as the bags of cocaine were loaded onto a small private plane. Once the plane departed, they called the Colombians with a report.

After seeing off the plane, Vamvakias met with the Colombians at a hotel. They had brought along photographs and dossiers on the DEA agent and snitch and explained that they wanted the job done in Liberia. Vamvakias texted Hunter that the Colombians were insisting that Soborski and Filter be involved in the mission, as well. “My first question is whether our pay will be the same,” Vamvakias asked.


In early August, Stammers, Lim, and the Colombians decided to do a dry run of the meth shipment using a container of tea. Their emails in preparation contain an absurd but highly serious debate about which type of tea to use; the team selected a cheap variety of Oolong since “it is just for a test run for the 100 car parts,” the Colombians pointed out, and they were going to throw it out anyway. Soon after, they set the ship on its way from Thailand to Liberia.

In mid-August, while the tea was still en route, Stammers met with the Colombians in Phuket and laid out “Operations Plan Alpha,” complete with photos of the docks where the meth would be loaded, maps of its route Liberia, and details about where and when the boats would stop overnight. The plan included a $15,000 contingency to bribe a “Political Safety Asset,” whose supposed purpose, Stammers noted in an encrypted email to Le Roux, was “to be active in case an incident arises and political weight is required to smooth the way” in the Philippines. “This person is the wife of the National Police Director General,” he claimed. The Colombians, meanwhile, were to transfer $6 million for the meth to Hong Kong as soon as it arrived in Thailand.

They would send the drugs via yacht from the Philippines to the Thai port of Laem Chabang, where they’d be moved onto a larger ship for the trip to Africa. Valkovic, the “ground commander” in charge of providing motorcycle-gang members for security, proposed that the transfer take place in a marina, under the cover of a photo shoot. They had considered making the transfer at sea, but Valkovic advised that it was too dangerous because U.S. naval ships regularly anchored in the bay. “Americans,” he said, “have their eyes everywhere.”


In Thailand, Hunter’s team met with the two cartel representatives to finalize arrangements for the assassination of the DEA agent and the snitch. Even though they’d worked together for eight months, Hunter had the pair searched and took their electronic devices, then insisted that the meeting be held outdoors as an extra precaution against being recorded.

Hunter, Gögel, Vamvakias, and the Colombians reviewed the assassination plan step-by-step. (Soborski and Filter had instead been assigned to travel to Estonia to provide security on a weapons deal.) They studied photos of the targets, discussing how to enter and leave the country undetected. Gögel and Vamvakias would have both cars and motorcycles at their disposal. Hunter had purchased the “black guy masks” mentioned in his email: latex masks specially designed to conceal the wearer’s race. They’d tried them on, Gögel said, and even when they closed their eyes the masks “were blinking with us.… Even with real hairs and everything. That’s perfect stuff.”

Gögel would lead the planning of the murder—“you run the show,” one of the Colombians told him—and suggested that with the right weaponry, they could make the job look like a robbery. “I think we’ll probably have to gonna get up close to ’em,” Vamvakias noted. “You know what I mean? To make sure it gets done.” Among the weapons that Hunter had suggested, they settled on German-made MP-7 machine guns. “If I can get those MP-7’s, that’d be awesome,” Vamvakias said. “That’ll guarantee whatever gets in that kill zone goes down.”

In late September 2013, the meth was ready to leave the Philippines. On the 24th, Lim and Peralta convened at a hotel in Patong Beach, in Phuket, to await its arrival. The next day, Stammers, Shackels, and Valkovic sat down for a final logistics run through with the Colombians. “All the main players are now on the ground,” Stammers emailed Le Roux, “standing by for meet coordinates and time.”

The coordinates never came. Instead, officers from Thailand’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau swept in a few hours later and arrested all five men.

apstammers1-1478029046-82.jpg
On September 24, 2013, the Narcotics Suppression Bureau of Thailand thwarted the plot to ship meth from the Philippines to Liberia. (Photo: AP Photo/Banmuang Newspaper)

Six miles away, at Le Roux’s Loch Palm villa, Joseph Hunter was awaiting updates on the Liberia job when a dozen commandos from the NSB arrived, led by the deputy police commissioner. The size of the arrest team was probably overkill; Hunter was the only team member home, apparently unarmed. They handcuffed him and led him outside, then sat him on the ground by the front door while cops and police officials posed beside him. In images that would soon run in newspapers around the world, Hunter appears expressionless, his hands cuffed behind his back. He is dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt with a Springfield Unathletic Dept logo and an image of Homer Simpson asleep on a couch. When I first saw the photos, beneath headlines about Rambo’s plot to assassinate a DEA agent, they almost looked staged in their absurdity.

msqwlzdcq5b6-1478029046-98.jpg
Hunter in custody of the Thai police. (Photo: Thai Immigration Police)

Five thousand miles away, at the same time, Soborski and Filter were picked up by local authorities at a hotel in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. They’d been doing reconnaissance in advance of a supposed meeting about a weapons deal. The men were transported to a former Soviet prison; the cops roughed up Soborski enough that he would later require abdominal surgery.

That same morning, Vamvakias and Gögel stepped off a plane at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia ready to assassinate the DEA agent and the snitch. The Colombians were supposed to be expecting them, ready with the weapons, masks, and vehicles they’d need to carry out the job. Instead, as the two men disembarked, a group of Liberian police were waiting, and the would-be assassins were quickly transferred into DEA custody and flown back to New York.

It was a year to the day since Paul Le Roux had made the same trip, with the same result.


Three days later, the Department of Justice held a press conference in Manhattan to announce the success of the sting operation involving Hunter and his assassination squad. The Colombian cartel representatives had been DEA informants, expertly directing a manufactured plot.

“The bone-chilling allegations in today’s indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel,” said Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends,” Bharara said. He unspooled a condensed version, from the early meetings with the fake Colombians, to the latex masks and the guns, to the point when, as he put it, “the DEA had seen more than enough.”

Press conference announcing the arrests in Thailand, Liberia, and Estonia. 

I watched a video of the press conference back in 2013, as transfixed as the rest of the world by what sounded like an extraordinary criminal and a brilliant investigation. But there was something confounding about the narrative, something that nagged at me. How had the DEA known that these men were prime targets for a sting operation involving the murder of an agent and a snitch? Was the agency hanging out fishing lines around the world, advertising assassinations in the hope of finding someone willing to bite? The story seemed to stop with Joseph Hunter, the sui generis international hit-men squad leader. But what special insight had put the DEA onto him to begin with?

The situation grew even more confounding two months later, when the DEA announced the arrest of Stammers and company in connection with the meth deal. “This investigation continued to highlight the emergence of North Korea as a significant source of methamphetamine in the global drug trade,” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said in a press release. Curiously, there was no mention that the two cases were related. Only the Washington Post made the connection: An anonymous law-enforcement source told the paper that the North Korea meth defendants were “part of a sprawling international drug trafficking ring led by a former American soldier, Joseph Manuel Hunter, who has separately been charged with conspiring to murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.”

I wouldn’t find out for another two years that the official’s statement had perhaps been a calculated bit of misinformation; the government, of course, knew all along that there was someone above Hunter. But even at the time, the arrests generated as many questions as answers. One of those answers lie buried in the indictments of the two cases, soon unsealed at the federal court in the Southern District. Both referred to an unnamed additional person in the sting, labeled variously as a “narcotics trafficking partner” or just “Individual-1.” Whether this was the same mysterious figure in both cases was impossible to tell. I puzzled over the potential connections for a few weeks and then, as the cases settled into the years-long grind of the federal court system, put them on the shelf.

Over the ensuing months, the six defendants in Thailand and the two in Estonia were all extradited to New York City. Each member of Stammers’s group faced multiple charges of conspiring to import methamphetamine to the United States. Hunter, Gögel, and Vamvakias were accused of graver crimes: conspiracy to murder a federal law-enforcement agent, among others. Soborski and Filter were hit with drug charges related to the Bahamas cocaine shipment for which they’d provided surveillance.

Awaiting trial, the defendants were left to grapple not only with the potential for significant prison time, but also the fact that everything they had planned had been a hoax, an elaborate piece of theater put on at the expense of the gullible and the greedy. There was no agent or snitch, no New York buyer for 100 kilos of the purest North Korean meth. Nor was there any cocaine on the Bahamas flight they had so carefully surveilled. The Phuket house had been wired for sound and video by the Thai police at the request of the DEA, a hard drive tucked under the kitchen counter. The “Colombians” had managed to record the other meetings by wearing wires—wires that Hunter had failed to detect. All of the teams’ email communications, with their macho posturing and detailed ops plans, were being simultaneously collected by the DEA’s Special Operations Division.

Perhaps the strangest fact of the whole charade, however, was something that Hunter and Stammers must have realized immediately but the world would wait years to find out. Paul Calder Le Roux, the man they alternately feared and admired—the man who’d brought them all into this scheme to begin with—had been in U.S. custody the whole time. What’s more, he had been playing the lead role in the show.


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 5: He Got Greedy

The Mastermind Episode 5: He Got Greedy

A yacht called ‘I Dream’ washes up in Tonga with some drugs and a grisly cargo.

By Evan Ratliff

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

Paul Le Roux always knew that the end would come, or so those inside his organization told me. Some believed that the sheer vastness of his criminal appetite implied that he was all but daring law enforcement to take him down. Others remembered that Le Roux talked for years about how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was on his trail. They’d always assumed he was boasting, exaggerating his importance.

There were also times when it seemed like Le Roux was considering getting out. In an online chat, sent to me by one of his former employees, he discussed disappearing into a new identity as early as 2008. “I need a dead body certified as me,” Le Roux said. “The body should have a certificate saying ‘died from multiple gun shot wounds.’” He also wanted a birth certificate under a new name, one that would work not just once, but for a lifetime.    

Le Roux either never got the birth certificate or never used it. Instead, when he started to feel that his time was short, he put into action another, even more elaborate plan. By early 2012, authorities in the U.S. began closing in on Le Roux’s operations. That spring, he exchanged his haven in the Philippines, with his established routines, paid-for police protection, and network of employees, for a new home base in Rio de Janeiro.

Le Roux seemed to see Brazil as a trapdoor to a fresh start: Soon after he arrived, he set about generating new business. The first involved a boat, transporting $120 million in cocaine from Peru to a buyer on the other side of the Pacific.

As he finalized the arrangements for the shipment, another lucrative offer presented itself. A trusted associate* of Le Roux’s contacted him to say that he’d met a representative of a Colombian cartel that wanted to build a large-scale methamphetamine operation in Liberia. On May 11, Le Roux’s associate flew to Rio for a meeting. The Colombians wanted precursor chemicals, a facility, and a chemist for making meth, in exchange for which they would supply Le Roux with cocaine.

The Colombians requested a sample of the product Le Roux could help them create. A week later, he gave the associate his bank account number, and the Colombians wired payment for a 24-gram sample of meth. Le Roux sent the sample to Liberia and supplied a tracking number. The Colombians tested the meth and found that it was clean, nearly 100 percent pure. They were ready to make the trade: 100 kilos of meth for 100 kilos of cocaine.

*A year after this series was published, I was discovered that this was a former employee who had overseen the Somalia operation, recruited by a section of the DEA’s Special Operations Group known as the 960 Group, to return to Le Roux’s organization with the fake deal in hand.

monrovia146-1478028965-98.jpg
In September 2012, Paul Le Roux traveled to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, to meet with a representative of a Colombian cartel. (Photo: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters Pictures)

All that was required to complete the deal was for Le Roux to travel to Liberia and meet with the cartel representative. He caught a commercial flight to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and touched down on September 25, 2012. As was often the case with Le Roux and his businesses, the swap was a bold plan, almost too over the top in its complexity. Only this time, Le Roux wasn’t the one pulling the strings.


For many months, I tried to convince someone in U.S. law enforcement to talk to me on the record about Le Roux. Several divisions of the Department of Justice, the DEA, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington and New York all repeatedly refused to speak with me. My phone calls and emails were met with variations on “no comment.” Kent Bailey, the acting head of the DEA in Minnesota, who I’d heard had been involved in the case, declined to connect me to any agents involved and referred my inquiries to Lawrence Payne, the DEA’s spokesman in Washington. Payne’s response was polite but firm: “There isn’t any information that we can confirm, deny, or discuss right now,” he said. Much of the evidence pertaining to Le Roux was still being held in sealed court filings, and as long as the cases remained open, no one in federal law enforcement would officially say a word about him.

But then, over the past few weeks, I spoke to two law enforcement officials with extensive and direct knowledge of the Le Roux case. One of them, whom I’ll call Jody, I met in a New York City bar one March afternoon after we were put in contact by a mutual acquaintance. Another, whom I’ll call Sol, called me after reading the first four parts of this story. Both had been briefed on the specifics of the Le Roux investigation, and they provided an inside look at the DEA’s five-year pursuit. They agreed to speak to me on the condition that they not be named, given the pending prosecutions and the fact that they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Their independent accounts confirmed one another’s and echoed what I had already learned from hundreds of pages of court documents both in the U.S. and overseas, as well as from my interviews with defendants, their families, and defense lawyers with access to parts of the government’s investigation. In total, these sources revealed how the U.S. brought down Paul Calder Le Roux. Through their accounts, I also discovered how close he came to escaping its grasp. “I’ve had a lot of drug cases,” Sol told me. “But Le Roux? He was by far the smartest drug dealer I’ve ever dealt with.”

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

A decade before the national opiate epidemic made headlines, the DEA had seen online pharmacies funneling prescription medication onto American streets. The agency responded with Operation Baywatch, Operation CyberRx, Operation Lightning Strike, Operation TexRx, and Operation Control/Alt/Delete, a series of attempts to shut down a thriving industry of rogue pharmacies, also known as pill mills.

In the summer of 2007, an investigator in the DEA’s Minneapolis–St. Paul office named Kim Brill was making undercover online purchases of phentermine, a prescription appetite suppresant with amphetamine-like effects. One of the shipments arrived from Altgeld Garden Drugs, a pharmacy on the South Side of Chicago. Brill and a partner obtained a warrant to search the store, and in the back they discovered FedEx boxes full of medications.

The DEA got a warrant for FedEx’s records and found that a single company was paying to ship those packages all around the country. It was called RX Limited. According to one indictment, “approximately one hundred pharmacies throughout the United States had also shipped under RXL’s FedEx account. RXL’s most frequently sold prescription drugs were Fioricet, Soma (carisoprodol), and Ultram (tramadol), and their generic and brand-name equivalents.”

Over the coming months and years, Brill and her colleagues embarked on the painstaking work of building a case against RX Limited. The evidence they compiled would ultimately amount to millions of pages of documents, according to one defense attorney involved in the case. Brill was a “diversion investigator”: Unlike agents tracking street narcotics like cocaine and methamphetamine, her focus was on legal drugs being diverted into illegal markets. According to both Sol and Jody, she was also exceptionally diligent, with a natural aptitude for making connections other investigators failed to spot. On RX Limited, she often worked alongside a DEA special agent named Travis Ocken, a clean-cut Nebraskan who had come to the agency by way of the Lincoln police force. Both of them were supervised, a source told me, by Bailey. (For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the collection of Minnesota investigators who worked on the case as “the agents.”) Working with DEA offices as far-flung as Detroit, New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Hong Kong, the Minnesota agents set out to unravel RX Limited’s operation.

To understand that network required a slew of strategies, Jody told me, a combination of tracing “the FedEx account and who opened that, and various email accounts, various affiliate programs—finding out who the affiliates were, who is paying those people—finding out where the servers were.”

The shipping account was a foot in the door: Among the 100 pharmacists using the account was Charles Schultz, the 74-year-old who owned two family-run drugstores in Oshkosh and Monroe, Wisconsin. Agents eventually determined that he shipped over 700,000 prescriptions on behalf of an RX Limited subsidiary. Another was Babubhai Patel, a pharmacist and businessman in his late forties who controlled 26 pharmacies in the Detroit area. According to a federal indictment, in addition to shipping drugs for RX Limited, the government alleges that Patel helped RX Limited set up credit card processing operations in the U.S.—another trail for the agents to follow.

In October 2007, Brill began making controlled buys on RX Limited websites, using accounts created by the DEA. When each package of pills arrived, it included a label indicating which doctor had prescribed them. That led the agents to physicians like Elias Karkalas, who operated a 15-year-old family practice in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and whose indictment now reads like this:

On or about December 2, 2008, ELIAS KARKALAS authorized a sham prescription for the dispensing and distribution of Fioricet or its generic equivalent to an RX Limited customer, an undercover investigator in Minnesota, with whom he did not have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship and who stated on the submitted customer questionnaire that the Fioricet was being ordered to treat knee pain.

“It took a while to put all the pieces together,” Jody told me, not least because RX Limited wasn’t a single site but a conglomeration of hundreds, with similar-sounding names like Cheaprxmeds.net and Allpharmmeds.com. Some of those sites were affiliates, marketing sites recruited by RX limited to funnel customers to the company in exchange for a per-order fee. 

triptych114-1478028965-38.jpg
Screen shots of some of RX Limited’s affiliates.

The names of these sites could change in an instant. RX Limited’s marketing strategy was essentially to send spam email to any address it could find. When service providers blocked those sites for bulk-email infractions, RX Limited and its affiliates would open up new ones, which in turn would be blocked. It was an endless game of cat and mouse. In the early days of RX Limited, employees purchased individual web domains at public sellers like GoDaddy. Later, RX Limited spawned its own domain-selling company, ABSystems—the equivalent of opening a printing press for web addresses. But instead of selling those addresses to others, ABSystems generated them by the thousands, virtually for free, exclusively for RX Limited.

John Reid, a researcher at Spamhaus, an independent organization that tracks spammers and fraudulent websites, described such efforts as a kind of “snowshoeing.” By creating thousands of sites, Reid told me, ABSystems spread the load the way a snowshoe distributes your weight. “If you register 10,000 a week, the moment one goes bad, you just switch to another one,” Reid said. Spamhaus keeps a list of the worst spammers so that email providers can easily block them. After years of collecting data on RX Limited and its affiliates, Spamhaus noted that, at times, more than a quarter of the domains on the block list were generated by ABSystems. By 2012, a private organization that tracks online pharmacies called LegitScript estimated that ABSystems accounted for more than half of the rogue online pharmacies in the world.


As I listened to Jody and Sol explain how the DEA agents had peeled away the layers of RX Limited, it felt eerily similar to the process I would undertake a decade later in my reporting. Companies and websites were registered under a myriad of monikers, real and fake. My files are filled with dozens upon dozens of names and address, in Florida, Panama, the UK, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, and the Philippines, a database of criminals, rubes, and fictional aliases like Ario Galvydis and Gherghy Jiku.

As Brill began cataloging these names, one kept popping up again and again in important places: Paul Calder Le Roux. “Before Le Roux started putting accounts in other people’s names, he had his name involved a little bit,” Jody told me. A few of those I had encountered myself: Le Roux’s name attached to a Florida company cited in a 2008 FCC complaint, for instance, about a marketing call made to someone in the National Do Not Call Registry. Others were buried deeper, on FedEx records, credit card processing accounts, emails, and banking records that only a search warrant could unearth.

The agents didn’t even have a photograph of Le Roux. But the scope of the operation they now attributed to him was so vast that the Department of Justice placed Le Roux on the U.S. Attorney’s Consolidated Priority Organization Target (CPOT) list, an internal index of the DOJ’s top targets. CPOT designees, like Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chápo” Guzman and Taliban-affiliated heroin trafficker Bashir Noorzai, are considered “the most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations” by the DEA. Le Roux was the first person ever included on the list based on prescription-drug operations alone.

It took Brill and her colleagues years to develop the evidence establishing Le Roux as the kingpin behind the organization, with some of the connections so faint that he almost avoided detection altogether. “If he had gone the anonymous route a little bit earlier in the enterprise, we would have no chance of figuring out who was really behind this,” Jody said. “It would have just taken too long to get past that first layer.

“He got greedy,” Jody continued. “He probably could have closed up shop in 2006 or 2007, been a rich millionaire, and never have been investigated at all.”

The financial hub for Le Roux’s operations, investigators quickly discovered, was Hong Kong. At any one time, tens of millions of dollars from American customers were coursing through bank accounts of Le Roux–controlled shell companies there, with names like GX Port, Vischnu Ltd., East Asia Escrow, Ajax Technology, and Quantcom Commerce. These were connected to central accounts held by Le Roux, which wired money around the world to cover various operational expenses, including call centers in Israel and pharmacists like Schultz.

Each new person I spoke to had an ever larger estimate of the size of this empire. According to the U.S. government, RX Limited earned between $250 million and $400 million a year at its height. Those figures might be hard to trust, given the government’s incentive to maximize the value of their busts, both for public relations and to enhance the sentences of anyone convicted. But then some of Le Roux’s employees are convinced that he was a billionaire.

Whatever the ultimate amounts, Le Roux needed more than everyday banking. He needed a way to clean the money coming in, to obscure its illegal origins, and transform it into something untraceable.

Gil, the former Le Roux employee whom I met in Manila, explained to me how the system worked. After expenses were paid, much of the remaining money was funneled into hard assets: primarily gold bars, but also diamonds and small round granules of silver called grain, all of which was stored in Hong Kong before being shipped to the Philippines, where it was delivered to Le Roux. And a literal fortune in gold and jewels called for a high level of security.


In 2009, Doron Zvi Shulman was 23 and just out of the Israeli military when a friend from his former unit told him about a “security job” in Hong Kong. Fit and handsome, with a penchant for wraparound sunglasses, Shulman was born in Zimbabwe and spent his formative years in Australia. A dual Australian-Israeli citizen, he came to Israel for military service, where he was selected to join an elite special-forces unit called the Duvdevan.

hongkongsh1-1478028966-69.jpg
Doron Zvi Shulman, a veteran of the Israeli army, worked for Le Roux in Hong Kong. (Photo: Facebook)

A subject of some controversy and intrigue, the Duvdevan—which means “cherry” in Hebrew—specializes in undercover work amid Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. Most famously, its agents have dressed as Arab women to infiltrate Palestinian militant groups in order to capture or kill high-value targets. It was natural for former members of the unit to drift into international security work, and Shulman became the latest to pass through a Duvdevan pipeline into Le Roux’s organization.

Shulman’s initial job in Hong Kong was to guard properties and valuables owned by Le Roux, for which he was paid $5,000 a month. Before long, however, he became one of Le Roux’s point men on the ground, conducting transactions for at least ten of the shell companies, which at one time held some $220 million between them. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, three of these companies acquired $30 million in one-kilogram gold bars from Metalor Technologies, a Swiss gold dealer housed in a sparkling glass tower.

Gil told me that Le Roux owned a collection of houses and condos in Hong Kong used almost exclusively to manage his hoard of precious metals. Each house contained a safe where the gold, silver, and diamonds were stored until they could be relocated to the Philippines. Sometimes the entire safe would be transported by boat. Other times bags of gold bars were flown by private plane back to Manila. “It was a constant influx of money turned into gold,” Gil told me—money primarily coming from prescription-pill customers in the United States.

In January 2012, Shulman hired a 27-year-old named Omer Gavish to guard a house in Hong Kong. It was located on Nga Yiu Tau street in Yuen Long, a rapidly developing district in the northwest part of the city. Gavish had served in the Duvdevan along with Shulman and, after he left the service in 2009, traveled the world doing contract security work, including two years in the Philippines. He was living in Israel when an acquaintance connected him with Shulman; the gig paid $3,000 a month, plus travel, to protect the Yuen Long house.

