Can a reclusive coder become a criminal mastermind?: Journalist and author Evan Ratliff spent four years piecing together the story of Paul Le Roux, a programmer who began by selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of painkillers through an online prescription drug network— but he didn’t settle. The rest of Le Roux’s story spirals into a grim parody of startup culture not even a novelist could’ve dreamed up. In this episode Paul and Rich sit down with Ratliff to discuss his new book, The Mastermind, the true account of the decade-long pursuit of Le Roux. What happens when expertise on information security and internet infrastructure falls into the wrong hands? What could have become of the villainous tech-savvy entrepreneur? What can the tech world take away from this eerie chain of events?
Rich Ziade I have—I have an incredible dark web story that is beyond the scope of this podcast.
Paul Ford Well that’s—that’s brutal for the listeners.
RZ Well, see, I’ll give you the 30 second intro then—
PF I think we’ve told this story.
RZ I think we might have but I had an ignorant but wonderful friend who got in trouble, and called me up and said, “Rich, do you know anything about the dark web?”
PF It turns out he had put his name into the Ashley Madison website.
RZ Before it leaked.
PF So he wanted to get us to go on the dark web.
RZ I think all he meant was the part of the web that has bad news . . . [laughing] which is the web [laughs].
PF It’s now the web [intro music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Rich, have you ever heard of . . . the dark web?
RZ I have. I’ve heard of it but I don’t have like a good, solid definition in my head, so you should define it.
PF Well, look, let’s talk to somebody about it [ok] and about—this is a cheerful place that does work for clients in a very [music fades out] public way, right? But there is a very bad internet out there. Like, not just people saying weird stuff on Twitter but people doing Crimes with a capital ‘C’.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And . . . someone who has gone deep, deep into the world, the criminal underworld of the internet, is here today with us. And that’s Evan Ratliff.
RZ And—and he’s ok. And—
PF He’s ok. He came back.
RZ He came back and he looks ok.
Evan Ratliff I feel ok.
RZ Ok [laughs wheezily].
PF Yeah, you’re wearin’ a sweater.
ER Uh it’s not just a sweater; it’s a cardigan.
PF Let’s talk to Evan Ratliff who has written a book called The Mastermind.
RZ Talk about the title. You just—did you do the title at the end? You’re like, “What am I gonna name this?”
ER No, I started with the title.
ER Yeah. I had the title from the very beginning—
PF Did you Amazon search, like have there been other books called The Mastermind?
ER There’s a very good book called Mastermind about scam artists.
PF But you’re like, “I’m gonna get that ‘the’ in there.”
ER But the ‘the’ is different and there’s only so many titles out there, really. So [it’s true] there’s not so much you can do. But I—I called it The Mastermind partly because when I started doing reporting and it’s about this guy Paul Le Roux and I was like trying to figure out who Paul Le Roux was—I started talkin’ to people and people would say things like, “I won’t say his name; he’s the mastermind.” People would say shit like that [Paul whistles in amazement] to me, so.
PF Like Voldemort.
PF So that’s exciting [Rich laughs].
ER So then I thought, “Well, it is—it’s very enticing.” So, I hung onto that.
PF Alright, so, first of all, tell us about what did the bad man do?
ER [Laughs] It’s like what didn’t the bad man do? Is kinda what the book is about. I mean he’s a tech entrepreneur [yeah]. So, he actually started out as a—a programmer who wrote encryption software. So, in his sort of early years he wrote this piece of encryption software called Encryption for the Masses, E4M, eh—
PF That sounds—that sounds really useful to people who need privacy.
ER Incredibly useful. He released in ‘99. It actually then became the basis of TrueCrypt which is like [mm hmm] one of the more famous disc encryption programs.
PF Well this is a