After four months in Hong Kong, Gavish had to renew his tourist visa, so Shulman bought him a ticket back to Manila. When he returned on May 1, Gavish found that his post had been taken by another Israeli. Gavish called Shulman to straighten out the issue. But Shulman seemed to have disappeared.

In Minneapolis, the DEA investigators were homing in on Le Roux. In 2009, they’d traveled to Manila in the hopes of convincing the Philippine government to monitor him on wiretaps. The local authorities never followed up. When the arms ship MV Captain Ufuk was intercepted off the coast, Sol told me, the DEA “knew that Le Roux was behind that shipment right away. Because La Plata Trading and Red White and Blue Arms”—companies tied to the shipment—“connected back to ABSystems, and the websites were registered to him.”

Le Roux’s addition to the CPOT list in 2009 meant additional resources to track the flow of money and more opportunities to get to the man himself. The investigators had obtained warrants to monitor email addresses being used to contact doctors and pharmacists in the operation’s network. It was through those emails that the agents discovered RX Limited’s customer-service centers in Israel, which traced back to the email addresses ron_oz11@hotmail.com and allenberkman@hotmail.com. 

But it wasn’t enough to make a case. “The real problem is, if all you are doing is getting email accounts, people are going to say ‘someone is using my identity.’ It’s hard to have someone say ‘I saw so and so send that email,’” Jody said. What they needed were informants or another way to understand how Le Roux worked in real time. “You’ve either got to have someone on the inside—and at that point we didn’t have anybody—or you need a wiretap.”

CPOT resources provided for extensive phone taps, which allowed agents to see how Le Roux’s pharmacy business began to suffer as federal laws caught up with the pill-mill phenomenon. After FedEx shut down RX Limited’s main account, Le Roux sent two employees to the U.S. to find alternate ways of shipping the medications. According to Jody, Babubhai Patel, the owner of the 26 Detroit-area pharmacies, was allegedly heard on DEA wiretaps “telling Le Roux’s folks that they need to pay more money because things are getting too risky.”

In 2011, the DEA declared Soma, one of RX Limited’s three bestselling drugs, a controlled substance, which meant that pharmacies needed special DEA approval to dispense it. Le Roux lost a significant chunk of business, forcing him to close down his call-center operations in Israel.

Still, the man at the top proved elusive. “We hoped that we might get Le Roux on those wires,” Jody said. “But it became clear that he was not going to talk on those phones.”


Even as the DEA was desperately searching for a direct line to Le Roux, former members of Le Roux’s organization were desperately searching for a direct line to the DEA. Le Roux had become more ruthless, commanding employee loyalty through fear and intimidation. But sometimes his threats backfired.

One morning in Manila, I sat with Gil, the former high-level Le Roux associate, at a Starbucks as he described how the paranoia of working with Le Roux nearly drove him out of his mind. Back in 2011, Le Roux practically admitted to Gil that he’d killed Dave Smith, his right-hand man: “I didn’t need Dave. You’re lucky I need you,” Le Roux told him. Soon after, Le Roux sent Gil to the U.S. to register some new companies. When Le Roux asked him to return not long afterward, Gil began to wonder if he would be the next to die. 

Listening in on wiretaps between Gil and other members of the organization, Sol told me, “you could hear it in his voice that he was troubled.” The agents prepared a plan to recruit Gil as an informant against Le Roux. But before they could make contact with him, he’d flown back to the Philippines. 

On arrival, Gil was so overcome with stress that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. After a few weeks, he decided to turn Le Roux in. Even sitting across from me several years later, he still had the nervous energy of a man who spent years looking over his shoulder. Gil told me that he contacted a friend in military intelligence, who put him in touch with the FBI. “They were excited” at first, he told me. “And then it dried up.”

The same happened with Robert McGowan’s initial approach to American authorities. McGowan, a Zimbabwean who had worked with Le Roux on a timber project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, found his name attached to ABSystems and other firms. McGowan had emailed an attorney friend in the U.S. in 2010 to ask whether there was any possibility of getting his name removed from Le Roux’s companies, and he tried again in 2011. He’d discovered that his identity was attached to Southern Ace, the company cited in a UN report as a backer of a Le Roux–funded militia in Somalia. The attorney told him he’d reach out to an acquaintance in law enforcement but couldn’t promise anything.

Several months later, McGowan got a call from the FBI. When I spoke to him recently, McGowan told me that soon afterward he also heard from the DEA. Both Jody and Sol confirmed that McGowan had approached the agency and that he’d been employed as an asset in the investigation.

I asked McGowan what motivated him to help the DEA. “Because of them stealing my identity and using my name and my details without my permission,” he said earnestly. “That to me was just not on.”

Lulu, the source who’d told me about Le Roux’s early life, had also been angling to get the attention of law enforcement. He first tried to turn in Le Roux, his relative and former employer, in late 2009. He’d emailed an address through the website of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and said he had information about an Australian and Zimbabwean citizen, based out of the Philippines, who was dealing in weapons and drugs.

When I first asked Lulu, in an online chat in mid-March, why he’d decided to go to the authorities, he said sardonically that he “was feeling a bit insecure” that Le Roux “was trying to blot me.” Le Roux believed that Lulu had some connection to $1 million that he’d lost in Africa, but when Bruce Jones, the captain of the MV Ufuk, “got blotted” in the Philippines, Lulu’s fear spiked. There was another reason: Le Roux had used the name of a person related to Lulu to register a company connected to one of his arms deals. Lulu wouldn’t specify except to say that the relative was put into a potentially deadly situation through the revelation that they owned a company behind a weapons shipment.

“That’s why I ratted him out,” he said.

Lulu was living in Africa at the time. An AFP agent agreed to meet him in Johannesburg, and Lulu brought along a friend who had also worked with Le Roux and was willing to talk. After hearing their stories, the agent put them in touch with an American CIA attaché there. “We had a few meetings with them, but they didn’t seem interested,” Lulu told me. A year passed.

“Then something changed,” he said, and “they got real excited”

By early 2012, the DEA agents had Le Roux in their sights; they just needed more direct evidence linking him to the prescription-pill business. But as they reached out to agency after agency around the world, hoping to build international cooperation to capture Le Roux, they realized that they had underestimated how thoroughly he had secured his freedom. Both Sol and Jody told me that the U.S. suspected that someone in one of the Philippine police agencies—the Philippine National Police or the National Bureau of Investigation—tipped Le Roux off to the U.S. investigation.

They were unable to provide further specifics, but their accounts were consistent with what I’d heard before. Other sources told me that Le Roux doled out money to police and other officials and spent over a million dollars to avoid prosecution in the MV Ufuk affair. (Gil, for instance, told me that he believed Le Roux had bought off contacts at the highest level of the government and even paid to have certain friendly officials installed in their posts. As I was writing this story, another source told me that Le Roux had hired a former NBI official to be in charge of distributing bribes to law enforcement.) By late 2011, Le Roux was preparing to make the jump to Rio de Janeiro.

I first came across Le Roux’s Brazil escape in a newspaper article by Marco Antonio Martins in Folha de S.Paulo. In December 2013, Martins noticed something the rest of the world had missed: Le Roux had made two short visits to Rio in 2011 and 2012, before settling there permanently in May 2012. He was joined by several Israeli associates, who brought along, according to Martins, over $1 million in American currency.

In an online database, I found the 2011 registration for Rainbow Force, a company Le Roux set up in Brazil, purporting to have ten employees and provide “custom programming services.” It was based in a bland 20-story office building down the street from the harbor. Martins also reported that Le Roux had bought a pair of luxury apartments. He lived in one with a Filipino girlfriend, Cindy Cayanan, and their newborn son, along with a nanny. (On immigration forms, Le Roux—who was still married to Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, a Dutch citizen—claimed Cayanan as his wife.) The other apartment was for a Brazilian mistress, whose name I also found on the Rainbow Force registration, with whom Le Roux had reportedly fathered a child soon after his arrival.

brazille146-1478028966-65.jpg
In Rio de Janeiro, Le Roux and Cayanan settled in a luxury apartment along with their infant son and nanny. (Photo: Brazilian Law Enforcement) 

At first the DEA saw Le Roux’s move to Brazil as a setback. Along with a constitutional provision barring the extradition of its citizens, Brazil provides similar protections to parents of Brazilian children. “He went to Brazil because he thought it was the easiest place to avoid extradition,” Jody told me.

I asked if they believed that Le Roux had a child in Brazil for the sole purpose of creating a safe haven to avoid extradition. “That’s my understanding,” Jody said.

It turned out, however, that Brazil also gave the DEA an unexpected advantage. Brazilian law allows authorities to obtain an “informal” wiretap for several weeks without a warrant, and then use the evidence acquired from that tap to file for fully sanctioned surveillance. Now they just needed someone who could get Le Roux on the line and verify his voice. That’s when they turned to Robert McGowan.

Several months after McGowan initially made contact with law enforcement, a DEA agent asked him to call Paul Le Roux. Less than a year before, McGowan had traveled to Manila to confront Le Roux about pulling the plug on a timber operation. Now, with the DEA on the line, he called him up to urge him to restart the company. “They didn’t coach me or anything,” McGowan told me. “I just dialed the number and talked to him.”

brazilsurve-1478028966-88.jpg
Local police followed Le Roux as he met with his associates in Rio. (Photo: Brazilian Law Enforcement)

At the same time, the DEA enlisted local police to follow Le Roux, who could be found in his usual shorts and flip-flops at a nearby mall, meeting with deputies, including Manila-based Israeli Shai Reuven, who served as one of Le Roux’s right-hand men.

The Rio wiretaps were a revelation, a treasure trove of leads and evidence, a chance to finally hear from the man himself. Here was Le Roux, living with his girlfriend and another mistress abroad, urging Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui to stop buying real estate. As Jody recalled it, Le Roux warned her that property was too easy to seize if he was arrested. When his wife seemed to discount that possibility, he reminded her that “I’m not running a fucking McDonald’s.”


The DEA caught much more than just domestic disputes on the wiretaps in Rio. In April 2012, according to Sol, they heard either Le Roux or an associate discussing a large shipment of fertilizer passing through Hong Kong. The agents tipped off the Hong Kong police, who raided a warehouse in Tsuen Wan, north of the city. There they discovered 24 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, divided into 960 bags labeled as sodium chloride. It was enough to create an explosive ten times bigger than the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing. According to local news reports, police discovered Doron Zvi Shulman’s name on the warehouse lease and the shipping documents for the fertilizer.

photo114603-1478028966-19.jpg
Hong Kong police search one of Le Roux’s stash houses (Photo: Oriental Daily News)

On April 30, 2012, the cops converged on the office of Ajax Technology, in an office tower on a busy downtown street lined with banks, and took Shulman into custody. While Gavish tried and failed to reach Shulman, the police were searching Shulman’s apartment in a complex called Laguna City. There they found bank records for other Le Roux front companies, the deeds to the Yuen Long property and another stash house, and five kilos of silver grain.

Shulman’s lawyer would later argue that, because of Shulman’s military background, “he was trained to follow orders without any questions,” and when told “to look after some valuables in Hong Kong, he did it diligently without any question. Being simple and without experience in finance, he landed himself into deep trouble.”

The trouble for Le Roux, however, was just beginning. Shulman’s arrest set off one of the more cartoonish episodes in the years-long pursuit of Le Roux by the authorities. On May 1, the day after Shulman’s arrest, two Israelis in Hong Kong received a call from their South African boss, “John”—likely Le Roux himself. John told them it was time to liquidate some assets. The only problem was, those assets were locked in safes inside the two stash houses, and neither one of them had the keys.

First they tried getting into Shulman’s apartment, but when they arrived, they found it sealed off by the authorities. So John told them to use brute force: They went to a hardware store, bought some metal-cutting tools, and got to work. At the Yuen Long house, they found that the safe was embedded in a wall. Using a crowbar, they pried it free and then cut a hole in the back, discovering—to their surprise, they would later claim in court—181 gold bars, which they placed into duffel bags.

When they arrived at the second house, they were met by another Israeli dispatched from Manila. After a locksmith dismantled the gate, which he himself had recently installed, the Israelis set to cutting open the safe behind it.

By May 2, the now three and possibly four Israelis—the Hong Kong court documents are somewhat confusing on this point—took 342 gold bars, worth around $20 million, and climbed into a taxi. On John’s instructions, they drove to Chungking Mansions, a sprawling 17-story gray edifice widely regarded as the cheapest immigrant lodging in Hong Kong, and checked into a youth hostel.

Over the next two days, together with a Filipino named Gordo who had also arrived in the intervening time, they alternated taking the gold back to Metalor, where it had originally been purchased. They unloaded 85, then 32, then 64 of the bars, depositing over $9.4 million in an account of Cycom, a Le Roux–controlled company. 

photo314603-1478028967-38.jpg
On April 30, Hong Kong police arrested Shulman at the offices of Ajax Technology. (Photo: Oriental Daily News)

Meanwhile, a baffling collection of Le Roux operatives converged on Hong Kong, either in a frenzied attempt to keep Le Roux’s massive store from slipping away or, as Le Roux would later claim, to get some for themselves. Besides Gordo, there was someone traveling under the name John Miller, who collected corporate documents for Cycom and then disappeared. There was an Eastern European who was arrested by authorities on May 2 but immediately jumped bail and flew to Rio. There was also a mysterious South African referred to only in passing in the court documents, and another Filipino arrested at the airport holding bank-transfer records for $8 million. He, too, jumped bail.

As the Israelis desperately tried to hide the remaining gold, scouting a new house in Yuen Long, the police were on their trail. Investigators found the CCTV footage from the two houses, which showed men loading heavy bags into a cab. The police tracked the men around the city, and at 2:45 in the morning on May 7, the remaining Israelis were arrested in a raid at Chungking Mansions. In their possession were five bags containing 161 gold bars, plus four five-carat diamonds and receipts from the previous days’ sales.

screenshot1-1478028967-85.png
In May 2014, a judge in Hong Kong found Doron Zvi Shulman guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Three days later, Le Roux’s wife, Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, was arrested trying to enter Hong Kong on her Dutch passport, carrying a bank slip for a $300,000 transfer to Cycom. I couldn’t locate a record of her being prosecuted, and no one I spoke with seemed to know why. But Le Roux’s fertilizer “Sol told me. “I think he got duped.”

While the Hong Kong police were working to seize as many of Le Roux’s assets as they could find, the DEA agents in Brazil were listening to him try to refill his coffers. From Rio, Le Roux was making plans to send 200 kilos of cocaine on a ship called the JeReVe to a buyer in the South Pacific. Based on conversations the agents overheard, they believed that the vessel would leave from Ecuador. Le Roux and his associates bought the boat and transported it from Panama to Ecuador, then arranged to bribe Ecuadoran coast guard officials.

The JeReVe, according to an advertisement I found preserved online, had been listed for sale a year before in Panama for $105,000. Its previous owners had sailed the 44-foot luxury sailboat around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean before giving it up. The boat’s name was French for “I dream.” “JeReVe is ready to sail and to give a lot of pleasure at his next owner,” read the listing. In August, the boat arrived at its Ecuadorean berth, prepared to carry Le Roux’s lucrative shipment.

Le Roux couldn’t have known that this new venture had made him a narco-terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. government. Until he had fled for Brazil, his case had been the province of the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Division, the federal prosecutors that handle pill-mill cases, and the Minnesota investigation team anchored by Kim Brill. But the revelation that Le Roux was into large-scale narcotics dealing, together with his arms-trafficking adventures in the Philippines and Somalia, suddenly made Le Roux a target for the DEA’s narco-terrorism investigators. These agents were part of the agency’s Special Operations Division, working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan. In recent years, the DEA has vastly expanded its operations around the globe, based on the DOJ’s calculus that drug traffickers represent a security threat to U.S. interests.

In Ecuador, DEA agents distracted the crew of the JeReVe and placed a tracking device on the craft before it departed, with only a captain and first mate on board. After a brief stop off the coast of Peru, it began its journey across the ocean. The DEA planned to follow it to its destination and then bust the buyers as well. But as the JeReVe neared the Cook Islands in late September, the tracking device failed, and it disappeared from the agency’s radar.


To capture Le Roux, the DEA needed to get him out of Brazil, preferably to a country that wouldn’t require an extradition proceeding before letting agents bring him to the U.S. They came up with a scheme to lure him abroad: the meth-chemicals-for-cocaine deal with the Colombian cartel, introduced to Le Roux by a trusted associate. The Colombian cartel was a fake, and the associate was coached to lay the deal out carefully for Le Roux. It had to happen in Liberia, he was told, and he had to make sure Le Roux understood that the meth would be sold in New York—a ploy to ensure that the charges would stick back in the U.S.

Le Roux, meanwhile, had every reason to turn the invitation down. He was, as far as he knew, safe in Brazil, protected from extradition. (Later, he would demonstrate his fine-grained knowledge of Brazilian law, noting, “As far as I’m aware, Brazil lacks a conspiracy law, so I do not believe any crimes were committed in Brazil.”) The JeReVe was en route to its destination. The pharmacy business was on the rocks, certainly—particularly without the Hong Kong accounts—but there was still money in the Philippines, and his network remained in place.

But Le Roux’s appetite exceeded his caution, tipping into megalomania as he evolved from an online gray-market entrepreneur to an old-school crime boss, expanding into weapons, cocaine, and meth and ordering murders without a second thought. Among employees there had been rumors that he was importing drone parts into the Philippines to make his own drug-delivery vehicles, and the DEA overheard him discussing the use of remote-controlled submersibles to transport meth chemicals from Hong Kong to the Philippines. The Liberia deal catered to his unquenched ambitions to remain a major player. He bought a ticket to Monrovia and arrived on September 25.

It was a variation on a trap the DEA had set before, for other narco-terrorism suspects, all over the globe, and Le Roux walked off the plane into its delicately poised jaws. The next day, he was swept up by Liberian police. His first response, according to court testimony by James Stouch, a DEA agent who participated in the operation, was to offer a bribe to the Liberian police. It didn’t work; the Liberians handed him over to the DEA agents, who explained that he would be taken to the United States. “I apologize in advance, but I do not want to get on your plane,” he told them, and then made himself as heavy as possible. Getting him into a van, Stouch later said in court, was like “trying to move somebody that’s just kind of described as dead weight.”

Halfway to the airport, however, Le Roux switched tactics, said Stouch. “He just essentially said he was no longer going to resist and that he would cooperate with our commands.” According to the DEA, Le Roux waived his Miranda rights somewhere over the Atlantic and agreed to tell them everything he knew. This wasn’t a total surprise: Jody told me that on the wiretaps Le Roux talked like a man who knew that “at some point he felt like he was not going to get away forever.”

Still, the whole bust seemed as surreal as much of Le Roux’s operation had been. Here was a man calculating enough to father a child in Brazil in order to avoid extradition, who then took a chance on traveling to Liberia for a meth deal. “It really was a stupid mistake,” Jody said.

Through 2011, Lulu had continued talking to U.S. authorities. Their interest had perked up, he suspected, when he’d mentioned that Le Roux had servers in Brazil. The DEA sent a team to meet him in Africa. Eight agents came the first time, from a variety of agencies, and then some months later two DEA investigators came to ask more questions. Among the groups were Brill, Ocken, and Stouch, and Lulu related to them the same tale that he told me after contacting me last month.

Then, after months of silence, in October 2012, those same agents suddenly arranged for Lulu to fly to Minneapolis. There he told his story to a federal grand jury that had been convened to indict Paul Le Roux on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to illegally import prescription drugs. Afterward, they took him to a Vikings-Titans game. “Thoroughly enjoyed it,” Lulu told me. “That running back was excellent.”


boat1460403-1478028967-3.jpg
After several days at sea, the JeReVe disappeared from the DEA’s radar.(Photo: Australian National Police)

Six weeks after Le Roux was arrested, two recreational divers found the JeReVe washed up on a shallow reef off the shore of Luatafito Island, one of a cluster of tiny uninhabited atolls in the northern part of Tonga. The yacht was lying on its side, saltwater lapping against its brick red hull and broken tiller.

One of the divers climbed onto the clean white deck of the ship and made a grisly discovery. At the helm was the badly decomposed body of a man. The divers fled the ship, climbed into their own boat, motored to the nearby port of Neiafu, and called the local police.

tongadrugb1-1478028968-56.png
Aboard the JeReVe, local authorities found neatly tied plastic bags filled with brown bricks of cocaine. (Photo: Australian National Police)

Bad weather rolled in, and the authorities couldn’t return to the JeReVe for two days. When they did, a group of shorts-wearing officers examined it. Inside the hull, they found a pile of clear garbage bags filled with dozens of neatly wrapped brown plastic bricks. All told those bricks contained 204 kilos of cocaine, worth over $120 million on the street in Australia, where authorities suspected the drugs had been headed. It was, according to the Tongan government, the largest drug haul ever confiscated in the South Pacific.

After the boat had disappeared from radar, authorities from the U.S., Australia, Tonga, and the Cook Islands had coordinated a massive search. Despite the fact that the yacht had been found by accident, they declared its seizure a victory for the Pacific Transnational Crime Network, an international cooperative aiming to stop the flow of drugs from South America to Asia, often in small boats like the JeReVe. “By using our networks and working together, we were able to prevent over 200 kilograms of cocaine from entering our community,” an Australian customs official said.

Tongan authorities identified the dead man on board the JeReVe by passport as the second mate, a 35-year-old Slovakian named Milan Rindzak. They also found other passports on the ship, along with a few hundred American dollars, some Dominican pesos, and a handful of Polish zloty. At first the local police asserted that there was no foul play in Rindzak’s death but, following an autopsy, amended that conclusion to “cause of death inconclusive”; he had been dead for days, if not weeks. The captain of the boat was never found.

For months afterward, the Tongan police tried to locate Rindzak’s next of kin in Slovakia but were unable to track down anyone who would claim his body. Finally, in January 2013, they buried Rindzak’s remains in a local cemetery overlooking the placid blue waters of a harbor called the Port of Refuge.


When the DEA plane landed in New York, Le Roux was assigned a court-appointed attorney and placed into secret custody in New York City. The day after his arrival, he signed an agreement stating his intention to plead guilty to the methamphetamine charges, which granted him immunity against other crimes that he might admit to. Then he promptly admitted to, among other offences, arranging or participating in seven murders.

But the DEA agents did not hold a press conference announcing that they had caught a singular criminal, a man who’d transformed himself from an internet pill mogul into a drug and arms dealer and murderer. They did not make a tour of morning shows as they debriefed Le Roux about his past and the strange connections he’d made along the way.

Instead, the DEA said nothing. The agency had other plans, which required that no one know that Le Roux was off the street. Unlike a typical organized-crime case, in which authorities might flip lower-level participants to inform against their bosses, the U.S. was preparing to invert the pyramid. They’d caught the man at the top of the food chain, and now they were about to work their way down, cloaked by a blanket of secrecy.

Le Roux had quickly transitioned from kingpin to informant. “It was obvious that my situation was a bad situation,” was all he would say when, later, he was asked in court why he’d flipped so easily.

The agents wanted Le Roux to continue communicating with his associates and employees as if nothing had happened. “We were trying to maintain the image that he was still free and moving about, specifically in Brazil,” agent Stouch later recounted.

There was only one problem: All of Le Roux’s email passed through his own server, Fast-free-email.com, which he had designed to periodically destroy his messages. The agents needed to mirror that email address so that they could preserve all of Le Roux’s communications as evidence. Fortunately, there was one person in the room technically proficient enough to execute such a maneuver. And he seemed happy to be back in the game, even if on the other side.

Later, at a court hearing in Minneapolis, Le Roux was asked whether he had consented to the DEA monitoring his email after his arrest.

“Yes,” he said, leaning into the microphone, with a slight air of condescension. “I set it up.”


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 4: Absolute Fear

The Mastermind Episode 4: Absolute Fear

How the programmer became an insatiable tyrant.

By Evan Ratliff

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

On August 20, 2009, Mar Supnad, a 31-year-old reporter for the Manila Bulletin, got a tip from a police source: A large shipment of illegal weapons had been seized from a ship off the coast of Mariveles, a port city in Bataan province, three hours west of Manila. When Supnad arrived at the site, his contacts told him that the day before, a local fisherman had alerted customs officials to a suspicious cargo ship anchored near the coast. When three port officers motored out to the vessel, they noted that it lacked a national flag, although the word “Panama” was painted on its hull.

They boarded the ship, called the MV Captain Ufuk, and questioned the captain, a South African named Lawrence John Burne, who explained that the rest of the 13-member crew were from the Republic of Georgia and spoke no English. One officer noticed 20 large unmarked wooden crates on deck.

When Burne was unable to produce a cargo manifest for the boxes, the officer called his superiors. Soon, a team of customs agents arrived on board with reinforcements from the Philippine National Police and the coast guard. In three of the crates, they found 54 assault rifles. A fourth contained 45 bayonets and 120 empty gun magazines.

reutersgun1-1478028872-19.jpg
Customs and Coast Guard officials inspect seized high-powered firearms while on board the MV Captain UFUK at the port of Mariveles, Bataan city, north of Manila August 21, 2009. (REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco )

Supnad’s sources told him that “at least 16 boxes had already been unloaded and fetched by other, smaller crafts,” he recalled recently, as we sat together in the headquarters of the governor of Bataan. In interviews with authorities, Supnad learned that this cache of weapons had filtered out into the country. It was an election year in the Philippines, and officials feared that the influx of guns might portend a rash of political terrorism. Some believed that the weapons were destined for rebel groups operating in the southern part of the country, including militants from Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group linked at the time to Al Qaeda. The news of the illegal shipment, Supnad told me, “exploded like a bomb.”

On a December morning last year, I drove from Manila to Bataan to see Supnad after I read his reporting on the gun shipment. The events that followed the interception of the Ufuk struck me as a turning point in Paul Le Roux’s history. They mirrored his shift from a kind of gray-market entrepreneur, making hundreds of millions of dollars in online pharmacies, to an insatiable tyrant atop a global crime cartel of his own invention.

The MV Ufuk affair was, as well, the nexus of the kind of indiscriminate violence that would become Le Roux’s hallmark, and the beginning of a chain of events that would culminate in his downfall. Mar Supnad himself would become a player in that story—and nearly pay a very steep price.

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

On the morning of my visit, Supnad was at his side job, as the media adviser to the provincial governor. He has closely cropped black hair and a pair of wire-rim glasses, and wore a bright orange and black checked shirt with a pen clipped between the buttons. Despite a perpetual furrow between his eyebrows, he exuded a preternatural cheer, even when describing the deadly consequences of his story. “As you know, our job is to expose, no matter whose toes we step on,” he told me. “As journalists we get threats, intimidation. But it’s what we must do.”

On a black leather couch beneath a portrait of the governor, Supnad recalled what his police contacts told him in 2009: that during interrogation, Burne revealed that he had very recently taken over for another captain, a British sailor named Bruce Jones. By the time the port officers had pulled alongside the Ufuk, Jones was long gone, as were the 16 crates full of weapons. The guns were bound for a Manila gun dealer called Red White and Blue Arms Incorporated.

The evening before the ship was intercepted, a small yacht called the Mou Man Tai had motored out from the nearby Subic Bay Yacht Club, taken the weapons and Jones onboard, and sped off into the night. The Mou Man Tai was found a few days later anchored off a remote fishing village. But neither Jones nor the guns were there, and Jones became the subject of a nationwide manhunt.

Five days after the seizure of the MV Ufuk, Supnad got a call from a family friend named Joe Frank Zuñiga. A prominent local lawyer, Zuñiga said that he was representing Bruce Jones, who was currently hiding in a forested area of the mountains above the coast. He wanted to meet with Supnad for an interview, to “tell to the world that he has nothing to do with the illegal shipment of guns.”


The next day, Supnad drove into the mountains above the coastal city of Subic Bay. It was dark when he arrived at a small house, where he met Jones and Zuñiga. The three drove to a nearby restaurant. A photo from the meeting shows them sitting at a table with a red and white checked tablecloth, Jones in a light yellow T-shirt. The dirty-blond mane of hair he wore in the widely circulated photos of him had been cut short. Supnad recalled that Jones seemed distressed to the point of tears. “I am not a terrorist,” he said.

Jones told Supnad his life story: He was 49 years old and had come to the Philippines in 1993 from Bristol, England. He was married to a 25-year-old local named Maricel and lived just outside Subic, the home of a former U.S. naval base. When Jones’s predicament was reported back in Bristol, a hometown friend described him as a “lovable rogue,” and his former employer at the Bristol Ferry recalled that Jones had “an eye for adventure.” There was “clearly something about his character,” he added, “that meant he was prone to get caught up in a bit of trouble.”

Jones told Supnad that trouble arrived in August 2009, when a fellow Brit named Dave Smith approached him about sailing a ship from Turkey to Indonesia to the Philippines. A Manila-based company called La Plata Trading would pay for the journey and supply the crew. Smith arranged for Jones to fly to Turkey and purchase the MV Ufuk, a rusty but seaworthy 2,400-ton vessel. Along with a Georgian crew, Jones sailed down the coast of Africa, stopping in Ghana and Congo before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and heading for Indonesia.

At a dock in Jakarta, he picked up the cargo, a shipment of weapons from a company called PT Pindad, and set out for the Philippines. Jones told Supnad that he believed the shipment was legitimate: He had been supplied with an end-user certificate—a document in the arms trade establishing the legitimate destination for a weapons purchase— indicating that the guns were meant for a buyer in Mali. Around 50 Indonesian police and soldiers supervised the pickup. (Later, I found a classified cable from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, released by WikiLeaks, revealing that the gun sale had been approved by the Indonesian Ministry of Defense.)

As Jones piloted the ship toward Bataan, however, he got a call from the owner of La Plata Trading, a man he’d never met, telling him to delay bringing the ship into port. The next day, he was told to steer the ship closer to Subic Bay and wait to dock. When the Ufuk had been in a holding pattern for several days, Jones began to worry. His wife was pregnant, due any day; Jones told the owner he wanted to get off.

That night, the Mou Man Tai, with Smith on board, brought a rubber speedboat alongside the Ufuk. Jones was replaced by Burne, the South African captain, and the 16 crates of guns were removed. The smaller boat took Jones back to Subic.

When the news broke that the ship had been seized, the press labeled Jones the brains behind the shipment instead of his employers, a large-scale organized-crime group that extended far beyond La Plata Trading. Terrified, Jones fled into the mountains.

“He told me that this syndicate was well financed,” Supnad said, its alleged owner “holding three kinds of passports.” Jones was willing to spill what he knew about the people who had hired him, he said, if the government would provide him with protection.

Supnad published the revelations on August 26, 2009, under the headline “British Captain of Arms Ship Seeks Protection.” Two weeks later, Jones surrendered to the Bureau of Customs, accompanied by Zuñiga. According to a report from the Philippine Office of the Special Envoy on Transnational Crime, “Jones told investigators that he was hired by La Plata Trading Inc. through the help of Smith last August, to buy the vessel worth $800,000 in Turkey and the Indonesia-made assault rifles and pistols for $86,000.”

In February 2010, the Philippine government charged 37 people—Burne and the entire Georgian crew, plus Jones—with illegally bringing the guns into the Philippines. But the indictment also covered the owners of La Plata Trading and Red White and Blue Arms, including “David Smith a.k.a. Dave Smith,” “Michael T. Archangel,” and one “Johan a.k.a. John Paul Leraux.”

Zuñiga requested that the Philippine Department of Justice place Jones under witness protection and made another public plea for his safety. “Mr. Jones is afraid for his life,” Zuñiga told a reporter. “He is a victim and not a suspect.”

In his brief dealings with Le Roux’s empire, Jones had glimpsed enough to be afraid. During the period between 2007 and 2011, Le Roux’s businesses had begun to metastasize, expanding simultaneously into logging, precious metals mining, gold smuggling, land deals, cocaine shipping, and arms dealing. These activities were spread across dozens of shell companies registered all over the world.

As I mapped Le Roux’s sprawling network, different parts began to intersect. Israelis associated with the call centers in Tel Aviv were deployed to run international logging operations. They recruited their friends, who were dispatched to Hong Kong to guard houses full of gold or to Brazil to set up front companies. Names that I’d seen on documents of organizations related to Le Roux’s pharmacy operation showed up in businesses connected to arms trafficking or money laundering.

The person who tied many of these threads together for me was Lulu, the relative of Le Roux’s who contacted me in early March. In a series of online chats, Lulu told me that by the early 2000s, he and Le Roux had fallen out of touch. Then, in 2007, Le Roux approached him about a job. Over the course of a single year, Lulu came in contact with several of Le Roux’s operations and became familiar with many of the players—Joseph Hunter among them—whose names would later surface in American court documents.

In March of this year, a former employee of Le Roux’s also forwarded me 80 pages of online chat logs with Le Roux, who called himself Johan. In them, Le Roux discusses operations as varied as moving gold out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, purchasing a plane, and seeking suppliers of rocket-propelled grenades:

[6/21/2008 6:09:03 PM] johan says: RPG-7 two units needed with 20 rounds, 10 grenades, plastic explosives, 4 MP5’s with 2 15 clips ammo each, it is just a sample order to check if i can supply, i need it delivered in mozambique, i will take it from there to asia myself

None of my sources knew how Le Roux got involved in the weapons market, but his organizations were staffed by ex-soldiers and mercenaries. Among his top echelon, Le Roux was closest to a man named Dave Smith. A British native, Smith had done security work in Iraq and then for a risk-management company in the Philippines. He allegedly carried an American passport, leaving some associates confused as to his national origins. Le Roux had hired Smith sometime before 2008 and elevated him to a kind of all-purpose deputy and consigliere, trusted to coordinate gold shipments around Africa or arrange for the dispatch of an inconvenient person. It was Smith who, in 2009, stood over Moran Oz, floating in the waters off Subic Bay, and threatened to kill him.

One of Le Roux’s former employees whom I met in Manila—to ensure his safety, I refer to him as Gil—recalled that Le Roux had once told Smith, “I live vicariously through you.” Le Roux mostly sat behind a computer; Smith was a man of action.

People like Smith gave Le Roux access to the network of international security contractors that spanned the globe after the contractor-aided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I was forwarded an email from a friend that was working in Iraq,” a South African who joined one of Le Roux’s companies told me. “They were looking for snipers and close-protection personnel. I sent my CV and was flown to Manila a week later.”

Such recruits could be involved in anything from protecting smuggled shipments to arranging the transportation of prostitutes used for bribing government officials in Papua New Guinea:

[6/8/2008 5:17:59 PM] johan says: major business in PNG need to come up with a white chick

[6/8/2008 5:18:07 PM] johan says: promised it to a government minister there

[6/8/2008 5:18:11 PM] johan says: vital to my business

In the chat logs, there were countless such discussions, a documented trail of acts that the perpetrators were simultaneously trying to ensure could never be documented. Le Roux was paranoid about security, but not quite paranoid enough. “It is ok to talk normally as Skype is encrypted,” he says at one point, then changes his mind and asks his correspondent to download an encrypted messenger program or use an email service that Le Roux himself had built.

The messages also capture Le Roux’s encyclopedic knowledge of various industries. At times I was numbed by the sheer banality of his sprawling criminal network as I paged through thousands of words about customs issues in the Congo, copper prices on the London Metal Exchange, and arrangements to buy certain brands of logging winches.

At other moments, however, they reveal Le Roux’s chilling attitude toward violence and how increasingly capricious he could be in meting it out. In one conversation, Le Roux casually inquires whether a man who owes him money has any children.

Lulu told me that while he was working for Le Roux, he developed a growing suspicion that he too was at risk. Two Le Roux hires in Africa lost a considerable sum of money in a scam, Lulu said, and Le Roux blamed him. At one point, Le Roux ordered him to Manila and then failed to show up at a dinner meeting. That night, Lulu heard that another associate had been arrested on what he believed to be a bogus drug charge. Lulu immediately went to the airport and caught the next flight to Hong Kong.

He picked a hotel and checked in, assuming he was safe. Then the landline rang. “It was Paul, asking me why I’ve run away,” he told me. “I put the phone down, checked out, and rushed to the airport.” The first flight was to Bangkok. “Same story,” he told me. This time it was a Le Roux associate on the line.

With no idea how he was being tracked, Lulu hid at a friend’s apartment in another country while he tried to figure out Le Roux’s intentions. In one online chat, Lulu told Le Roux, “I thought you were hunting me.” Le Roux responded with a smiley face. “Buddy if I was hunting you,” he said, “you would be dead.” 

Lulu told me that he never saw Le Roux again and “spent the next five years in absolute fear.”

Mar Supnad’s account of his meeting with Jones was a coup, cited in the national and international press. But soon Supnad began receiving threats. The first one was “friendly,” he told me: A journalist colleague invited him to meet at a Starbucks in Subic Bay. He offered him 500,000 pesos (around $10,000) to stop writing about the Ufuk. “The emissary,” Supnad would later write in an article recounting the bribe attempt, “told this writer that top PNP [Philippine National Police] and DoJ [Philippine Department of Justice] officials will handle the gun smuggling case provided there will be no more exposé on the newspapers.”

Not long after came a second offer: Someone from the “syndicate” behind the gun shipment approached Supnad’s editor and suggested that Supnad take a three-month trip to Hong Kong or Macau, fully paid for, rather than write any more stories about the Ufuk. Again Supnad said no, and his editor agreed. “Just continue writing what you know about the smuggling,” he said the editor told him.

Supnad started varying his route to work and avoiding the Subic area entirely. He changed the plates on his car regularly and entered and exited his residence cautiously. Sometimes he wore a wig. He heard rumors that the syndicate had paid off a police official, to the tune of 30 million pesos, to make the Ufuk case—and the charges against one “Johan,” the man behind it—go away.

Bruce Jones, by contrast, gradually let his vigilance lapse, confident, according to Supnad, “that the syndicate was no longer running after him.” By September 2010, it had been a year since Jones had told investigators what he knew, and he decided to venture out. On the morning of September 21, Jones drove his wife and son to the Marquee Mall, in Angeles City, another former home to a U.S. military base outside Manila.

They were meeting a friend, an American named John Nash, for lunch, along with Nash’s wife. Jones and Nash knew each other from the expat circles in Subic Bay, where Nash ran a security company that, among other things, supplied bouncers for local bars and security for a Sea World–type water park called Ocean Adventure. The area is favored by former soldiers, drifters, and expat men pursuing cheap tropical lodging and an active sex trade. A local reporter told me that if people “had some problems with some other expats, they go to him,” referring to Nash. He spoke five Filipino dialects fluently, and rumors swirled—possibly created by Nash’s own dubious bragging, the reporter said—that he’d been in the CIA. Few people believed him, the reporter said, but at the very least “he was well connected.”

According to the police report of the events of September 21, at 2 p.m. the group departed from lunch, Jones and his wife in their gray Mitsubishi Lancer and Nash following a few minutes behind. They planned to meet up at the nearby Mountain Clark Firing Range.

Bruce Jones’s car was ambushed on Don Jose street. Jones died before authorities arrived on the scene. 

As the car turned down Don Jose street, 100 feet from the entrance to the gun range, a red Honda XRM motorcycle pulled up behind it, with two men in helmets riding in tandem. As the vehicles approached a speed bump, the motorcycle zoomed in front, blocking the car’s path. The man on the back leaped off, approached the car, and fired into the driver-side window. The gunman climbed back on the motorcycle, and the men sped off in the direction from which they’d come.

Jones was hit multiple times, and one bullet passed through his body and struck Maricel in the back. He fell over on top of her, vomiting blood. Maricel froze, terrified, and then opened the door and climbed out.

She frantically called Nash, who raced down Don Jose to where the Lancer was parked, pulled Maricel and her son into his car, and drove to the hospital. The baby was unhurt, and doctors quickly stabilized Maricel. Jones died slumped across the passenger’s seat, his wife’s shoes still on the floor next to him.


Five years later, I stood on that spot with Roberto Manuel, the officer who conducted the initial investigation into the crime. We could hear the popping sound of guns from the firing range just down the street—ideal cover for a midday assassination. According to the police report, investigators found four .45-caliber shell casings and a deformed bullet near the car. Manuel showed me some crime-scene photos he’d taken that day and demonstrated with hand motions exactly how far from Jones’s window the gunman must have fired: close enough to ensure accuracy, he said, but not so close as to shatter the window.

There was little other evidence, however. Tandem motorcycle riders are a common style of assassination in the Philippines, not least because helmeted killers can speed off without being identified. That same day police questioned Nash, who gave his full name as John William Nash, Jr., a 49-year-old American working as a “consultant” in the Subic Bay area. Nash said that Jones had told him he’d received repeated death threats and had noticed strangers near his home, whom Jones believed were connected to his “employers” on the Ufuk.

Nash told police that he and his wife had lingered for a minute after lunch, putting some packages in the trunk of their car. He recalled receiving the call from Maricel and arriving to find “Bruce already bloodied and lying at the front seat of his car.”

Transcript of John Nash’s interview with the police after Bruce Jones’s murder.
Transcript of John Nash’s interview with the police after Bruce Jones’s murder.

By the time of Bruce Jones’s murder, Le Roux needed personnel who could handle global operations both legitimate and illegal. To do so, he ported over Israelis from his call centers, relatives like Lulu, and a collection of South African and Zimbabwean associates.

Such was the case with a mild-mannered 28-year-old Zimbabwean engineer named Robert McGowan. In 2007, McGowan heard about a rich South African who paid well and needed help importing equipment for a major logging project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But before the project could get under way, Le Roux told McGowan, they needed to form several corporate entities, in Hong Kong and in the U.S., which they would use to acquire the heavy machinery for clearing roads and transporting trees. “I had a list of questions: What are the companies going to be used for and things like that,” McGowan told me when I reached him by phone earlier this year. “Everything I did I tried to keep straight and aboveboard.”

McGowan flew to Hong Kong and opened a company called Diko Limited. Then he scoured the world for logging machinery at the best price. When he found earth-moving equipment in Texas, Le Roux paid him to travel to the U.S. and create a pair of companies to handle the export: Armada Commerce and Quality Fountain. “PLR had somehow already organized everything before I got there, and all I had to do was open up the bank accounts,” McGowan would later write in an email to a lawyer, recounting his dealings with Le Roux.

For many people affiliated with Le Roux, it was difficult to grasp the scope of what he was engaged in. He kept his various businesses separated from one another; someone like McGowan could have no idea about the weapons aboard the Ufuk.

“It was really compartmentalized,” Gil, my source in Manila, said. Among other projects, Gil was hired to help with the transport of gold from Hong Kong to the Philippines. “I didn’t really pay attention” to whether the work was fully legal, he said, although he declined an assignment from Le Roux involving methamphetamine trafficking. For the most part, “when he told me to do something, I did it,” Gil said. But “morally I knew it was wrong. I lost the plot.”

At other times, Le Roux seemed to mix his businesses out of operational convenience. In 2009, he paid McGowan—nominally someone involved only in the timber business—to fly to Israel and register a call center called Customer Service Worldwide, or CSWW, where he met Alon Berkman and Moran Oz. Seven years later, I found his British passport in the company’s registration documents.

Many of Le Roux’s operations seemed utterly quixotic. “I remember he phoned me at one point in a panic, wanting a list of all the farmland in Zimbabwe available,” Lulu told me. That request, it turned out, was part of a scheme to lease land from the Zimbabwean government and then bring back white farmers who had lost the land when it shed colonialism and minority white rule in the early 1980s. To make the deal happen, Le Roux had asked an Israeli named Levi Kugel to find an international lobbyist and former Israeli-intelligence agent named Ari Ben-Menashe, who had close ties to Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe. Le Roux subsequently paid Ben-Menashe $12 million to lobby Mugabe. “We want recognition that injustice was done in the past and that the land-reform program corrects that,” Le Roux told the Washington newspaper The Hill, in what appears to be the only media statement he’s ever given.

“Then the whole thing died and he never spoke about it again,” Lulu said.

Sometime in late 2008 or 2009, Le Roux similarly abandoned the logging operation and cut off communications with McGowan. McGowan told me that he traveled to Manila to get some answers. Other people who knew Le Roux, he said, told him, “Don’t go, it’s dangerous. I said, ‘Why should I not go? I’ve got nothing to hide.’” When he arrived in the Philippines, McGowan told me, “it was like a wild goose chase: Go here, go there. I don’t know if he had someone following me.”

McGowan eventually confronted Le Roux, who told him that he wanted to keep working together. “That was the last time I saw him,” McGowan told me.


I’d first come across McGowan’s name in the filings of the companies that he admitted to registering: CSWW in Israel, and Armada and Quality Fountain in the U.S. But there were other companies with his name on them that he said he didn’t know existed. “I’ve just Googled that right now,” he told me when I informed him that an online company called ABSystems was registered in his name. “I’ve never heard of it until you sent me an email this evening.” Another company McGowan says he knew nothing about was called Southern Ace, and it would end up playing a bizarre role in, of all places, Somalia, perpetually on the short list of the world’s most failed states.

In 2010, the United Nations Security Council sent an investigative team into Somalia to assess the country’s instability and its epidemic of sea piracy. The team, which was led by a Frenchman named Aurélien Llorca, reported several dire findings, among them a troubling rise in military involvement by private security companies, including a previously unknown outfit called Southern Ace.

In the report issued by the group, they noted that Southern Ace had begun operating in the state of Galmudug, in central Somalia, in 2009, “presenting itself as ‘traders and importers of fisheries products in Hong-Kong.’” In actuality, Southern Ace began recruiting a local militia and arming it with AK-47’s, grenade launchers, and truck-mounted heavy machine guns. They also imported uniforms, flak jackets, and radios from the Philippines. Based on an interview with a Somali military source, Llorca determined that the company was actually owned by one “Paul Calder Le Roux also known as Bernard John Bowlins.”

Llorca reported that Le Roux had obtained permission to land an Antonov plane at the local airport in Galmudug and that he “planned to import by air a large quantity of heavy weapons, including 75 kilograms of C4 explosives, 200 land mines, one million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, and five AT-3 ‘Sagger’ anti-tank missiles.” 

southernace-1478028877-70.jpg
Employees of Southern Ace in Somalia: In 2009, the company recruited and armed a local militia. (Photo: Courtesy of the United Nations)

The idea of a foreign outfit launching its own militia in this part of the country “was completely surreal,” Llorca told me last fall. “It was a completely underreported area with few UN operations, because the country was very dangerous.” Southern Ace, he said, “just came without informing anyone and formed a business out of the blue.”

It got weirder. The militia Le Roux had backed was entangled in an ongoing war between local pastoral nomads and another clan. In November 2010, a battle involving Le Roux’s troops raged for several days, “causing allegedly heavy casualties from both sides.” Why would Le Roux, sitting in Manila, have a vested interest in a power struggle between two clans in Somalia? It seemed absurd.

I asked several sources about Le Roux’s precise goals in Somalia, but they seemed opaque even to people who were employed by Southern Ace. Gil told me that he’d heard that Le Roux was planning to invade an island nation in the Indian Ocean. (I later learned the country was the Seychelles.) “He wanted to put an army together and bring back in the former president,” Gil said. “Or something like that. So he would have a place to operate from.”

Like so many Le Roux stories, it seemed at first too cinematic to be true, and I dismissed it as the kind of tale that gets circulated among mercenary types over too many drinks. As I pored through the transcripts of the wiretaps of Le Roux’s enforcer, Joseph Hunter, I came across this: “We have guys in Somalia buying weapons that are making an army,” Hunter told an associate. “They was making an army in Somalia because we were gonna invade an island, just… you can’t make it up. Not even in a movie. This is real stuff.”

Llorca was nonetheless skeptical of the island-invasion plan. “It’s a bit far,” he said of the Maldives, which lie almost 2,000 miles to the east of Somalia. “What we know is that he tried to import a lot of weapons. But from my understanding at that time it was clearly for his Somali operations, not for something else.” This was at the height of Somali sea piracy, and Llorca’s team suspected that Le Roux intended to set up “a kind of private security company on the shore of Somalia, in one of the most pirate-infested areas, to establish a base and then get money from shipping companies to disrupt the attacks from pirates.”

According to Llorca, when that project failed, Le Roux’s local contact in Somalia then set up a company called GalSom Limited, which operated on the Southern Ace compound in Galmudug and began experimenting with “the cultivation of hallucinogenic plants, including opium, coca, and cannabis.” GalSom imported greenhouses, herbicides, and farming equipment from around the world. A former Southern Ace employee, who didn’t work directly in Somalia but conducted similar projects elsewhere, told me that Le Roux had said he wanted to start a cocaine plantation in Somalia.

Llorca said that Le Roux abandoned the project as quickly as he’d started it, however, once he discovered that he’d been duped into paying his militiamen $300 per month, twice the market rate. After spending several million dollars in Galmudug, in mid-2010 he abandoned whatever plans he had in the region. Locals overran the compound and took possession of the weapons, and one of Southern Ace’s employees was shot and killed in the ensuing chaos. “He blew up with his main guy over 150 bucks per person,” Lulu told me. “That is so Paul.”

When Llorca’s team’s findings were released by the UN in July 2011, the international press responded with a flurry of articles recounting the astonishing facts and pondering the whereabouts and global reach of this “shadowy South African businessman,” as one article referred to him. When Robert McGowan read the news, he panicked. With “that Southern Ace thing,” McGowan told me, “all of a sudden under my name I owned this large private army.”

When I found the UN report online last fall, I combed through it looking for anything that might draw connections between areas of research that had so far eluded me. Eventually, I came upon this: “Local start up costs for the period March to June 2009 amounted to at least US$500,000,” Llorca reported, “wired from Paul Calder Le Roux’s company in Philippines, La Plata Trading.” La Plata, the same company that funded weapons purchases in Somalia, had also sent Dave Smith to hire Bruce Jones as captain of the MV Ufuk.

I decided to look up Bruce Jones’s lawyer, Joe Frank Zuñiga, and ask him if there was anything else Jones might have said about his dealings with Le Roux. The first Google result stunned me enough that I wrote a note in my files that says, simply: “Holy shit.”

It was a headline from a Philippine news site dated July 5, 2012: “Where is lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga?” According to the article, “On June 20, prominent Bataan lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga left his home in Balanga City to meet with a client in nearby Subic, but never returned and has been missing since.”

Two months later, I was in the Manila office of Peter Lugay, chief of the NBI’s special task force. The Zuñiga case had landed on Lugay’s desk in 2012, after Zuñiga’s wife requested that the bureau take on the search for her missing husband. The details were relatively sparse: At 11:45 on the morning of June 20, Zuñiga was last seen in the Subic Bay area after a meeting with two men. One of them was Timothy Desmond, the CEO of the Ocean Adventure water park. (Desmond, an American animal behaviorist, once trained the killer whale in the movie Free Willy.) The other attendee was the head of security for Ocean Adventure, John Nash.

Nash and Zuñiga were “quite close,” Lugay told me. “They called each other ‘compadre.’” Nash was also the last person to see both Bruce Jones and Joe Frank Zuñiga alive. Around the time of the meeting, a witness reported seeing a man near Zuñiga’s car being dragged into a white van.

zunigamissi-1478028878-23.jpg
An online missing-persons report for Joe Frank Zuñiga, who was Bruce Jones’s lawyer before he disappeared.

Lugay’s colleague, agent Arnold Diaz, told me that since taking on the Zuñiga case they had been trying to “identify all the other events leading to Nash. You have looked at Bruce Jones, right?”

I said that I had.

“And Mike Lontoc?” It didn’t ring a bell. “Mike Lontoc was the owner of Red White and Blue,” he said. That name I did know: Red White and Blue Arms was the alleged destination for the weapons on the MV Ufuk in August 2009.

Back at my hotel I looked up Lontoc. I found that he was the general manager of Red White and Blue and also a member of the Philippine national target-shooting team. RWB’s website had been registered to a company owned by Paul Le Roux.

According to news reports, one afternoon in September 2011, a year after the murder of Bruce Jones, Lontoc was driving from a shooting competition in a Manila suburb. Typically, he employed a driver, but on this day his driver had failed to show up. As Lontoc slowed down at a busy intersection, he received a call on his cell phone. Simultaneously, four men surrounded Lontoc’s pickup truck, firing into it with an Uzi and several handguns. He drove another 100 feet before slamming into a concrete wall and died on the scene.

Lontoc’s widow told a local newspaper that her husband had gotten mixed up with a gun-running syndicate and had tried to get out. A year later, a man named Jimmy Pianiar confessed to killing Lontoc, saying that he and three others had attempted to murder him on at least five separate occasions. The hit had been paid for by a man who police would identify only as “the mastermind.”

“Have you encountered the name Herbert Tan Tiu?” Agent Diaz asked me. “I think some of the arms shipments were recovered from his apartment.” Indeed, I later found out that in early October 2010, the Philippine National Police raided Tan Tiu’s house and discovered a cache of Indonesian-made assault rifles that they reportedly suspected had come from the MV Ufuk.

“What happened to Tan Tiu?” I asked, dreading the answer. 

“He is also missing,” Lugay said.

In the two years since the Ufuk had been taken into possession by Philippine authorities, two people with information about the arms shipment had been gunned down in broad daylight and two others had disappeared. Of Zuñiga, Lugay said, “Unfortunately, I think we can safely assume that he is dead.”


As I talked to police and other sources, it seemed obvious to me that the disappearances of four witnesses connected to the Ufuk had to have been ordered by Le Roux. But no one could offer definitive proof. Then one afternoon, with the help of a local resident, I snuck into Dasmariñas, the closely guarded gated community where Le Roux had lived in Manila. We went by Le Roux’s old house, a relatively modest stucco home with a solid brown gate. Security cameras still hung from the roof, but the high walls looked water stained, and paint was chipping around the barred windows. A neighborhood security guard told me that he didn’t remember much about Le Roux beyond a strange incident involving a man who’d been arrested on the Dasmariñas grounds while trying to take a motorcycle.

I later found an account of the story in the Philippine Star that clarified some details. A Filipino named Ronald Baricuatro* had been caught trying to steal a motorcycle from the security guards’ compound. Baricuatro was arrested, and when police searched his backpack they found, according to the article, “questionable documents,” along with a wig, a camera, and various false ID cards. Baricuatro also reportedly matched the sketch of a man seen conducting surveillance on Michael Lontoc’s pickup truck hours before he was ambushed.

Mar Supnad, the newspaper reporter who’d been investigating the story of the Ufuk, told me that a police source had contacted him after Baricuatro’s arrest. They’d found a printout of a hit list in Baricuatro’s pocket, the source said. “And number one in his hit list is Mar Supnad.” He paused to make sure I understood. “That is me.”

Upon hearing this news, Supnad paid a visit to Baricuatro in jail. He claimed that he was a high-ranking police official who could help Baricuatro out of his predicament. According to Supnad, Baricuatro told him he was hired not to kill Supnad, but to conduct surveillance on him so that someone else could murder him. The man who’d hired him, Baricuatro said, was Dave Smith.

Meanwhile, the investigation and trials of those involved with the Ufuk largely fizzled. The Georgian crew members were deported back to their home country. By 2014, a court filing from the Philippine government revealed that the remaining cases, including one against “Johan” a.k.a. “Paul Lereaux” and his top deputies had been “archived.” Only one participant, Lawrence John Burne, the South African ship captain, was tried and convicted in absentia, after jumping bail. He has never been found.

The one thing everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on was that Le Roux operated with a staggering level of impunity. He had so many PNP and government officials in his pocket, and he had intimidated so many others, that he could make any case go away. “I don’t know how deep this goes,” Lugay told me. “We tried to talk to the prosecutor, to set up a meeting about the case, and you know what the prosecutor said? ‘Tell your boss I’m not talking to him, because people disappear in this case.’”

Gil, my source in Manila, told me something similar, but with a twist. “There was a lot of money spread around by Mr. Le Roux,” he said. To avoid any repercussions for illegally shipping that many arms into the Philippines, plus the subsequent murders and disappearances of any possible witnesses, Gil said, “he would have the PNP and the NBI involved.”

It was suddenly very hard to know who to trust.

*Later, in further reporting I conducted for The Mastermind book, I discovered that Baricuatro traveled under the nickname “Noyt,” and was Le Roux’s top surveillance man in the Philippines, compiling dossiers on hit targets.


Robert McGowan was trying to get his life together after his first run-in with Paul Le Roux—he was left holding the bag with suppliers of logging equipment around the world from the canceled venture in the Congo—when he discovered that Le Roux’s operations in Somalia were listed under his name.

“I’ve never met him, but he’s the name on a lot of companies,” Gil told me when I asked about McGowan. “It is a real person, he lives in Africa somewhere. At one point he asked to be taken off of everything.” McGowan was frantic after learning that a UN report had named Southern Ace, registered in the UK in his name, in connection with illegal arms trafficking and drug manufacturing. He called Alon Berkman, who ran Le Roux’s operations in Israel. According to one source I spoke with, Berkman relayed to Le Roux that McGowan was trying to reach him, and Le Roux said to ignore him.

McGowan then tried another tack, contacting an attorney in the U.S. who was married to an old friend of his wife. McGowan asked if he could take legal action against Le Roux, to somehow get his name removed from any companies he’d registered on Le Roux’s behalf and any for which his identity had been used without his knowledge.

“I need to try and close up everything I have linking me with this guy, including the companies in the USA, Israel & Hong Kong,” he wrote to the attorney. McGowan had evidence that Le Roux had broken into his email account using his mother’s maiden name—which Le Roux had once asked him for. “I do not have the resources available to go to each of these countries to shut everything down or to hire lawyers,” McGowan wrote.

“These people are very dangerous,” he continued. “If we take this up with law enforcement in the USA, what sort of protection can we get? They do need to be stopped and justice done, but I do not want to put my family at risk.”

The lawyer replied that “in the simplest terms you have been the victim of identity theft.” The wrinkle, he said, “is that the person who stole your identity is an international gunrunner and drug smuggler.” The lawyer offered to put him in touch with American law enforcement, but even they would be unable to guarantee his safety in Africa.

On a late Friday afternoon in 2014, John Nash, the Ocean Adventure security guard and friend of two dead men, was headed down a narrow beachside road in Barretto, a town just north of Subic. Suddenly, an SUV appeared in front of him, blocking his path. Before he could reverse, another closed him in from behind. A half-dozen agents from the National Bureau of Investigation leaped out, weapons in hand, and ordered Nash out of his vehicle. Within moments, they’d hustled him into one of the unmarked SUVs and were on the highway for the two-hour drive back to Manila.

Peter Lugay and his colleagues told me the arrest was a shock maneuver. Suspecting that Nash had sources in the local police, they had kept the operation secret—so successfully, in fact, that the next morning the Barretto police spokesperson announced that Nash had been kidnapped by armed men. The police were combing through surveillance footage, he said, “for the possible identification of suspects.”

The reason for Nash’s arrest was perhaps even stranger than the circumstances of it. When the NBI had begun pursuing Nash as a person of interest in the Zuñiga case, they ran his American passport with the U.S. embassy in Manila. The reply was startling: John Nash, Lugay told me, “was using an expired passport that belonged to a deceased person.” The Embassy canceled Nash’s passport, and the NBI made the arrest.

By the time I sat down with Lugay, Nash had been in NBI limbo for over 18 months. There was not enough information to charge him with anything other than immigration violations, but since Nash refused to give another name, there was nowhere for him to be deported to. They had no idea who he was or where he was from. The NBI’s efforts to get any nation to claim him had failed. Besides the U.S., Lugay said, “we tried the British, Australians, South Africans. We were in a quandary.” Nor did anyone seem to have known Nash by any other name. What’s more, Timothy Desmond, the Free Willy trainer who had hired Nash to run security, was now an international fugitive. After being accused of defrauding an investor behind Ocean Adventure, Desmond had disappeared.

In photos that Lugay showed me, the man known as John Nash is in his fifties, with a shaved white head and considerable bulk. The NBI agents said he’d lost some weight while in custody. Lugay declined my request to speak with him but asked whether I might be able to help them figure out who he really is. Specifically, he wondered if I might have any clues as to the meaning of his tattoo, a cartoon bulldog smoking a cigar.

For now, Nash remains in NBI custody, a man without a name or country. No one has ever been arrested in the murder of Bruce Jones, or the disappearance of Joe Frank Zuñiga.


A few days after meeting with Lugay and Diaz, I sat with Gil outside a Starbucks in Manila. He told me that he had asked Le Roux about Jones’s assassination. “I said, ‘I don’t understand why you had that captain killed.’”

“He was going to testify,” Le Roux said.

“His wife and child were in the car,” Gil said.

“I didn’t have them killed.”

In truth, no one seemed safe from Le Roux’s malice, including those who were close to him, like Dave Smith. In the years after the Ufuk incident, there was talk that Smith had started skimming off the drugs and gold that he was transporting for Le Roux. “I think [Smith] started taking drugs, and that’s probably why he started being loose and spending the stuff,” Gil told me. “He was pissed off because he wasn’t really making much money, and he was doing so much, traveling here and there, as the second in command.” There was a rumor that he’d bought a Lamborghini.

At some point, Le Roux got wind of it. “My understanding is Smith was picked up outside a bar, drunk, and thrown into a van,” Gil said. I have no way to verify**if what he said next is true, but perhaps the truth of what Gil heard is immaterial. “My understanding was that he was placed in a shallow grave and given a telephone.” Paul Le Roux was on the other end. “‘You see what happens?’ he says. And then they shot him and buried him.”

Not long after, Gil said, Le Roux met him at the Hard Rock Café in Manila. “I guess you know what’s going on,” he said Le Roux told him. “I didn’t need Dave. You’re lucky I need you.”

In the transcripts of the DEA’s wiretap recordings of Joseph Hunter, I found the story of Smith’s demise, told in brief. “Dave got killed for stealing money,” Hunter told an associate. “And then I took his job.”

**For The Mastermind book, I was able to verify the full story, which diverged slightly from Gil’s telling: Smith was lured to a piece of oceanfront property and killed by a Le Roux-hired hitman, with Le Roux also present. 


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 3: He Always Had a Dark Side

The Mastermind Episode 3: He Always Had a Dark Side

How did a Usenet troll and encryption genius become a criminal mastermind?

By Evan Ratliff

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

For a man who built an empire in pixels, Paul Le Roux seemed like a digital phantom. After his name surfaced in the press in late 2014, I spent the better part of a year trying to understand him through the same means by which he’d directed his massive pharmacy business: the Internet. Late at night, I would open my laptop and plunge into an online wormhole, searching for clues about who Le Roux had been and what he became.

There I found another Paul Le Roux, from another time—one who’d left his trace in archived copies of long-dormant websites and message boards. This Le Roux had been famous among a small community of hackers and privacy geeks in the early 2000s as the author of an important piece of encryption software. Before encryption was a mainstream idea, before Apple defied a U.S. government request to provide a method to unlock our phones, this Le Roux had written the underlying code of a program that, a decade and a half later, the National Security Agency still could not break.

The question was: Could the Le Roux who politely answered jargon-laden posts about encryption software be the same one who ordered the murder of a real estate agent over a bad deal on a beach house? At first I thought I would never know. The former Paul Le Roux seemed to have disappeared from the Internet in 2004. Encryption experts I contacted had no idea what had become of that Le Roux, and there was no evidence linking him to the man known for drugs and gun running.

One night in October, I had been at the computer for hours when I finally found the missing link. It was a website once registered to the encryption Le Roux, in the early 2000s, and later transferred to a Philippine company controlled by the crime-boss Le Roux. My immediate reaction upon discovering this connection was a sudden and irrational fear: Le Roux was something new, a self-made cartel boss whose origins were not in family connections but in code. Not just any code, but encryption software that would play a role in world events a dozen years after he created it.

I stared at the address on the screen, a post-office box in Manila, left now with a still larger mystery: What had turned the earnest, brilliant programmer into an international criminal, with a trail of bodies in his wake?


One way that hackers and government agencies break into encrypted files and communications is through something called a brute-force attack. The process involves trying every possible combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that might make up a password. Brute-force attacks require enormous computing resources, and the strongest encryption renders them impossible simply by making the number of combinations so large that it would take lifetimes to find the correct one.

When I began my research into Le Roux, he struck me as a kind of encrypted mystery. A few scant details about his criminal existence had been reported in the media, mostly speculations about the mythological size and scope of his empire, but there was little about who he was or how he had built it.

At first I tried my own version of a brute-force attack. Le Roux’s name had surfaced in a court filing associated with the case of Joseph Hunter, his ex-enforcer, and another connected to RX Limited, his prescription-drug firm. I made a list of every name, company, and location in the documents of those cases and began looking them up online, separately and in combination.

Amid the vastness of the Internet, there were an almost infinite number of ways for me to search for evidence of his existence. I would start with a scrap of information—say Your-pills.com, one of the thousands of sites affiliated with RX Limited—and trace its connections. Who owned the site and when? Which mailing address was it registered to? Each of those formed a new starting point.

After months of rote data collection, I had amassed tens of thousands of pages of research. There were snippets from long-dead message boards from the early 2000s, Hong Kong legal databases, and obscure newsletters put out by the Australian Federal Police. Here was Le Roux listed as a director of a company in the UK called SSD Software in 2001. There was his name popping up in a 2008 FCC complaint regarding a company in Florida making a marketing call to someone on the National Do Not Call Registry.

The data points were tantalizing, but ultimately the mystery was too complex for brute force. Another way to crack encryption is called a back door. If a government can convince a software maker to create a secret way into a program, and to share that key only with the government, then the secrets protected by that software will reveal themselves.

I needed a back door into Paul Le Roux’s life. Then, two weeks ago, a key dropped into my inbox.

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

“Hi, interesting story on PLR.” The email began so mundanely that at first I ignored it. It arrived on March 10, from a Gmail address that included the name Lulu. “I look forward to reading your series.” Then came the part that made my hair stand up.

He also had a legitimate Congolese Diplomatic passport in his own name and a Bulgarian passport in another name. He is an interesting character.

Cheers

For months I had been contacting people that my online searches hinted might have worked with, or even be related to, Paul Le Roux. I’d teamed up with Natalie Lampert, a young reporter in New York City, and together we’d sent emails and Facebook and LinkedIn messages to dozens of people seemingly connected with Le Roux—related companies and addresses, not to mention those with a Le Roux surname. The responses had been discouraging.

Something in Lulu’s email address reminded me of a person I had written to before. I sent that person another message and, a few hours later, got a response:

lol, no problem, please just let’s keep it to the other email.

That didn’t take you long at all

A few days after that email, at 4 p.m. on a Saturday my time—11 p.m. his—Lulu and I arranged to meet online for our first conversation. I was hunched over my laptop in a hotel lobby in Manhattan. When his handle lit up, we exchanged a few pleasantries, but I was eager to dive in. I asked him to start at the very beginning. “So do you know exactly where PLR grew up, what his family situation was?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I am related.”

From there, Lulu and I started chatting* every few days. I can’t say how I’d figured out the connection between his anonymous email and the person I’d emailed previously. I can’t say what service we used to communicate, nor where Lulu lives, nor what he does. Where I was able to, I have confirmed what he told me through other sources—including key information that I verified with former law-enforcement officials with direct knowledge of Le Roux’s case. In a few instances, I have relied exclusively on his account. To corroborate his story, Lulu sent me documents that only someone very close to Le Roux would have, and he described Le Roux’s dealings with individuals whose connections to Le Roux have never been reported in the press. In the end, I came to trust what he told me, some of which was unflattering to Lulu himself.

plrasachi14-1478028784-35.jpg
Paul Le Roux (center) in an undated family photograph.

Paul Le Roux was born on Christmas Eve, 1972, at Lady Rodwell Maternity Home in Bulawayo, the second-largest city in what was then called—by the white minority that governed it, at least— Rhodesia. His birth mother gave him up for adoption. On his birth certificate, a copy of which Lulu sent to me, his first name is listed as “UNKNOWN.” At the bottom, however, the newborn’s fate is outlined succinctly: “Child to be known in future as: Paul Calder Le Roux.”

In our chats, Lulu was genial and happy to talk. “Go for it, mate,” he’d say. “I’m in no rush, just ask.” He fielded any question I put to him, although he was rarely expansive in his replies. He was particularly protective of Le Roux’s birth mother, making me promise not to reveal her name. “Sad and interesting story,” he said. “His real mom’s mom is married to a U.S. Senator.” When I asked him who the Senator was, he said, “That I can’t say, mate. That’ll get me shot.” (I tried all sorts of strategies to figure out if this was true, but for now I’ve had to leave it unconfirmed, another legend following Le Roux.)

Le Roux was adopted by a family living in the asbestos-mining town of Mashava. “His adoptive parents were really nice,” Lulu said. “They loved him very much.” His father worked as an underground mining manager at the giant Gaths and Shabanie mines, which at one point produced 140,000 tons of asbestos a year. He had a younger sister and was well-loved by the extended Le Roux family. “All the cousins adored him,” Lulu told me.

*For The Mastermind book, Lulu agreed to go on the record under his real name, but I am leaving him anonymous here to reflect the original telling of the story. 

export20161-1478028784-19.jpg
At primary school, Le Roux was a talented student.

In 1980, Robert Mugabe became prime minister of what would now be called Zimbabwe, ending minority white rule in the country. Four years later, when Le Roux was 12, the family relocated to South Africa, where Paul’s mother believed they would find better schools for their precociously smart son. Krugersdorp, their new home, was also a mining town. Le Roux’s father started a company that managed coal-mining operations, and the family was soon well-off.

Lulu recalled that Le Roux was tall, trim, and handsome as he grew into his teenage years, but never particularly social. In a culture where a kid of his size might have been expected to try his hand at rugby, “he hated sport,” Lulu told me, favoring video games played on a console hooked up to the family TV. As a teenager, Le Roux’s love for the game Wing Commander, in which the player pilots a spacecraft into battle, bordered on obsession.

export20161-1478028784-53.jpg
As a teenager, Le Roux became more distant from those around him, drawn into a world of computers and code.

Not long after the move, in exchange for washing his father’s car, Le Roux was given his first computer. After that, “he was completely anti-social,” Lulu explained. From his first glimpse at a computer screen, Le Roux became interested in creating his own worlds. “Every time we went there afterwards he was always holed up in his room,” Lulu said. “I remember going in and seeing lines and lines of numbers.”

I found this image of a teenaged Le Roux jarring. It wasn’t that I was surprised that he could have discovered his identity in computer code. It was that his story sounded more like that of a programmer turned entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg than of a crime boss like John Gotti or Viktor Bout.

Lulu told me that when Le Roux was 15 or 16, in the late 1980s, the local police raided the family home and arrested Paul for selling pornography. (I’d heard rumors of this before, from an employee who worked closely with him.) The family was scandalized but managed to keep the story private. After, Le Roux turned even more inward. He was an excellent student but despised the idea of learning Afrikaans, compulsory in South African schools. “He said it was a dead language and he didn’t want to learn it,” Lulu said. At 16, he dropped out of high school and decided to follow his interest in computers, taking a local programming course. Family lore has it that after he spent one class explaining some technical fact to the teacher, he got a letter saying he no longer needed to attend. He then completed a year’s worth of material in eight weeks.

What propelled Le Roux out of his parents’ home at 17, Lulu told me, was a family trip to the U.S.—Disneyland, the whole works. When they returned to South Africa, “the moment he landed he said he was leaving.” Eight months later, Le Roux departed for the UK. At the airport, his bags proved too heavy to check. He ditched his clothes and boarded the plane with a suitcase full of programming books.

Once Le Roux left South Africa, his life became peripatetic. He moved from the UK to the U.S., where he lived in Virginia Beach.** In the mid-1990s, he followed a girlfriend, Michelle, to Australia, then married her and obtained Australian citizenship. At this point in Le Roux’s story, Lulu’s account began to intersect with the faint digital trail I’d already stumbled across.

In an archive of old message boards from the 1990s, I had encountered a prolific and often abusive user from Australia posting under the name Paul Le Roux. In forums like aus.general and alt.religion.kibology (named after a parody religion—it’s a long story), he was often angry and sarcastic, writing extreme or offensive screeds in an attempt to rile up other users. He was, in other words, a troll: the kind of person you might find on Reddit or in a newspaper’s comment sections, getting high off the reactions of fellow posters to his deliberately provocative opinions.

Le Roux was a harsh critic of his adopted homeland. (I’m reproducing all messages verbatim, including errors, here.) “All of Australia could disappear into the Pacific and the only difference it would make to the World,” he wrote in a typical post, “is the Americans would have one less pussy country to protect.”

“As I recall, the genetic effects of human inbreding are not as desastrous as those of breding with animals,” Le Roux went on. “A lesson Australians have never learned.”

People who later worked for Le Roux, at his call centers and other businesses, had told me he was often openly racist. But it was still surprising to see the level of vitriol that Le Roux would attach to his real name. “People like you should be rounded up, castrated, then shot,” he wrote in response to someone who accused him of racism for asserting that Asians should be “screened out” of the country “for DNA defects.” He continued, “Whats more your sperm could be used to create the ultimate germ weapon. Simply impregnate a countries woman, and within 20 years, you will have a race of ‘people’, which by all accounts, are capable only of collecting the dole.”

Like much trolling on the Internet, Le Roux’s provocations worked. His posts so outraged the boards he was posting on that someone even changed their handle to fuck@you.paul. After stirring the board into a rage, Le Roux would declare that his correspondents had fallen for his ploy. “Firstly let me say that Australians are easy to provoke, anyone says your country sucks and a whole bunch of you diggers jump up to defend it -Pathetic! Your postings (including 2 death threats, numerous flames, and one guy who swears he has my address & phone number) have provided me with hours of amusement.”

In a coup de grace, Le Roux penned a 30-part post on aus.general in which he laid out the “Advantages” and “Disadvantages” of Australia as a nation. He made a point to note that, “I am ZIMBABWEAN. I left Zimbabwe in 1984, and have since lived in several countries including the U.S & U.K.” The “Disadvantages” column included “Internet access is far to expensive,” “pornography laws in Australia are backward,” “banks report on everything you do,” and “movies are about 6 months behind the U.S.”

“Drug laws are primitive compared with Europe,” he wrote in closing. “The way to combat drugs is in fact to legalise them.”

**In reporting the story further for The Mastermind book, I discovered that Le Roux had also spent a small amount of time in Seattle, working remotely for the same UK software company. 


Poring through these message boards was like the game Concentration. I would find one clue, stash it away, and hope to turn over another that matched it later on. Early in the process, I noticed that Paul Le Roux used four different email addresses in his posts. But two of them traced predominantly not to his trollish screeds but to highly technical encryption discussions on other boards. One of the emails, pleroux@swprofessionals.com, was connected to a software company called SW Professionals. That same address turned up in the documentation for the encryption software E4M, hosted on the now defunct website E4M.net. That site, in turn, was registered to another of the message-board emails, paulca@rocketmail.com, and to a company called World Away Pty.

In 1995, World Away’s corporate filing showed a Sydney address for Le Roux; it was one of the stranger coincidences of my research, since I was living just a few miles away from him at that time. More importantly, on the next page, the owner of World Away was listed as Paul Calder Le Roux, born in Zimbabwe on December 24, 1972.

Confident in the connection between the two Le Roux’s, I burrowed into the world of encryption. Le Roux, it seemed, had started building E4M—Encryption for the Masses—in 1997. It followed that a talented young man so absorbed with the challenges of code, one who had gotten himself into trouble with law enforcement in the past, would tackle a problem as technically knotty as digital privacy. Le Roux’s software allowed users to encrypt their entire hard drives—and to conceal the existence of encrypted files, so that prying eyes wouldn’t even know they were there. After two years of development, he released it to the world with a post to the alt.security.scramdisk board. According to his own account, the software was written “from scratch,” and “thousands of hours went into its development and testing.”

e4m14585685-1478028785-61.jpg
Le Roux’s announcement of Encryption for the Masses. 

On the website for E4M, Le Roux posted a manifesto. “The battle for privacy has long since been lost in the real world. As more and more human activity becomes computerised, governments are scrambling to preserve and extend their powers,” he wrote. “Strong Encryption is the mechanism with which to combat these intrusions, preserve your rights, and guarantee your freedoms into the information age and beyond.”

In the spirit of the burgeoning open-source software movement in the late 1990s, Le Roux released E4M for free and made the code available for other people to improve. With no income from his two years of labor, he was struggling financially. His marriage fell apart—violently, both Lulu and a colleague of Le Roux’s told me, although it wasn’t clear what that violence entailed. According to Australian records, the couple divorced in Brisbane in 1999. Le Roux relocated first to Hong Kong, then to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. He married a Dutch citizen named Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, and they had a child.

In 2000, Le Roux launched SW Professionals, his software-development company, nominally based back in South Africa. Its motto was Excellence in Offshore Programming; its website claimed that the company had six employees. “I worked with him about six months,” his cousin Heath Jordaan told me after I found his name on an old staff page for the site. Le Roux, he said, was rarely in South Africa. “I think I saw him for about a week or so that entire time.”

One of Le Roux’s clients was an Italian telecommunications engineer named Wilfried Hafner, who had corresponded with Le Roux for several years about his encryption software. Hafner had founded a company to create a commercial encryption product that would combine some of the elements of E4M with another piece of software, Scramdisk. The new company would be called SecurStar, and its product DriveCrypt. Hafner hired Le Roux to build DriveCrypt’s underlying engine.

When I spoke to Hafner on the phone recently, he recalled that Le Roux was desperate for money at the time. He drove a beat-up car and worked out of a Rotterdam apartment small enough that, on the phone, Hafner could often hear a baby crying in the background. At the time, Hafner lived in the south of France, and he said that Le Roux openly coveted the kind of success that he imagined led to such a home. “He saw that these were rich places, and this was his dream,” Hafner told me. “He said, ‘I am ambitious, I want to have all this.’”

Both Hafner and Shaun Hollingworth, the inventor of Scramdisk, who still works for SecurStar today, told me that Le Roux was a gifted programmer. “He was always very smart,” Hafner said. “He came also with some, how do you say, interesting, innovative ideas. But at the same time, I felt he was a little bit… disingenuous.”

I asked him what he meant, and Hafner told me that in the middle of the development work for DriveCrypt, he discovered that Le Roux was still working on E4M and had incorporated some of his work for SecurStar into his personal project. Hafner was furious. Because E4M was an open-source product, the source code that Hafner had personally funded, he claimed, could now be used by anyone to develop an encryption product of their own. He confronted Le Roux, who he says apologized and asserted that it was all a mix-up. “He was very humble,” Hafner says. But the damage was done, and Hafner terminated Le Roux’s contract.

The two reconciled personally, however, and stayed in touch. Hafner told me that Le Roux was also building a gaming engine for an online casino that he planned to launch in Canada and Romania. To do so, he needed to learn a new programming language. “In one week, he was better than most of the programmers I know that program in that language,” Hafner says. “I know that in the casino industry there is a lot of money,” he continued. “But Paul is not a marketer. I didn’t see how he could bring in the gamers to play.” Around 2002, Hafner lost touch with Le Roux.

By October of that year, SW Professionals was defunct and Le Roux was openly soliciting for work on the alt.security.scramdisk forum.

Hi Guys, I’m looking for crypto/or other contract programming work, anybody out there have anything available? if your reading this group probably I don’t need any introduction but I can send my CV as needed.

Paul Le Roux.

plrrealbir1-1478028785-11.jpg
Learning that he was adopted “shattered his whole world,” a relative of Le Roux’s says.

It was around this same time, Lulu told me, that Le Roux received some news that “shattered his whole world”: He found out he was adopted. Although many family members had known for years, Le Roux’s parents had elected to keep him in the dark about it. But in 2002, Le Roux traveled to Zimbabwe to retrieve a copy of his birth certificate. On the trip, his aunt and uncle pulled him aside to tell him the truth. “It was the ‘unknown’ part that hurt him the most,” said Lulu.

Not long after, Le Roux appeared on another set of message boards, including alt.business.home and misc.entrepreneurs. He seemed to be launching some kind of moneymaking scheme that required opening a company based in the U.S.

WE ARE EUROPEAN BASED PRIVATE INVESTORS LOOKING FOR A U.S CITIZEN OR GREEN CARD HOLDER TO HELP US SETUP A NEW COMPANY BASED OUT OF FLORIDA, WE WILL DO ALL THE PAPER WORK WE NEED YOUR HELP TO COMPLY WITH U.S LAW. BUT WE KNOW NOTHING IN THIS WORLD IS FREE, SO WE WILL PAY YOU UP TO $500 TO HELP US. PLEASE ONLY GENUINE PEOPLE. NO TIME WASTERS.


In 2004, a group of anonymous developers did exactly what Hafner had feared: They released a new and powerful, free file-encryption program, called TrueCrypt, built on the code for E4M. “TrueCrypt is based on (and might be considered a sequel to)” E4M, a release announcement stated. The program combined security and convenience, giving users the ability to strongly encrypt files or entire disk drives while continuing to work with those files as they would a regular file on their computer.

Hafner and his SecurStar colleagues suspected that Le Roux was part of the TrueCrypt collective but couldn’t prove it. Indeed, even today the question of who launched the software remains unanswered. “The origin of TrueCrypt has always been very mysterious,” says Matthew Green, a computer-science professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute and an expert on TrueCrypt who led a security audit of the software in 2014. “It was written by anonymous folks; it could have been Paul Le Roux writing under an assumed name, or it could have been someone completely different.”

Hafner found an email address associated with the TrueCrypt programmers and sent a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that the software was based on stolen code. The developers did briefly stop additional development but soon started up again. The response of the free-software community could be summed up in an anonymous message-board response to Hafner’s demand: “FUCK YOU, SecurStar—we’ve got it already!”

For the next decade, that mysterious group of anonymous programmers maintained TrueCrypt, with funding from some equally opaque source. TrueCrypt came to be known as the most powerful and reliable encryption solution available. “They improved it, even did quite impressive work on top of it,” says Hafner, whose business was forced to compete with a free product. “Nevertheless, it’s built on our engine.”

In response to the controversy, in June 2004, Le Roux returned to the alt.security.scramdisk forum and posted a note defending his E4M work, adding that when it came to the controversy over TrueCrypt and E4M, “the pure speculation here (often stated as fact) is damaging and in some cases libelous.” After that post, he disappeared from the message boards for good.

Le Roux’s departure from the encryption world, at least under his own name, coincided with his entry into the Internet-pharmacy business. Lulu told me that Le Roux said he decided to switch to online pill selling after a lawyer in Costa Rica—where much of the online casino industry was based—suggested that he go into pharmacies instead. In 2005, Le Roux surfaced in Israeli documents registering IBS Systems, one of the companies that would evolve into the customer-service arm of his prescription-drug empire. Le Roux is listed at an address in Rotterdam, alongside a scanned image of his Australian passport. He had linked up with two Israeli brothers, Tomer and Boaz Taggart—according to one former employee, they met in an online forum—to create what would eventually be known in Israel as CSWW and as RX Limited to the U.S. government.

Before long he started on a project requiring advanced technical know-how: a seamless digital pipeline from American doctors to pharmacists to eager drug consumers. RX Limited played on human greed and vulnerability to recruit doctors and pharmacists, like Charles Schultz in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, into the network. But the business thrived on Le Roux’s complex infrastructure, which was able to process tens of thousands of customer questionnaires each week, direct them to doctors to write prescriptions, and then on to pharmacists to ship them.

By 2007, Le Roux had moved his family to Manila, operating out of a house in the upscale gated community of Dasmarinias. From my reconstruction of RX Limited’s digital machinations, I could see that he had evolved his technical acumen to suit his new business enterprises. But beyond that, I wanted to know what the flesh-and-blood Le Roux was like as his empire grew.

“The Fat Man. That’s what we called him.” This was the first thing Gil (not his real name***), one of Paul Le Roux’s former associates, told me when I met him in Manila last December. It was a sunny day, and we sat down outside a Starbucks that he had selected in Makati City, Manila’s upscale business district. He had lit a cigarette and dropped the pack on the table, ready to procure another one. “People are still really scared, because there is a strong belief that there are operations still going on,” he told me. “Money talks in this country. For 5,000 pesos”—around $100—“you could have someone taken out.”

As his nickname implied, Le Roux’s appearance by this point was striking; in the early 2000s, he had been putting on weight, ballooning to 240 or 260 pounds, by Gil’s estimate. “He had a giant head,” another former associate told me when I asked him to describe Le Roux. His hair, generally kept somewhere between a buzz and a banker’s haircut, had by his forties gone from black to silver, framing a set of plump cheeks and small, slightly flared nostrils. Le Roux’s size could be imposing, although opinions varied as to whether he was truly physically intimidating. Many seemed to view him as a stereotypical nerd, a doughy loner with an adept technical mind but few social graces. “He was not a soft, gentle person,” one former associate said.

Like the more magnetic young man Lulu recalled from his childhood, however, Le Roux was not without charm, particularly when it came to newly hired employees, to whom he projected an easygoing image of power and success. “He was the nicest guy when you first met him,” Gil said. “He was always buying gifts for people. His representation of himself, as far as I am concerned, made him seem more legitimate.”

Those who rose within the ranks of what most just called the Company found Le Roux to have an alluring managerial style: He was receptive to suggestions and sent untested people into situations and responsibilities they never imagined. “He gave you space to maneuver,” said a former high-level Israeli employee of Le Roux’s who met me one afternoon at a mall café in Tel Aviv. “You could come to him with anything; you felt like you had an opportunity to do something you liked and make money doing it. That was before he got all twisted.”

As RX Limited earned hundreds of millions of dollars, Le Roux’s lifestyle changed in some ways but remained the same in others. He became known for bragging  graphically to associates about his extramarital conquests. “He lived in expensive houses in exclusive areas, but he didn’t live extravagantly,” Gil said. “He would travel in flip-flops, shorts, just like a bum. Anywhere, he would look like that.”  Lulu recalled that Le Roux told him that RX Limited was bringing  in four or five million a month, but it didn’t show. “He was as tight as they come,” Lulu said. “I assume he was just hoarding it.”

By 2008, the Le Roux who once gleefully posted online under his own name was gone, replaced by a man obsessed with secrecy and holding a pocketful of identities. His activities were spread across dozens of shell companies registered all over the world, with names like Ajax Technology, Cycom, GX Port, and Southern Ace. Le Roux often used the identity John Bernard Bowlins and had a fake Zimbabwean birth certificate and passport to back it up. Some people called him Benny, others went with Boss or even Paul, if they knew his name at all. Le Roux had another fake Zimbabwean birth certificate for a Johan William Smit—it was an ironic alias, Lulu told me, because it’s a popular name in Afrikaans, the language Le Roux dropped out of school rather than learn. Another birth certificate listed his identity as William Vaughn.

s1082141458-1478028785-93.jpg
Le Roux’s diplomatic passport from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“When I corresponded with him in the beginning, he used the name Alexander,” a South African who worked for one of his companies told me. “When I met him, he introduced himself as John. I only found out after more than a year that he is actually Paul Calder Le Roux. But then again, we all used pseudonyms in the Philippines.”

In his first email, Lulu had told me that Le Roux possessed a diplomatic passport from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a document that helped him avoid customs. Lulu forwarded me a copy of it; the passport was issued in Le Roux’s own name.

Wealth seemed to begin to amplify Le Roux’s natural impulses—greed, impatience, a sense of superiority. Lulu told me that he thought that in 2008 or 2009, something in Le Roux snapped. “He changed at that point,” he said. “I think the money got to him. I personally saw $100 million in his office in Makati. Cash, bud. It was fucking ridiculous. It was in wicker baskets lined up on the side of the wall in his office.” One image in particular stuck with him: He remembered that the $100 U.S. bills were each stamped with a pink rabbit.

Like the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sells a company for $100 million, only to start another one in hopes that it will sell for a billion, Le Roux made the pursuit of more money, and more power, an end in and of itself. But the kid who had once locked himself in his bedroom, losing himself in code, had gone as far as his technical skills could take him. He wanted to be a different kind of businessman, a lord of the real underworld, not just the virtual one. “He made money on the pharmacies, and then he decided that he wanted to make more money, fast,” the Israeli associate told me. Le Roux wanted to diversify, to be bigger, he said. “The only way to do that was illegal. He was living inside a movie, you could almost say. He always had a dark side, it just developed more with money.”

***For The Mastermind book, Gil agreed to go on the record under his real name, but I am leaving him anonymous here to reflect the original telling of the story. 


Sometime in 2008, Wilfried Hafner logged into his long-dormant chat account and noticed Le Roux’s handle was still active. He messaged Le Roux and the two exchanged greetings and caught up. Hafner mentioned that he was raising money for a new phone-encryption software project called PhoneCrypt. Le Roux remarked that he was now a wealthy man and would consider investing if Hafner sent along his business plan. Remembering how little money Le Roux had had back in the early 2000s, “the picture did not match,” Hafner said. “I didn’t take it seriously.”

“It’s a pity I didn’t believe it,” Hafner said, before stopping himself. “On the other hand, I could have gotten wrapped up in these stories.”

In the years since Le Roux disappeared from the encryption community, the ideas that drove him to develop E4M were slow to penetrate the public consciousness. As more of our lives became digitized, governments began peering into them. TrueCrypt, E4M’s progeny, had become one of the most popular disk-encryption programs, used by tens of millions of people. Yet the significance of encryption remained largely the province of privacy enthusiasts and libertarian hackers.

All of that was about to change. In November 2012, a man with the online handle Cincinnatus decided to throw a party in Hawaii. The idea arose out of an email exchange with Runa Sandvik, a developer and expert on the online software Tor, which allows its users to mask the physical location of their computers on the Internet. After she gave a Tor tutorial on Reddit, Cincinnatus sent Sandvik an encrypted message.

Cincinnatus told Sandvik that he lived in Hawaii. Sandvik mentioned that she would be there on vacation the following month and could give a talk on Tor. Cincinnatus suggested they host a “cryptoparty,” a phenomenon that had arisen around that time among technology- and privacy-conscious activists. Such events were a chance to “teach beginners how to use the commonly available tools that tap into the incredibly powerful technology of cryptography,” as Cincinnatus’s invitation would explain. The date was set for December 11. “I never imagined,” Sandvik later wrote in an account of the events published on Forbes.com, “that the innocuous emails we exchanged might one day be of interest to the U.S. Government.”

Unbeknownst to Sandvik, her fellow party planner was hatching a much more elaborate education scheme. Four days after he contacted Sandvik, Cincinnatus sent an email to the journalist Glenn Greenwald. “The security of people’s communications is very important to me,” he wrote. In a series of emails, he suggested that Greenwald set up an encrypted means by which sources could contact him.

Cincinnatus organized the cryptoparty at a hacker space called HiCapacity, located in the back of a furniture store in Honolulu. The event was well attended, with “a solid mix of age groups and genders,” as Cincinnatus later recounted. When Sandvik arrived around 6 p.m., Cincinnatus introduced himself as Ed and told her that he worked at the computer-hardware company Dell. Ed kicked off the evening by welcoming the attendees, then invited Sandvik to give her presentation on Tor.

When she was finished, Ed pulled out his laptop, plugged it into the projector, and began his own instructional talk about TrueCrypt. In Ed’s presentation, Sandvik later wrote, he “pointed out that while the only known name associated with TrueCrypt is someone in the Czech Republic, TrueCrypt is one of the best open-source solutions available.”

On a website for the party, Cincinnatus posted an “after-action report.” “I’m making a note here,” he summarized, “huge success.” (As multiple correspondents have informed me post-publication, Snowden was referencing a meme from the video game Portal. )

Six months later, in June 2013, Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras published the first of a still-ongoing series of articles that grew out of their contact with Cincinnatus. In time they revealed that his full name was Edward Snowden, that he had worked in various capacities at the National Security Agency, and that he had downloaded and handed over a trove of documents from the NSA in an effort to blow the whistle on what he believed were egregious privacy encroachments by the U.S. government. Among them was a document revealing that TrueCrypt was one of a small number of encryption programs that had withstood the NSA’s efforts to crack it.

What Snowden and the rest of the world wouldn’t know for another two years was that Paul Le Roux, the man whose code formed the foundation of True Crypt, was at that very moment in the custody of the U.S. government. Le Roux was in a bind, facing the full force of a U.S. federal prosecution for any number of his extraordinary array of crimes. The only way out was to spill his secrets.


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

New revelations about Catherine Lee’s accused killers

An update to Episode 1

A day after we released “An Arrogant Way of Killing,” the first episode of “The Mastermind,” court documents revealed striking new information about the murderer of Catherine Lee. On Friday, prosecutors filed a bombshell letter in the case, claiming that one of the Americans accused in that murder, David Stillwell, retained cell phone photos dated the day of Lee’s murder—photos that “appear to depict, among other things, a white van similar to the one in which (according to witness accounts) Lee was murdered and a wounded human head.” Catherine Lee’s body was found on February 12, 2012, shot twice underneath each eye.

According to prosecutors, David Stillwell posted this photo on his Facebook page in November 2014, with the caption, “Welcome Blood Money to the family! She is wearing her winter color for now... Soon to show up in her new warpaint!”
According to prosecutors, David Stillwell posted this photo on his Facebook page in November 2014, with the caption, “Welcome Blood Money to the family! She is wearing her winter color for now… Soon to show up in her new warpaint!”

As I reported, Lee was the victim of a dispute with Paul Le Roux, her alleged execution ordered by Joseph “Rambo” Hunter. Since July, when Stillwell and his alleged accomplice Adam Samia were arrested in North Carolina, the scope of the evidence against them has been unclear. I’d reported on some of it based on exclusive police reports and information from Rizaldy Rivera, an agent at the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation. Recent filings concerning Samia’s request for bail show that some of that evidence—such as how many witnesses identified the two from photo lineups—may not be as strong as Rivera believed. But prosecutors have also disclosed new evidence, including surveillance photos of Lee’s workplace from Samia’s camera, itineraries from the Philippine trip, and excerpts from Facebook chats in which Samia talks about the arrest of Hunter and wonders if he might be next.

The new filings also included one snippet of Stillwell’s alleged confession, which I reported on in Episode 1, fingering Samia as the gunman. Without context, it is impossible to know under what circumstances Stillwell made those statements, and whether they have any hope of holding up in court. Prosecutors also included a photograph from Stillwell’s Facebook page in which he poses with a new motorcycle he calls “Blood Money.”

The filings did clear up one key mystery for me: how Samia and Stillwell were allegedly recruited for the crime. Samia, the filing asserts, began working for Hunter and Dave Smith, Le Roux’s head of security, in 2008, transporting gold to and from places ranging from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. More on that in an upcoming episode.

Read the full text of the prosecution’s letter.

The Mastermind: Updates

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind: Updates

New revelations about Catherine Lee’s accused killers

By Evan Ratliff

March 17, 2016—A day after we released “An Arrogant Way of Killing,” the first episode of “The Mastermind,” court documents revealed striking new information about the murderer of Catherine Lee. On Friday, prosecutors filed a bombshell letter in the case, claiming that one of the Americans accused in that murder, David Stillwell, retained cell phone photos dated the day of Lee’s murder—photos that “appear to depict, among other things, a white van similar to the one in which (according to witness accounts) Lee was murdered and a wounded human head.” Catherine Lee’s body was found on February 12, 2012, shot twice underneath each eye.

stillwellmo-1478028623-81.jpg
According to prosecutors, David Stillwell posted this photo on his Facebook page in November 2014, with the caption, “Welcome Blood Money to the family! She is wearing her winter color for now… Soon to show up in her new warpaint!”

As I reported, Lee was the victim of a dispute with Paul Le Roux, her alleged execution ordered by Joseph “Rambo” Hunter. Since July, when Stillwell and his alleged accomplice Adam Samia were arrested in North Carolina, the scope of the evidence against them has been unclear. I’d reported on some of it based on exclusive police reports and information from Rizaldy Rivera, an agent at the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation. Recent filings concerning Samia’s request for bail show that some of that evidence—such as how many witnesses identified the two from photo lineups—may not be as strong as Rivera believed. But prosecutors have also disclosed new evidence, including surveillance photos of Lee’s workplace from Samia’s camera, itineraries from the Philippine trip, and excerpts from Facebook chats in which Samia talks about the arrest of Hunter and wonders if he might be next.

The new filings also included one snippet of Stillwell’s alleged confession, which I reported on in Episode 1, fingering Samia as the gunman. Without context, it is impossible to know under what circumstances Stillwell made those statements, and whether they have any hope of holding up in court. Prosecutors also included a photograph from Stillwell’s Facebook page in which he poses with a new motorcycle he calls “Blood Money.”

The filings did clear up one key mystery for me: how Samia and Stillwell were allegedly recruited for the crime. Samia, the filing asserts, began working for Hunter and Dave Smith, Le Roux’s head of security, in 2008, transporting gold to and from places ranging from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. More on that in an upcoming episode.

Read the full text of the prosecution’s letter.

Joseph ‘Rambo’ Hunter, Paul Le Roux’s Former Enforcer, Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison

By Evan Ratliff

May 31, 2016 — Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, a one-time enforcer for the criminal kingpin Paul Le Roux, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison this morning in a Lower Manhattan courtroom. A decorated former U.S. soldier from Kentucky, Hunter had pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges including conspiracy to murder a federal agent and import narcotics. Wearing a navy blue prison jumpsuit, Hunter stood calmly as Judge Laura Swain outlined his punishment for what she called “grave and serious crimes.”

The DEA arrested Hunter in September 2013 in Thailand, following an elaborate sting operation carried out with the help of Le Roux, who had been in U.S. custody since being captured in Liberia a year earlier. At the direction of Le Roux, his on-and-off employer since 2009, Hunter recruited a group of ex-military men from around the world to provide security for what they believed was a Colombian drug cartel. As I traced in Episode 6 of “The Mastermind,” that work included monitoring drug shipments and plotting the murder of a DEA agent and his informant inside the cartel.

The cartel, drug shipments, agent, and informant were all concoctions of the DEA. But Hunter’s enthusiastic participation in the plot was captured on video and audio recordings at a safe house in Phuket, and in emails between Hunter and Le Roux, whom Hunter believed was still at large. In the face of that evidence, Hunter and his four codefendants (two of whom faced only drug-related charges) all pleaded guilty. American Timothy Vamvakias and German Denis Gögel were each sentenced to 20 years for their involvement in the murder-for-hire plan.

Hunter’s attorneys, arguing for a ten-year sentence at his hearing, asserted that Le Roux had threatened Hunter over a bungled gold deal early in Hunter’s employment, a fact that my reporting confirmed. They also presented evidence that Hunter suffered from PTSD as a result of his time as a decorated soldier and his subsequent work as a contractor in Iraq. Marlon Kirton, one of Hunter’s lawyers, noted that Hunter’s PTSD had created a “heightened sense of fear” that made him particularly vulnerable Le Roux’s threats. “Mr. Le Roux is a man with money, a man with international connections, and most importantly, he knows where Mr. Hunter lives,” Kirton said.

Federal prosecutors countered that Hunter had once left Le Roux’s employment and returned at a higher salary, and that he had turned down other Le Roux assignments, both with no consequences. “To the extent that Paul Le Roux ran an organization that was dangerous,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove said in court, “it was dangerous because he had men like Joseph Hunter working for him.” Bove cited an expert questioning Hunter’s PTSD diagnosis, and argued that even if it was correct, “people with PTSD do not go out and commit murder.”

Ultimately Judge Swain largely sided with the prosecution in those arguments. But she nevertheless deviated downwards from federal sentencing guidelines covering Hunter’s crimes—under which he faced between 24 and 30 years—citing his acceptance of responsibility, his military service, and the fact that he would enter prison at age 51.

“Much has happened in the last few years, most of which I would not wish on anyone,” Hunter said when offered a chance to make a pre-sentencing statement. He apologized to the court and “the citizens of the United States.” Hunter then choked up when addressing family and friends. “They are not embarrassed by me or ashamed of me,” he said, “but I have shamed them.”

Le Roux, meanwhile, remains in U.S. custody waiting for another federal judge to decide his fate, having negotiated his own plea agreement. He faces anywhere from ten years to life.


You can read all the installments of “The Mastermind” here.

The Mastermind Episode 2: I’m Your Boss Now

The Mastermind Episode 2: ‘I’m Your Boss Now’

When you don’t know who your boss really is, a dream job can turn into a nightmare.

By Evan Ratliff

One

lerouxcont1-1478029121-32.jpg
Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

One morning in early 2009, a 26-year-old manager of an Israeli customer-relations call center named Moran Oz found himself treading water in a hail of bullets. A moment before, he’d been sitting on the deck of a small yacht, cruising just out of sight of the Philippine shoreline. Then he was in the water, the boat was pulling back around, and the three men he had thought were his boss’s business partners were standing above him. Two of them were armed, and one began firing into the ocean close to Oz. “That was for the sharks,” one said when the shooting finally stopped. “The next time will be for you.”

The man was holding a satellite phone. “You are stealing from Paul,” he said. “You need to tell us where you put the money.”

Oz felt disembodied and panicked for time. Whatever they thought he’d done, he told them, it was all a mistake. “If I’d done anything,” he said, “I would’ve told Paul.”

yachtclubcr-1478028701-54.jpg
The yacht club outside Manila where Moran Oz’s strange journey began. (Photo: Google Maps)

When I first heard the outlines of this story, from an attorney in Minneapolis last fall, I initially had a hard time believing it. Later I would learn of incidents even more difficult to comprehend, but at the time it sounded too much like something out of a movie. Then I remembered a couple of things that Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, one of Paul Le Roux’s enforcers, had once said in a conversation recorded by the DEA. “This is real stuff,” he told a new member of an assassination team. “You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Well, you’re gonna do it now.”

Then, amid a string of boasts about intimidating and killing people who stole from Paul Le Roux, Hunter said: “We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him.”


As I tracked down former employees of Paul Le Roux—in Israel and the U.S., the Philippines and Hong Kong and Zimbabwe—many of their stories followed a similar arc. At one moment they’re involved in workaday, seemingly legitimate tasks. Some never even heard the name Paul Le Roux; others thought of him as a brilliant but eccentric and occasionally obnoxious boss. Then something happens—a message arrives, a rumor reaches their ears, they’re told to meet three strangers at a marina—and they realize they’re involved in a sinister world beyond their comprehension. At that point, they face a moral and practical question of how to proceed. For some, how they confront that moment will mean the difference between freedom and confinement. For a few, it will be the difference between life and death.

As one former associate of Le Roux’s, and friend of Moran Oz’s, told me as we sat at a bustling café inside a mall in Tel Aviv, the majority of his colleagues were “good people, educated about the difference between good and bad.” We’d been talking for an hour about his experience with Le Roux, and for the first time he seemed genuinely dismayed. “That’s what is really sad about this,” he said, “good people getting sucked into something just because they felt threatened.”

ratliffthem-1548354622-74.png

Two

To understand how Moran Oz ended up in the ocean off the Philippine coast, I traveled to Tel Aviv to talk with his friends and colleagues—both inside Le Roux’s organization and out—along with the accountants and lawyers who had represented him. Many had spoken to Oz in detail about his experience and agreed to talk to me on the condition that I not use their names, out of fear that by revealing their identities they could end up in a similar predicament as Oz.

Such was the case with Oz’s childhood friend, whom I met on a beautiful afternoon in February, in an office park at the center of Tel Aviv’s vibrant startup scene. He was as eager to share his detailed recollections of Oz as he was desperate to make sure that he didn’t come to share his friend’s fate.

Moran Oz grew up in Jerusalem. He was the sort of kid everyone wants to be around, the friend told me: “The kind of guy who could miss class and then waltz in and get an A.” In February 2005, Oz had just graduated from high school and completed his compulsory service in the Israeli army. He was visiting an uncle in New York, pondering what to do next with his life—go to school? start a business of his own?—when another friend called to say that his brother-in-law had launched a company in Israel and was looking to hire. The only requirements were a good command of English and a basic understanding of computers. Oz flew home and took the job.

The man who hired him was named Boaz Taggart. He’d started the business with his brother, Tomer, who lived in Los Angeles, even though their company—Beit Oridan, it was called—was based in Jerusalem. It was the kind of business that was thriving in Israel at the time, benefiting from the country’s sound technological infrastructure and widely English-speaking population. Generally known as call centers—although much of their work happened over email—companies like Beit Oridan served as the customer-service arms of larger organizations based outside Israel, often serving customers in the United States. In this case, the larger organization was a network of websites that went by names like RX Limited and Alpha-Net, and sold prescription drugs to American consumers over the Internet.

On those sites, customers filled out a questionnaire asking about their medical history and symptoms, ordered their medication of choice, then paid by credit card. The questionnaire was transferred to an American doctor, previously recruited by the company, who would write a prescription based on the answers. The prescription would then be transferred to a pharmacist—also recruited by RX Limited and located in the U.S.—who would use a FedEx account supplied by the company to ship the drugs to the customer. Both the doctor and the pharmacist received a fee for each order.

For Israelis like Oz, whose medical needs were met by the government, RX Limited seemed like a reasonable stopgap for America’s poor health care system. As one former Beit Oridan employee told me, their belief was that, in America, “if you work for a company and you are fired after 40 years, you cannot go to a doctor and get the prescription for your heart pills. So what we did was provide the doctor and the pharmacy.”

Oz also had the impression that the RX Limited network was compliant with prescription-drug laws in the U.S. For instance, a database held the order history for every customer and tracked the dates and amounts of their last purchases. If a new order showed up more quickly than a drug should have been consumed, the customer couldn’t get a refill until the appropriate amount of time had elapsed.

Occasionally, the company ran into what Oz and his colleagues thought of as regulatory hitches in the U.S. If a prescription could no longer be mailed from a certain state, the system removed it. If the rules around a medication changed, the system seemed to change accordingly. Occasionally, Oz would hear about American affiliates being inspected by the local pharmacy board; they would go offline for a few days, then reappear in the system.

Oz’s job, however, didn’t require any knowledge of pharmaceuticals, nor of the technological infrastructure behind RX Limited. He arrived each morning at Beit Oridan’s office, quickly reviewed the prescriptions uploaded by doctors in the U.S., then clicked a few buttons to send them to one of RX Limited’s participating pharmacies, allocating orders according to each store’s daily capacities. The rest of the Israeli staff was responsible for communicating with doctors and pharmacists, and for customer support: dealing with password problems, lost shipments, expired credit cards, and incomplete questionnaires rejected by doctors.

In 2005, when Oz began, the company had eight American pharmacies operating in the system, taking 8,000 orders a week. But it was growing quickly, and after a few months the number of employees doubled. Among the new hires was a man named Alon Berkman, whose primary responsibility, at least at first, was to provide accounting support for the American pharmacists and doctors. Beit Oridan’s employees were instructed to adopt American-sounding names and to say that they were located in Utah. Oz’s handle was Ron Martin; Berkman’s was Allen Berkman.


One of the people on the other end of those communications was a 74-year-old pharmacist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, named Charles Schultz. Schultz had been in the business for a long time; following a stint as an Army medic during the Korean War, he’d opened his first pharmacy in 1964 and ran it with his wife, Jeanne. After a few false starts, they built Schultz Pharmacy into an established business, set on a quaint street in downtown Oshkosh, hugging the western shore of Lake Winnebago. In the 1980s, he bought a pharmacy called Medicine Mart in Monroe, a town 100 miles south of Oshkosh. For decades, Schultz was a respected businessman in the two communities, a good boss and tireless worker.

In the summer of 2006, Schultz received a fax from a company he’d never heard of, Alpha-Net Trading, with an address in Costa Mesa, California. The letter offered him an enticing business opportunity: Alpha-Net could augment Schultz’s in-store sales with online prescriptions, without any investment from him. His role couldn’t have been simpler. If he became an Alpha-Net affiliate, all he would have to do was log in to the company’s system, fill prescriptions written by American doctors, and ship them using Alpha-Net’s FedEx account. He’d then be reimbursed by bank transfer for the wholesale cost of the prescription, plus $3.50 for each one filled.

The offer arrived at a particularly vulnerable time for Schultz. His business had been in decline for a decade or so as big-box drugstore chains began to crowd out the little guys. His family, meanwhile, was beleaguered by health problems. His son suffered from a neurological disorder that required nearly full-time care. And Schultz himself had been struck by a series of small heart attacks, brought on in part by the stress of keeping his business afloat and the long hours spent shuttling between the Oshkosh and Monroe stores.

At first, Schultz ignored the offer. Then he conducted a bit of online research to determine if it was real. Finally, he got in touch with the company’s recruiter. Schultz said he had doubts about the ethics of the operation. But the recruiter quickly dispelled them, sending Schultz copies of the licenses of the physicians writing the prescriptions and explaining that Alpha-Net didn’t sell controlled substances. “If an online pharmacy is asking you to ship controlled drugs, you better put your fees away for a lawyer,” Alpha-Net’s reps were trained to tell prospective pharmacists, “because you are going to jail.”

Alpha-Net and its dozens of affiliate websites offered a range of prescription medications—everything from Propecia, the hair-loss drug, to generic forms of Viagra. But its three biggest sellers were Ultram, Soma, and Fioricet. Ultram was the brand-name version of an opioid painkiller called tramadol. Soma, also known as carisoprodol, was a muscle relaxant often prescribed for back problems. And Fioricet, recommended for tension headaches, was often prescribed to treat migraines. To further put his mind at ease, Alpha-Net gave Schultz the number of a former DEA agent in Florida, who assured him that none of the medicines he would be shipping would cause problems.

In the summer of 2006, Schultz signed up both of his pharmacies, and before long he was filling thousands of prescriptions a month. His bank account received increasingly frequent wire transfers from Hong Kong in amounts that grew to the tens of thousands of dollars. Someone at the top was clearly making tremendous amounts of money selling online prescriptions. Who that might be, Schultz didn’t have the first idea. “Alpha-Net said that its operation was legal and legitimate,” Schultz would later explain in a sentencing memo that his attorney filed in federal court in Green Bay, after the DEA had shown up at Schultz’s door, altering his life forever. “I wanted to believe them.”

Three

Boaz and Tomer Taggart told their employees that they had a third, silent partner in the busines—a programmer Tomer had met after posting an ad in an online forum. That programmer handled the infrastructure of the company, part of which he outsourced to two contractors in Romania. The day-to-day operations, though, and the future plans for the company, were determined by the brothers. In July 2006, however, Oz returned from a vacation to discover that Boaz had been ousted from the business. No reason was given for the falling out between the brothers, but from then on Tomer would be in charge, running the operation predominantly from the U.S.

After Boaz’s departure, the business continued to grow. Oz and Berkman recruited friends to work with them, extolling the flexible shifts and good pay, which was generally about 15 percent higher than other call-center jobs in Israel.

Then, one afternoon in the fall of 2007, an instant message popped up on Moran Oz’s computer screen. “I’m your boss now,” wrote someone calling himself Paul Le Roux, a name Moran had never heard before. There was no explanation, no pleasantries, simply a statement that he’d been in charge with Tomer from the beginning, but now Tomer was out. “From now on,” Le Roux said, “you report to me.”

Oz called Taggart, who quickly explained that Le Roux was a South African programmer living in the Philippines. Taggart was stepping aside for this formerly silent partner, he said. When Oz asked him why, he said only that he had been working too hard and wanted to see his daughters grow up.

At first the new boss didn’t alter the atmosphere in Jerusalem. The business was the same, the customer-service concerns unchanged. The company kept growing, retaining its high pay and decent hours. Oz’s and Berkman’s responsibilities began to expand.

As for Paul Le Roux, he always claimed to be too busy to travel to Israel and conducted almost all his business over the company’s chat system, in a gruff style utterly devoid of small talk. He didn’t joke, and he never asked questions about the lives of his employees or offered up any information regarding his own. He was more concerned about information security than Boaz or Tomer ever had been; he insisted that Oz and Berkman encrypt their hard drives, at first with a program called E4M (which stood for Encryption for the Masses), and then with one called TrueCrypt. But otherwise, as far as Oz was concerned, a boss was a boss.

A few months later, Le Roux declared that he wanted to meet Oz and Berkman in person, in Manila. Oz’s childhood friend told me that at first, the new jet-setting aspect of the business made Oz’s position sound “like a dream job.” The pair flew business class to Manila via Hong Kong. A driver fetched them from the airport and deposited them at a luxury condo located next to a synagogue.

42793060571-1478028702-61.jpg
Paul Le Roux was an absentee boss, based in Manila. (Photo: AC Productions/Blend Images/Corbis)

They met Le Roux for a series of dinner meetings at the Hard Rock Café, located in a mall in Makati, the upscale shopping and business district in the center of Manila. “These Jews can’t eat any of this!” Le Roux joked with the waitress. “Just get them some chips.” I learned about those meetings, and others that would come later, from former employees who worked closely with Le Roux. They would speak with me only on the condition of anonymity, concerned that discussing Le Roux might come back to haunt them.

In the fall of 2008, Le Roux brought Oz and Berkman back to Manila to tell them he would be opening a new call center in Tel Aviv, which he wanted them to staff and oversee. “Money is not an issue,” he told them.

Shortly after that meeting, Le Roux sent an advance man, a British citizen named Robert McGowan, to Israel to register the new company—called Customer Service Worldwide, or CSWW—under McGowan’s name. Beit Oridan, which had formerly been renamed IBS Systems, became SCSM. (The company was meant to be called Customer Service Management, one employee told me, but the name was taken. So a meaningless “S” was tacked onto the front.) When I recently got a hold of the government’s official records on the various iterations of the companies, I found photocopies of not only McGowan’s British passport but Le Roux’s Australian one. It seemed curious that a man so concerned with secrecy would leave such a blatant clue in the paper trail of a possibly illegal enterprise.

CSWW opened in 2009, housed in an 11-floor building not far from the government center of Tel Aviv. The Israeli national government’s Money-Laundering Prohibition Authority was located on another floor of the building. Under the new system, CSWW would handle customer service in Tel Aviv, while SCSM would manage accounting and company infrastructure from Jerusalem. Neither CSWW nor SCSM made any money themselves. To cover the two companies’ expenses, Le Roux was soon wiring $300,000 a month from a bank in Hong Kong.

None of that was unusual in the call-center industry, according to Dov Weinstein, an accountant I met with in Tel Aviv. Each month, he said, Oz made a list of the company’s expenses, and Le Roux sent a payment to cover them. Oz had brought in Weinstein, an experienced CPA and a friend of his father’s since Oz was a child, to make sure the company’s books were being done correctly. “They mentioned all the time that there is a South African guy,” Weinstein told me. “If you ask me, I think that maybe they did not trust him.”


As RX Limited grew, Le Roux opened call centers beyond Israel. The company’s volume of orders created an endless stream of customer-service requests, and RX Limited adopted aggressive email marketing techniques to recruit more. In the Philippines, Le Roux’s call centers were given names like Dial Magic and Global I-Net Bridge. (Eventually he added one in India as well.) To fill the managerial positions, he turned to Oz and Berkman. Oz’s childhood friend told me, “His boss was always asking him to recruit people, Israelis, to go to the Philippines.”

In one sense, Le Roux’s trust of Israelis seemed odd. Among employees he was widely known for his openly racist views. “For Paul, everyone was a ‘nigger.’ I was a ‘white nigger,’” one call-center manager told me. “Or a ‘floppy,’ which is a South African term for nigger.” But Le Roux reserved special vitriol for the people in whose midst he lived, “calling Filipinos monkeys—to their faces.”

Israelis seemed to be exempt from Le Roux’s personal animus. “I don’t think he particularly liked Jews,” the call-center manager said. They were simply the “cheapest, honest, smartest labor that he could find.”

Eventually a kind of pipeline developed, with one Israeli following another to Manila. In January, I tracked down one of those transplants, Yehuda Ben-Dor, an Israeli-American whose LinkedIn profile suggested that he had been high up in the Philippine version of CSWW. Unlike many former employees, Ben-Dor—who now runs his own call center in the Philippines—told me by phone that he’d be happy to talk on the record. “My understanding was that this was all legal,” he said. “There was nothing fishy about it.”

Ben-Dor was living in Tel Aviv, he told me, when he answered a local ad for work in the call center there. He took the job and quickly moved up to manager. In 2010, his boss asked if he wanted to transfer to the Philippines. “I wasn’t the first to come over here. There were many others before me who had been coming over to man them,” Ben-Dor told me, referring to the call centers. “The thing with Paul’s company was that the attrition rate was pretty high, people come and go, and he was always looking for new people. I was the next guy, so to speak. I didn’t know anything about the Philippines at that time.”

Within a few days of arriving in Manila, and never having met Le Roux in person, Ben-Dor found himself overseeing ten call centers with more than 1,000 employees. “They didn’t tell me anything about the job,” he said, “basically just that they needed Americans or English speakers to train the Filipinos.”

Le Roux provided apartments to the Israeli transplants. “He had a lot of condos,” Ben-Dor said. “He moved people around in them for some reason, like musical chairs. When I was first here, I was working in a house in Taguig, and then he said, ‘I need you to move over to the Fort’”—a financial district in Manila also known as Bonifacio Global City—“so I moved over to a condo in Global City. Then he said, ‘OK, I need that one, so I need you to move to another one.’ I was like, why does he have all these empty condos?”

Le Roux was as much a mystery to employees in the Philippines as he was to those back in Israel. He owned a pub called Sid’s in Manila, a dumpy expat hangout, but was rarely seen there. “I don’t believe that he had a social life,” one former call-center manager told me. “It’s not like he would go to the country club or meet other expats of his age. He was a workaholic, from what I understood, 18 to 19 hours a day. At no point did I ever meet anybody that was introduced as his friend.”

Le Roux paid Israel-level salaries in the much cheaper environs of Manila, offering a standard of living that was hard for recruits to turn down. And he seemed willing to spend on quality employees. “He would start very, very low,” the manager told me, “but you could negotiate with him easily. He had this intimidating physical presence, so people would be afraid to ask for more. But when you understood that money meant nothing to him, then I thought, Why not ask for a significant pay raise? The numbers, the money, wasn’t important.”

Ben-Dor told me that in nearly two years working for Le Roux, he saw his boss only a handful of times. Once “he called me up and asked me to just come on over to his condo,” Ben-Dor said. Ben-Dor described the apartment, a massive, empty space, with Le Roux sitting alone at a desk—the only piece of furniture there. He was flanked by stacks of servers, Ben-Dor said, like he was at the helm of some sort of command center. Le Roux dispensed with greetings.

“How’s it going?” Le Roux asked.

“It’s going good,” Ben-Dor told him. He began rattling off numbers, eager to prove that the call centers were performing well, but Le Roux cut him off.

“Well, let me know if you need anything,” he said.

The meeting with the boss he’d barely met, who had moved him to the Philippines and housed him and placed him in charge of over 1,000 people, was over in five minutes. “You called me all the way over here to tell me that?”

“Yeah,” Le Roux told him. “I just wanted to meet you.”

Five

For Charles Schultz, the pharmacist in Oshkosh, the relationship with Alpha-Net was everything they’d promised. The system provided him with a regular stream of prescriptions, written by doctors all over the country. Alpha-Net representatives, whom he knew by names like Mike Gilmore and Will Morris, straightened out any problems when they arose and stayed in touch by phone and email. On one day in July 2010, Schultz Pharmacy filled and shipped 973 prescriptions. On another, in December 2011: 575. Schultz would later admit that he knew that the volume of prescriptions coming his way strongly implied that doctors weren’t examining the patient questionnaires thoroughly. But he never heard from any authorities, and his business was finally on level footing.

By the end of 2011, Schultz’s two pharmacies had shipped over 700,000 prescriptions. Alpha-Net had wired over $27 million from various accounts in Hong Kong to Schultz’s bank. Most of the money was to cover the wholesale cost of the drugs, but $3.3 million came from the per-prescription fee that Schultz received, which the company had raised in 2007 from $3.50 to $4.

Among the hundreds of thousands of shipments Schultz sent out, it would take only six of them to unravel his life. A customer in Minnesota placed a half-dozen orders for Soma and Fioricet through five different Alpha-Net-controlled websites between 2007 and 2010. The customer’s questionnaires were handled by four different doctors, whose prescriptions in turn were filled by Schultz Pharmacy and Medicine Mart. That customer was a special agent for the DEA.

The DEA had stumbled into the path of RX Limited almost by accident. In an investigation into a pharmacy in Chicago in 2007, agents had discovered that the business appeared to be shipping large amounts of prescription drugs using a single FedEx account. When they obtained records from FedEx, they found something more astounding: Approximately 100 pharmacies across the country were using that same account number. All of them were predominantly shipping the same three drugs: Fioricet, Ultram, and Soma.

That fall agents from the DEA started making undercover, or “controlled,” buys of prescription drugs on RX Limited–related websites. Helpfully, when each delivery arrived, it came labeled with the doctor who had written the prescription and the pharmacy that had filled it. The websites made sure to emphasize, as a court filing later noted, that they “did not sell controlled substances, that their drugs were dispensed by board certified and/or licensed physicians and/or pharmacies, and that RX’s customers did not need to see a physician in person or have a prior prescription in order to purchase prescription drugs online.”

triptych145-1478028703-94.jpg
Some of RX Limited’s affiliate websites.

There were dozens of RX Limited websites from which to make controlled buys, with names like Cheaprxmeds.com, Allpharmmeds.com, Buymedscheap.com, Your-pills.com, and Speedyrx.com. The agents began, in October of 2007, with a site called Acmemeds.com. An agent logged on as a customer, filled out a questionnaire, and ordered 30 tablets of Soma. The prescription was filled by a pharmacy in Monroe, Wisconsin, called Medicine Mart, owned by Charles Schultz.


After the boat incident, people close to Moran Oz told me that his demeanor changed. The childhood friend I spoke to in the office park said that Oz wouldn’t tell him what happened on his trip, only that, speaking of his boss, “I don’t think I should be working with this guy.” The friend tried to persuade Oz to come work with him at a startup, but Oz said he couldn’t. “He was different, like he was shut down,” the friend said. “He was suspicious. We didn’t know of what.”

To Oz, it also seemed that Le Roux was different after that trip. He was always short on social graces, but in the ensuing months he became increasingly vicious, threatening employees when something wasn’t done in the way he’d asked. “Alon better answer the phone or he won’t have a hand to do it with or a tongue to speak,” he once told one of Berkman’s coworkers.

Among the managers at his call centers, there were now constant whispers about the boss. “I heard he was doing human trafficking, he was doing arms trades, he was having people killed. It sounded like a comic book, and I didn’t know what to believe and not to believe,” one former call-center manager in the Philippines told me. “I heard that he had an airplane business where he was making airplane engines and hiring people to fly to other countries to smuggle drugs. It was too surreal to believe that this guy was actually getting away with stuff like this. I didn’t know what of it was credible information. I could only confirm what I knew.”

The more I heard from former employees and associates of Le Roux’s, the more I wondered why they didn’t just walk away. Some did. Another former call-center manager in the Philippines, who met me at a Starbucks in Makati one afternoon, told me that over several years it gradually dawned on him that Le Roux’s primary interest was in pushing his businesses as far into the darkness as possible. “There’s a difference in doing a gray businesses and just being interested in illegal business,” the manager said. When he asked Le Roux why he didn’t build on his growing fortune by expanding his call-center services and selling them to other companies, Le Roux professed not to be interested. The manager decided he wanted out. “I didn’t want to be working for a guy that was more interested in illegal businesses than legal ones,” he told me.

The question of why more people among the dozens who mananged operations for Le Roux didn’t abandon him, once they started to learn troubling facts about him and the business, is one that defense lawyers and prosecutors are grappling with now. The answer for some of them, as Oz’s attorneys explained it to me, was simple: They believed Le Roux would kill them if they did. I heard much of Oz’s story sitting in a conference room one morning last November, in the Minneapolis office of Joe Friedberg. Friedberg and Robert Richman, both prominent local attorneys who specialize in high-profile criminal cases, currently represent Oz. They told me that it wasn’t just Oz who was intimidated by Le Roux. Omer Bezalel, an operations manager at one of the Israeli businesses, had once attempted to leave Le Roux’s employ. “Two guys showed him pictures of his family,” Friedberg said, “and said, ‘You aren’t going to quit.’”

Around 2011, Le Roux began to disappear for long stretches. None of the high-level employees whom I spoke with knew at the time where he was or what he was doing, only that when he resurfaced he would be more threatening than before. “The fact that he was underground was scarier,” the Israeli call-center manager said. “When he was overground you could talk to him. But when he came back it wasn’t reasonable. He was so angry, and the questions he was asking didn’t make sense. He would just explode. Whatever he said, you said, ‘OK, OK,’ and then hoped that he would forget it.”

Six

In 2011, the U.S. government declared distribution of the drug Soma across state lines illegal. It was one of RX Limited’s tentpole pharmaceuticals, and when pharmacies refused to ship it, a third of the company’s business evaporated overnight. Federal prosecutors would later allege that in the four-year period leading up to August 2011, RX Limited had shipped $300 million worth of drugs.

Le Roux decided to close the Tel Aviv office and move all customer service to the Philippines. Oz and Berkman helped unwind the operations, shipping the computers and office furniture to Manila. The process lasted into 2012, when Le Roux announced that he was downsizing the Jerusalem logistics office as well. He told Oz that the company had lost its credit-card-processing service and needed to scale back further.

The transfers that normally came in from Le Roux’s accounts in Hong Kong started arriving from new and strange places. Then they became sporadic, according to Dov Weinstein. Soon the company lacked the funds to pay severance owed to laid-off employees. When Oz complained, Le Roux wired two-thirds of the money and—in a move that seemed to defy his increasingly dark character—pledged to send the rest soon.

gettyimages-1478028703-48.jpg
From 2009 to 2011, Moran Oz oversaw a call center in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Le Roux designated a new point man in the Philippines for the Israeli companies to communicate with, a Filipino whom Oz and Berkman had never met and knew only by his online handle: Persian Cat.* It struck them as strange; Le Roux had never trusted locals to run any part of the business before. But Oz, already stung from having to lay off most of the company, was desperate to get the remaining severance. He stayed in touch with both the Persian Cat and Le Roux, who kept promising that the money would arrive.

*Later, while researching The Mastermind book, a source indicated to me that “Persian Cat” was a moniker used by Nestor Del Rosario, a former Le Roux call center manager who had also been pulled into other sides of the business, including arms sales to Iran.


In March 2012, DEA agents showed up at Schultz Pharmacy in Oshkosh armed with search warrants. Schultz immediately admitted his involvement and handed over his computers and records. He also agreed to maintain his relationship with his Alpha-Net contacts, and he let the agents record telephone calls. He gave the agents a room to set up in at the pharmacy and served them coffee.

The DEA had in its possession RX Limited’s largest supplier, an 80-year-old pharmacist in Wisconsin. Schultz had little in the way of information about the larger scheme he’d been a part of—some names and phone numbers, emails back and forth about prescriptions and accounting. But the agents were pulling at the threads of the business, hoping to find one that led to whoever sat at the top.

screenshot1-1478028703-68.png
A statement by Gretchen Klass, Charles Schultz’s daughter, in a report submitted by his lawyers before his sentencing. 

Then, late in the summer of 2012, Paul Le Roux disappeared again. Moran Oz and the other Israelis stopped hearing from him. Rumors swirled that he had gone underground because authorities had intercepted one of his boats carrying arms or drugs. Oz, Berkman, and others pressed Persian Cat for information, but he professed to having no idea where Le Roux was or what had happened to him. The transfers from Hong Kong and the other accounts stopped entirely. “We knew something had happened,” one former manager told me. “We prayed that he was dead.”

Four

Le Roux would sometimes give Israeli employees who had relocated to the Philippines entirely new duties, employing them in parts of the business they had previously known little about. Tales of Le Roux–sponsored operations in exotic locales began to filter back to the call centers in Israel.

Oz got his childhood friend, Asaf Shoshana, who had served in an elite Israeli military unit called the Duvdevan, a job working for Le Roux in the Philippines. Not long after he arrived, though, Shoshana reported back to Oz that he had been put in charge of a logging business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another Philippine Israeli, Shai Reuven, told a friend that he had been assigned to run an elaborate operation to procure gold directly from African mines. Still others were being hired to guard houses that Le Roux owned in Hong Kong.

Sometime in 2007, an Israeli-American named Levi Kugel, a friend of Berkman’s, was invited to come to the Philippines and work for Le Roux directly. Kugel was put in charge of a call center but soon began working closely with Le Roux on projects far beyond the prescription-drug business. “It was love at first sight,” one employee told me of the way Le Roux and Kugel hit it off. By 2008, Oz was hearing stories that Kugel, who was operating under the name Steve Lebaron, was being sent around the world by Le Roux on mysterious business related to Zimbabwe.

Periodically, Kugel would return to Israel, and he and Oz began casually discussing the idea of going into business themselves. Kugel was an American citizen, and the two of them talked about the benefits of starting their own wholesale pharmacy in the U.S. RX Limited’s business had grown so quickly that it often had trouble finding enough pharmacies to fill its orders. By opening their own, they reasoned, they might make a great deal of money and also save Le Roux some in the process.

In early 2009, Oz got a call from Le Roux saying that he had taken on new Brazilian partners and wanted Oz and Berkman to come to the Philippines to meet them. When they arrived, though, Le Roux told Oz, “Alon needs to take care of something. You’ll come with me.”

Le Roux said he wanted Oz to join the Brazilians on a short trip to inspect a potential new call-center site on an island called Cebu. They’d travel on one of Le Roux’s yachts, a full-day trip by boat. The next morning he picked up Oz at the hotel in his BMW. They stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s, then headed west toward the coast. Le Roux owned several boats that he kept docked in Subic Bay, a city two hours from Manila that had housed a U.S. military base in the early 1990s and remained a magnet for international expats, particularly former military types.

Le Roux pulled into the marina, where he put Oz up in a hotel for the night, paying the bill in advance. The Brazilians would meet him the next morning, he said, on the dock next to the yacht they would be taking to Cebu.

The whole thing felt off to Oz—the Brazilians, the boat, Le Roux driving him personally. But by this point, he had little choice but to go along with it.

When Oz arrived at the appointed dock the next morning, three men were waiting to meet him: an older white-haired American or British man named Dave and two Latino-seeming men** who rarely spoke. Dave invited him on board and said he was eager to talk business. It was a small yacht with three bedrooms. Dave said he’d take one, Oz another, and the Brazilians would share the third. It was sunny and warm as they cruised leisurely out to sea. Oz sat on the back deck, taking in the view.

After about a half-hour, with the shoreline now just out of sight, Dave came to the back of the boat and asked Oz to get up for a moment, he needed to get something from the compartment beneath him. Seconds later, Oz was falling overboard.

He assumed at first that he had tripped—he remembered, and quickly regretted, that he’d slid his cell phone into his sock—but then when he looked up, he was confused to see the boat moving away from him. It turned, though, and pulled alongside him. Oz looked up, expecting a ladder to be thrown over so he could be hauled aboard. Instead he saw Dave holding a gun, and before he could process what was happening, bullets were piercing the surface of the water around him.

Then the shooting stopped, and Dave told Oz that they knew he was stealing from Le Roux and they would kill him if he didn’t say where he’d stashed the money.

Oz thrashed about in the water, trying to understand what could possibly have had led to this moment.

Dave now held a satellite phone, from which he seemed to be relaying his interrogation. Dave listened on the phone and then spoke to Oz in the water below him. “We know you are talking to Levi,” he said.

Now Oz understood. Somehow the business he and Kugel had discussed had gotten back to Le Roux. Why they were accusing him of stealing he didn’t know, but bobbing there in the water Oz frantically explained that he and Kugel were just talking, that they’d hatched this idea of a pharmacy on the side that could be good for everyone. “I would have told Paul if we had done it,” Oz said. “I would never do something behind his back.”

Perhaps Dave had never intended to kill Oz, only to terrify him. Or maybe Oz talked his way out of his own execution. Whatever the case, eventually they pulled him back on board and motored to a small, isolated island, where they anchored for the night.

Thirty-six hours later, they headed back to the marina. “You need to understand that we can reach you everywhere, in Israel,” Dave told Oz. He warned that if they ever caught Oz stealing from Le Roux, or even suspected it, they would kill him. “Whatever happens,” Dave said, “we will get to you.”

The next day, Le Roux picked Oz up for the drive back to Manila. In the face of Oz’s confusion and anger, Le Roux denied knowing anything about the incident. He had nothing to do with it, he told Oz. It was the Brazilians, and they were men that Le Roux had to listen to.

Before he dropped Oz back in Manila, Le Roux left him with a warning. “If you are thinking to go to Israel to close the office, I would suggest that you don’t want to deal with these guys. They will find you. Do whatever they say. By all means, don’t go back and panic.”

**Later, it would turn out that it wasn’t so much that Oz believed the pair looked South American, just that he assumed as much because of what he’d been told. In research for The Mastermind book, I discovered that the two men were in fact Joseph Hunter and another member of Le Roux’s mercenary enforcement team working for Dave Smith.


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing

The Mastermind Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing

A journey to understand how a real-estate agent in the Philippines became the target of a criminal mastermind.

By Evan Ratliff

One

Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

Jeremy Jimena had just started his shift when he found the body. At 6:30 on the morning of February 13, 2012, Jimena, a garbage collector in the Philippines, had set out with his driver on their regular route through Taytay, an industrial city an hour east of Manila. It had rained most of the night, and a light drizzle fell as they turned down Paseo Monte Carlo, a quiet road with no streetlights. Their first stop was a large vacant lot overrun by low shrubs, a green carpet of vines, and a scattering of banana trees.

The field wasn’t an official pickup spot, but local residents often dumped garbage there anyway, and the collectors had informally added it to their route. There was a small pile of trash that morning spilling into the road: two large grain bags filled with waste and a bulging, rolled-up bedspread. Jimena hopped off the truck and approached the pile. When he leaned down and grasped the damp edge of the blanket, he saw a human foot.

Jimena dropped the blanket and ran, shouting to the driver, and the two of them left the truck and sprinted to the municipal headquarters, 200 yards away. There they told Ricardo Maniego, the local head of security, what they found. Maniego called the police and brought a long cord to rope off the area, like he’d learned in first-responder training.

crimescene2-1478028609-38.jpg
The crime scene in Taytay on the morning of February 13, 2012. 

Nearly four years later, in December 2015, I sat with Jimena outside the municipal headquarters. He is a small, wiry man with jet black hair and a wisp of a mustache. He looked off in the distance as he recounted the story, his eyes wide and mournful. He’d known right away that the foot was a woman’s, he said, but couldn’t remember much else. “I was shocked and disoriented,” he said.

After he’d shown Maniego the body, Jimena had returned to his route in a daze. He never spoke to the police, he told me, and never learned who the woman was. But for years, he had dreamed of her every night. “She’s screaming, asking me for help,” he said. “Sometimes she is wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes it wakes me up.”


I came to Taytay that afternoon because I believed that the woman Jimena had found was a small thread in a much larger story. Somewhere between a pile of American legal documents and a two-paragraph story about Jimena’s discovery in a Philippine newspaper, I had noticed a hazy connection between the body and a man named Paul Le Roux, a South African who was reputed to be the most prolific international criminal of the 21st century. The scant information I could find on Le Roux suggested his involvement in weapons shipments, gold smuggling, and online prescription-drug sales. But he was also a kind of phantom, reportedly captured by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012 and then disappeared to work as a valuable asset. My attempts to find out who Le Roux really was, and why the U.S. wanted so badly to keep him a secret, had led me from New York to Manila and then to this vacant lot, where I suspected that Le Roux’s ghostly influence had once been manifest.

The investigative division of the Taytay police is housed in a neglected cinder-block building on the side of a hill in the town’s historic district. I went there with a local Filipino-American journalist, Aurora Almendral, on the same day I met with Jimena. Almendral and I walked past a woman stapling Christmas decorations to the wall, through a pair of swinging doors, and into a cramped room with four officers’ desks. An air conditioner rattled in the window, and three detectives pecked away on ancient-looking computers.

Almendral, who had been helping me since I’d arrived in the country two days earlier, tried to rouse one of the detectives and explain, in Tagalog, why we were there. (The Philippines’ official languages are English and Filipino, which is a standardized form of Tagalog.) The chief of police had promised to show us where the body was found, but that morning he’d been called away by a kidnapping incident. The other cops, largely indifferent to our desires, had no idea when he would return. The original officer on the case, they said, had left the force and become a sailor.

While we waited, I stared at an oddly menacing police “Loyalty Pledge” that hung framed on the wall. “Remember that an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness,” it read.

If you must growl, condemn andeternally find faultWhy! resign your position.And when you are outside,Damn to your hearts content.But as long as your a part of the institution,Do not condemn it.If you do, the first high wind thatcomes along will blow you awayAnd probably you’ll never know why.

After some coaxing from Almendral, an officer named Abigail Del Monte agreed to pull the case file. She returned from a back room and proceeded to flip through it idly at her desk, as if trying to discern why I had flown 8,000 miles and then driven three hours in the Philippines’ punishing traffic to visit a four-year-old crime scene.

Twenty minutes later, another detective, George Arada, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, showed up and suddenly the mood shifted. “You’re here for the Catherine Lee case?” he said. “OK, let’s go.” We offered our slightly beat-up rented van and driver for transportation, and Del Monte decided to join as well. We picked up Maniego, the local watchman, and drove over to the vacant lot.

Maniego showed us how he’d marked off the area back in February 2012. “The body was moved a little bit by the guy who picked up the blanket,” he said, officially. “I didn’t find out anything about who she was, because my job was just the immediate response.”

We walked over to an older woman selling drinks at a roadside stand next to the lot; she said she remembered that day, too. “I saw the body,” she said, “but it was covered up, so we couldn’t see who it was. Three streets down, somebody had been missing for a couple of days, so we thought it could be them.” Later, word came back from the cops that the body belonged to a real estate agent from another part of the country. When I asked what happened to the neighbor, the drink-stand woman said that the family of the missing person had been renters, and not long after they’d moved on.

I walked around taking photos, looking for signs that Jimena’s horrible discovery had somehow transformed this otherwise ordinary place. A group of young kids stopped to watch us, and I wondered if the incident had become part of their childhood lore. Whatever mark the body had left, I couldn’t see it. We piled back into the van, and on the drive back to the station I asked Arada and Del Monte whether they often encountered dead bodies in Taytay, a city of just under 300,000 people. “Sometimes over five in a month, but not over ten,” Arada said cheerfully. “It’s kind of a well-known place to dump bodies. Don’t tell the chief!” He laughed. The cases were difficult to solve, he said. The bodies were often mutilated or “broken up and stuffed in garbage bags.”

I asked if I could look at the case file, and to my surprise Del Monte handed it to me. Photos taken at the crime scene showed the body, unwrapped, lying facedown with its feet in the road, a crowd standing at the edge of the cordon.

The facts were spare: a team from the national police’s Scene of Crime Operations division had arrived at 7:50 that morning to examine the woman, who’d been found wearing a black jacket and jeans. An autopsy report listed the cause of “instantaneous death”: gunshot wounds under each eye.

The investigators had little trouble identifying the victim as Catherine Cristina Lee, a real estate broker from Las Piñas City, an hour south. She was found with her identification, as well as a Nokia smartphone, an Anne Klein wristwatch, a silver bracelet, and a pair of rings, gold and silver. She had not been robbed; there was no sign of sexual assault.

Deeper in the file, I discovered that I wasn’t the first person to travel to the Philippines and ask questions about the body. On one page were handwritten notes from a February 2015 meeting with a special agent from the DEA’s Los Angeles office, along with a copy of his business card. A follow-up report stated that two Americans had been arrested in connection with Lee’s murder. One of the two, according to the notes, had confessed, claiming that a Filipino local had supplied the murder weapon and the vehicle used to dump the body. At the bottom of the page, someone had written: “Hunter ordered.”

ratliffthem-1548262452-58.png

Two

A few days after Catherine Lee’s body was discovered, her husband contacted the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and requested that the agency look into her case. The ranks of local and national police in the Philippines are rife with corruption—“planting evidence is pretty much a regular occurrence,” the country’s former interior secretary Rafael Alunan told me—and the NBI has a better, though not perfect, reputation for integrity. The agency is required by law to take over cases at the request of victims’ families, and often those requests stem from concerns that local officers have been paid off, or worse. In targeted killings, as the Lee case appeared to be, it’s not unusual to hear whispers that cops themselves were in on the job. Contract murder is a thriving industry in the Philippines; having someone killed can cost as little as 5,000 pesos, or around $100. But police work pays poorly, and as much as 60 percent of the national police force lives below the poverty line. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented police involvement in a death squad responsible for almost 300 killings over a six-year period in one city alone.

At NBI headquarters in Manila, the Death Investigation Division was housed in a drab, tiled-floor room with the insipid fluorescent lighting that marks bureaucracies worldwide. On the wall was a whiteboard outlining agents’ assignments, organized by nickname: “Cardinal,” “Undertaker,” “Mechanic,” “Hitman,” “Braveheart,” “Snakedoc,” “KGB.” Almendral and I went there one morning to see an agent named Rizaldy Rivera, a garrulous cop with a waist-length ponytail and a talent for sharpshooting. A natural showman, he urged us to check out his videos on YouTube. (Later I did; the clips—including one in which he cuts a credit card in half at 20 yards with a handgun, aiming over his shoulder using a compact mirror—are impressive.) Most people called him Zaldy, but his nickname around the NBI offices, he said, was Slayer, bestowed after he lucked into three shootouts early in his career, one of which left a bullet in his thigh.

It was Rivera who handled the Catherine Lee case after her husband had requested that the NBI take over the investigation. “I cannot provide the real names of the witnesses, or their addresses and photos, in order to protect them,” Rivera told us as Almendral and I sat in a pair of plastic lawn chairs in his cubicle, across a desk completely devoid of papers or equipment. Otherwise, he said, “I can probably answer any question that you want me to answer.”

He started at the beginning, talking above the sounds of an NBA basketball game from a television somewhere just out of sight. Over the course of an hour, Rivera laid out everything he knew about Catherine Lee’s murder. He spoke in the matter-of-fact style of a cop who had seen his share of vicious crimes. But at times, he sounded genuinely mystified that someone like Lee could end up a target.  


catherinelee-1478028609-19.jpg
Catherine Lee in an undated photo. 

In early February 2012, Catherine Lee received an email from a Canadian man living in Manila named Bill Maxwell. Maxwell said that he and his colleague, Tony, were looking to invest in real estate. They had searched online for a broker and found Lee, a well-known agent whose territory ranged throughout the southern part of the Philippines’ main island, Luzon. A few years prior, she had served as president of her local chapter of the Real Estate Brokers of the Philippines. “She won several trophies and awards,” Rivera said. Lee, who was 43 but looked younger, with a pixie haircut and a welcoming smile, “had good friends and made a good living,” he said.

Lee worked from her home, an attractive house in an upscale community in Las Piñas. She and her husband had purchased it not long before, with the help of a particularly large commission she’d earned. Much of her business came to her over the Internet—enough, at least, that she would be unlikely to think twice about scheduling a meeting with a client by email. “She never bothered to check the background of these people,” Rivera said. “That was her undoing.”

Bill and Tony didn’t specify what type of property they were looking for, only that they wanted a place farther south than Las Piñas; it could be commercial or residential, a vacation property or a ready-to-build lot, as long as it was a solid investment. For two days, she drove them from property to property, but the men weren’t ready to commit. For their third outing, on the morning of February 12, Lee met Bill and Tony on the outdoor patio of a Starbucks in Las Piñas, not far from her home. They were joined by three other real estate brokers she’d enlisted to help with the search.

The Canadians arrived in a silver Toyota Innova van. Bill was around six-foot-one, with a beard and a prominent belly. Tony was clean-shaven and wore a baseball cap. The group drove to a gated community called Ponderosa, a former flower farm located 40 miles south of Manila, where they examined a lush lot available for residential development. For lunch they stopped at a nearby spot popular with the locals called Mushroomburger, where they were joined by two property owners Lee knew at around 3:30 p.m.

The group then traveled to another farm about eight miles away, in Cavite. They arrived at 4:30 and wandered around for an hour. When it was time to leave, the brokers and the property owners departed in one car; Lee joined Bill and Tony in the Innova van. Sometime in the next ten hours, Lee was shot four times in the head at close range, rolled up in a blanket, and deposited in a pile of garbage.


slide102145-1478028609-43.jpg

Rivera pieced together Lee’s movements from interviews with her husband and everyone she had encountered that day, as well as information found on her laptop and phone. From her friends and a security guard at the gated community, he gleaned enough of a description of the two men to generate a pair of sketches. But when it came to the actual identity of the assailants, he hit a wall. “It was very hard to check with the immigration bureau in the Philippines,” Rivera said. “Because Bill Maxwell and Tony, the names were fictitious.”

As for physical evidence, there was little to go on. The Toyota van had no plates, although the security guard was able to supply the number from the van’s temporary registration sticker, given to newly purchased vehicles. When Rivera tried to trace it back to a Toyota dealer in Manila, nothing matched. He concluded that the car was probably rented and the number faked. Without the van, there would be no fingerprints, hair, or fibers.

One aspect of the crime stood out to Rivera: Lee had been shot once under each eye, with what forensics had determined was a .22-caliber handgun. “In our experience,” he said, “if you shoot a person dead, you don’t normally use a low-caliber firearm.” Hit men in the Philippines, he said, typically used “Armalite weapons, hand grenades, or a .40-caliber pistol. This is one of the few times that I discovered that the caliber was a .22 Magnum.” To Rivera, the weapon said something about the crime, namely “that it might be a type of signature killing.” He believed that Lee’s death was not a crime of passion but a professional murder committed by someone looking to send a message. “That’s an arrogant way of killing, putting two bullet holes beneath the eye,” he said. “That’s not how you normally execute a person.”

slide101457-1478028609-18.jpg

During his investigation, Rivera came across the case of a female customs agent killed in a similar manner. That case stalled, however, when the victim’s family declined to cooperate with the authorities.

After a few months, Rivera’s case dried up, too. Other murders required his attention. But like Jimena, he was haunted by the brutality of Lee’s killing. “I couldn’t sleep soundly at night. I was thinking about that case,” he said. “But the fact is, I cannot just proceed without solid evidence.”

For three years the file languished, until April 2015, when Rivera got a call from the U.S. embassy. The DEA had some information regarding the Catherine Lee case, an embassy liaison said. Almost two years earlier—18 months after Lee was murdered—the DEA had arrested a former Army Ranger who had been working in private security overseas. That arrest had led them to Rivera.

Three

In July 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, covering Manhattan, filed a sealed indictment charging Joseph Hunter, a 48-year-old decorated former U.S. soldier, with conspiracy to murder a law-enforcement agent. More specifically, Hunter stood accused of forming a team of international assassins to take out a snitch and a DEA agent on behalf of a Colombian drug cartel. On September 25, Hunter was captured in a raid on a safe house in Phuket, Thailand, and extradited to the U.S. Two members of his alleged assassination squad, for which he’d accepted résumés over the Internet, were picked up simultaneously in Liberia as they prepared to carry out the hit. The fourth and fifth were caught in Estonia on charges of arranging a drug deal. When I read the unsealed indictment a few days later, the whole thing sounded as if it were concocted by a dramatist with a flair for international intrigue.

usvjose1457-1478028610-19.jpg
The federal indictment of Joseph Hunter. 

In a way it was. The DEA’s entire operation was a version of what’s called a reverse sting—or, in more common terms, a setup. The “Colombian drug lords” were paid informants playing well-rehearsed roles. The snitch and the DEA agent didn’t exist. The “safe house” had been wired for sound and video. For months the DEA had been stringing Hunter and his team along, arranging small gigs like guarding drug shipments in the Caribbean before springing their trap.

When the Department of Justice announced Hunter’s arrest, a wave of media coverage followed—not least because Hunter’s nickname in the field had been Rambo. After the headlines died down, the case embarked on the long slog toward trial. Federal cases often take years to wind their way to a jury, and very few ever make it there. Ninety-five percent end in a guilty plea, because even the best defense lawyers rarely have the wherewithal to face the power of a federal prosecution—particularly one with the kinds of resources that had been brought to bear on the Joseph Hunter case.

On December 21 2014, however, a reporter at The New York Times named Alan Feuer broke a strange new detail in the case. Hunter, he reported, had been working for a mysterious cartel boss named Paul Le Roux, who had once commanded a criminal empire of incredible power and scope. Le Roux had been arrested in 2012, Feuer revealed, and was now working for the U.S. government as a closely held confidential informant. By December 30, the Daily Mail had declared Le Roux “the most successful criminal mastermind you’ve never heard of.

This second wave of press coverage preceded a pivotal motion in the case, filed by Hunter’s lawyer in Manhattan. It argued that the indictment against Hunter should be dismissed because the sting operation had been initiated by Hunter’s former boss, referred to by the government only as a confidential witness, or CW-1. Hunter had participated in his alleged crimes, the motion asserted, because he believed that his boss would kill him if he did not. The U.S. government’s use of a criminal as vicious as CW-1, the filing asserted, “shocks the conscience.”

ap508237068-1478028610-65.jpg
Joseph Hunter in custody of the Thai police. (Photo: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Anyone paying attention now knew that CW-1 was Paul Le Roux. His name, however, remained redacted in every court filing. Any case files that might exist detailing Le Roux’s own arrest were sealed.

Then, four weeks later, Hunter suddenly pleaded guilty. There would be no defense that he had acted out of fear of Le Roux, no unmasking of his boss in court. Indeed, there would be no trial at all. Over the course of 2015, all of Hunter’s codefendants pleaded guilty, along with five defendants in a related methamphetamine-smuggling case. Their files were sealed and shelved, the guilty parties dispatched to federal prison or awaiting their sentence.


I’d been following the case largely through court documents. In the spring of 2015, as the trail on Le Roux went cold, I decided to reread everything that had been filed, thousands of pages across more than a dozen cases. Despite the secrecy surrounding Le Roux, it turned out that a great deal of information had been lodged in those documents. There were, for instance, scattered transcripts of recordings taken of Hunter and his team—two former German soldiers, a Polish ex–military sniper, and a fellow former American serviceman—from microphones hidden in the safe house in Phuket. On those recordings, Hunter can be heard preparing his team members to carry out jobs for the supposed Colombians. Hunter refers to killings-for-hire as “bonus work.” (In the transcripts that follow, the abbreviation “U/I” stands for “unintelligible.”)

Hunter: There’s a uhm… there’s a bonus for you [U/I] assassination so if you’re interested in that, you can do it. If you’re not interested and you don’t want to do it, but there’s big bonus money. I don’t, I don’t know [U/I] I say big, but it’s like for [U/I] it’s twenty five thousand and if it, if it’s [U/I] depending on the threat level, the price goes up.

Male 3: Good.

Hunter: So you guys have a problem with that?

Male 3: No.

Hunter: So there’s plenty of bonus for us. So you guys are in?

Male 1: Uhm-hum.

Hunter refers to his boss as “Benny,” or sometimes just “the boss,” and says that he pays up to $25,000 “for the bonus rate.” Hunter boasts about the kind of bonus work he’s done in the past or paid others to do—crimes that, as I read through the filings, didn’t appear to be part of his prosecution by U.S. authorities. “That one year, we killed nine people,” he says at one point, adding: “We only hurt bad people. Right? Everybody that stole money, or conned the boss or whatever.… These are all wrong people so you don’t have to worry about hurting innocent people.”

Even from Hunter’s casual bragging, I was astonished by the scope of the criminal activities his boss seemed to have enlisted him for.

Hunter: When we did it, we did it all. We, we hand grenaded, threw it, hand grenaded the people’s houses. We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him; he gave us the money back ah… assassinated people. Ah, what else we did? We smuggled gold. We smuggled weapons. Ah… We took weapons from Jakarta to the Philippines on the ship.

One time I went to Sri, Sri Lanka to buy hand grenades. We have guys in Somalia buying weapons that are making an arm… they were. They was making a army in Somalia because we were gonna invade an island; Maldives just… You can’t make it up.

Male 3: Yeah.

Hunter: Not even in a movie. This is real stuff. You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, “Oh, I can do that.” Well, you’re gonna do it now. Everything you see, or you’ve thought about you’re gonna do. It’s, it’s real and it’s up to you. You know how the government says if you work through the government [U/I] we don’t know you. Same thing with this job. No different right? So, that’s how it is. Same thing you do in the military except you’re doing for these guys you know? If you get caught in war, you get killed, right? Unless you surrender if they let you surrender or if you get you know, the same thing. This is… Everything’s just like you’re in war [U/I] now.

lerouxgale1-1478028611-90.jpg
Paul Le Roux, photographed at a Brazilian airport. 

Here was an American ex-soldier, assisted by other Americans, acting as part of a rogue military-spy operation on behalf of an international criminal figure who, prior to December 2014, the public had never heard of. “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, was by this time a famous figure worldwide. The notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, arrested in a sting in Thailand and convicted in 2011, had been the subject of magazine articles, and a Nicolas Cage movie was based loosely on his exploits. But judging from the brief flurry of stories about Le Roux and the fragmented contents of the case files, he seemed to have a criminal appetite more voracious than either of them. In one Times article, a DEA agent called Le Roux “Viktor Bout on steroids.”

A surveillance photo of Le Roux, taken in an airport in Rio de Janeiro, surfaced from a Brazilian newspaper; it was purportedly the only image of him ever published. It’s a grainy shot of a doughy white man in a royal blue polo, with what appears to be tousled bleach-blond or silver hair and a darker, trim beard. He wears a slightly amused expression and, with the photo blown up, almost looks as if he’s winking at someone.


The thing that eventually led me to the Philippines was practically a footnote in the federal indictment against Hunter. Based on the recordings, prosecutors believed that Hunter “had in fact previously committed acts of violence for pay—including, among other things, arranging for the murders of two female real estate agents.” An afterthought to the case itself, the detail had lodged in my brain when I first read it back in 2013, and I kept returning to it. Why had international assassins for hire, working for a man with a worldwide criminal network taken the time to murder two real estate agents?

One of the murders, it turned out, was easy enough to understand. In the transcripts, Hunter described hiring a pair of hit men to kill a customs broker who’d failed to make good after accepting a bribe. “I guess that they had some kind of business with [the boss],” Hunter says in one transcript. “They get stuff through Customs right? They paid her and she didn’t do it.” After putting her under surveillance at home, unnamed assassins hired by Hunter discovered that the broker also worked as a real estate agent. They asked her to show them some rental properties, Hunter recounts, selected the best one at which to leave a body, and then asked to see it a second time. “They didn’t even go inside. They shot her at the door. Left her there, but it was raining that day so … there was no people out,” Hunter says. “They did it perfect no problems.”

Hunter then goes on to describe the killing of the second real estate agent, one that, by his standards, didn’t go as smoothly.

Hunter: I had two guys, two other guys that wanted bonus work. They did the job, but they did it sloppy. I fired them. I sent them back home.

Four

In mid-summer of 2015, three DEA agents met with Agent Rivera at the Death Investigations Division. “How can I help you guys?” Rivera told me he’d asked them. Rivera walked them through what he’d learned about the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to recap the investigation’s key points. When he finished, Rivera asked them jokingly, “From one to ten, how would you rate my investigation?” Everyone laughed. He asked them why they were looking at the Lee incident. “For the U.S. government to be interested in the death of Catherine Lee, it means something,” he said. “The Drug Enforcement Administration of the U.S. is a powerful organization. It handles global drug issues. So, in my mind, I can surmise that the death of Catherine Lee might have been connected to a drug cartel.”

When I visited him later that year, Rivera pulled out an iPad clad in a red case and tapped open the presentation. “Probably I can show you this, but not all,” he said, emphasizing that the witnesses would be in extreme danger if their identities were made public.

The DEA agents confirmed that Rivera’s hunch had been right: Bill Maxwell and Tony weren’t the men’s real names. They were not Canadian, nor did they live in the Philippines. The DEA related to him their suspicion that they were two Americans, 41-year-old Adam Samia and 47-year-old Carl David Stillwell, who lived in the small town of Roxboro, North Carolina.

The DEA agents had arrived in Manila with evidence from Hunter’s email and the recordings taken at the safe house in Thailand. Hunter, it seemed, had used his network of defense-contractor contacts as a mercenary-recruitment service on behalf of his boss. Sometime in 2011, the U.S. was prepared to allege, he had pegged Samia and Stillwell as potential hires for bonus work. “Boss says you are on standby until the other guy is ready and you guys will come here together for Ninja stuff,” Hunter wrote Samia in the fall of that year, according to the prosecution’s filings. “We want you guys, but are just waiting until you and your partner can get on the same time table.”

By early December, Hunter reported back to the boss via email that the travel dates were set for January. “Adam will be leaving on the 8th and will be here on the 9th and the other guy will leave on the 10th and be here on the 11th. The WU”—Western Union, according to court filings—“of $1,625 goes to Adam Samia Roxboro, North Carolina USA.”

The plan was for the pair—whom Hunter referred to as “Sal” and “J.T.”—to fly to Manila, take taxis to a predetermined location, and get settled. The instructions were almost absurdly detailed, given the trip’s ultimate goal. “The taxi should cost like 220p with the tip,” Samia passed along to Stillwell on January 9. A few weeks later, Samia emailed Hunter an update, mixed with a chipper plea for additional cash:

Hey Bro we are going to need some OP funds ($3000.00) we both are just about broke we have spent all are money on finding a place to live, the car, phone load, food, taxi’s looking for a place to live, internet, stuff for here an more. I got them to throw a bed an ac so the boss does not have to buy them trying to save were I can!

Hunter, meanwhile, was requesting the necessary weapons for the job from the boss: “1 MP5 SD,” a semiautomatic rifle, along with “1 Rifle Silenced with optics” and “1 .22 or 380 Pistol Silenced.” Hunter set his charges up with more money, along with the weapons and a laptop bag “modified to hold the tool for concealment.”

By February 2, the DEA believed, Samia and Stillwell had begun tracking their target, following her car and staking out her home from a hardware store across the street. “She goes home there,” Samia allegedly reported to Stillwell, “but [is] always out of the house.” At some point not long after, they finally made contact with her and started looking at properties. Hunter, as he would describe it later in taped conversations, had given them detailed instructions on how to proceed with the hit: Get her into a car, drive a quarter-mile down the road, shoot her with a silenced handgun, and wrap her in a blanket.

“What these guys did, they didn’t listen to me,” Hunter says in one recorded conversation. “They went to all these different houses with her, where there was people living in the houses. So every house they went to, people saw them together. They saw their faces. They saw the real estate agent. So they went… They did this for like three different days. So like one hundred people saw them.”

One hundred may have been an exaggeration, but Hunter was right that enough witnesses had seen two men with Lee that Rivera could generate sketches of them.

Hunter: So I got them on the plane. They were Americans so I got them back to America and then ah, I, I never… I didn’t give them anymore work because they put everyone in danger. I told them “You know how they would get caught? If the police and the Philippines was smart and not lazy, all they had to do was take the witnesses to the airport and look at each picture [U/I] of the foreigners and, and then that’s “Oh, that’s the guy!” Then they have his… they have his passport, his photo, right, but the police in the Philippines aren’t smart and they don’t… they’re lazy. They don’t do nothing. So those guys were lucky.… You got to use your brain in this job.

According to the DEA, on February 14 Samia and Stillwell emailed their expenses to Hunter. On the 27th, Samia let him know that “JT is rolling state side the 29th of FEB, I am heading out the 6th of March, I will drop [off] the car the 5th.” They wired their payments home and caught flights back to the U.S.

Five

Rivera introduced his DEA visitors to the witnesses he had interviewed about Lee’s last days. The agents showed them photos of the two Americans, Rivera told me, “mingled with seven or eight different photos of seven or eight different individuals, to check if the witnesses recognized or could identify the picture.” Five witnesses picked out the same men, Rivera recalled, saying, “‘Yes, this is the guy who rode with us.’ ‘This is the guy who rode with Catherine Lee.’ ‘This is the other guy who was with Catherine Lee the day she was last seen alive.’” Rivera said that after those sessions, one of the DEA agents faxed a report back to the States. The next day, Samia and Stillwell were arrested in Roxboro.

stillwell14-1478028611-90.jpg
Carl David Stillwell (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)
samia146160-1478029125-51.jpg
Adam Samia (Photo: Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Local media reports described the pair as well-liked local guys who ran a small gun-paraphernalia company together.They traveled to gun shows to market accessories of their own invention, including a bra that doubled as a holster, called a Bosom Buddy. Agents seized over 150 weapons from Stillwell’s home. But aside from a few pictures on Samia’s Facebook page showing him brandishing and firing a variety of weapons—the kind of gun love that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most rural communities in America—they did not otherwise give off the impression of being international assassins. “Just knowing that these people have been in our community,” a neighbor told reporters, “I never would have guessed it.” The day after their arrest, the pair were transferred to New York to be prosecuted alongside Joseph Hunter. Both have pleaded not guilty to murder-for-hire, among other charges.

For his part, Rivera seemed pleased with the arrests, but he also expressed frustration about his own continuing investigation. The agents had told him about the Filipino who allegedly supplied the weapon and vehicle, but he still didn’t have enough information to track them down. He pointed out to me that the NBI hadn’t gotten any credit for the arrests of Samia and Stillwell, while at the same time suggesting that such credit was unnecessary. “We were not included. We were happy about that, it’s no problem with us. We have nothing to gain with being famous.”

It did seem odd to me, sitting in a cubicle at the Death Investigations Division, that the U.S. government would put this much effort into prosecuting two Americans for a murder of a Filipino woman outside Manila. Why not just extradite the pair to the Philippines, where the crime occurred, and hand them off to the NBI? Perhaps it was related to something more fundamental about the case that I still didn’t understand: Why was Catherine Lee important enough to fly two men across the world and pay them $70,000 to kill her?

It was because of “the Mastermind,” Rivera told me. “He is in U.S. custody.” Rivera would only identify this Mastermind at first by alluding to his role as the head of a powerful crime syndicate. But he did tell me the motive behind the murder. Rivera said that the Mastermind had enlisted Catherine Lee to purchase vacation property in Batangas, a coastal region south of Manila. He had given her money, at least 50 million pesos, or almost $3 million. “But the deal never materialized,” Rivera said, “because the person who Catherine Lee instructed to do the verification of the land, to arrange the deeds and everything, went off with the money.”

That person, some kind of fixer Lee worked with, had also been killed, Rivera believed. “The body was never found,” he said.

And then the Mastermind had ordered Lee’s murder, too.

screenshot1-1478028612-25.png
A previously unpublished photograph of Paul Le Roux.

I asked him if he would tell me the name of the Mastermind, and at first he demurred. He did have a name, he said, but he didn’t want to say it. “Maybe it’s an alias.”

“If I tell you the name that I think it is, will you tell me if that’s the person?”

“I will confirm,” he said.

“Paul Le Roux.”

Rivera slammed his fist down on the table, then held my gaze for several seconds in silence. “Hey, they did not inform me that,” he finally said with a smile that was hard to read. The DEA, he said, would “neither confirm nor deny it.” Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “This Paul Le Roux,” he said, “is a very badass guy.” He widened his eyes. “A bad guy,” he said again. “That’s it.”


Update: On March 6, prosecutors released a bombshell motion in the case, claiming that Carl David Stillwell retained cell-phone photos dated the day of Catherine Lee’s murder—photos that “appear to depict, among other things, a white van similar to the one in which (according to witness accounts) Lee was murdered and a wounded human head.”


Read the next installment in “The Mastermind.”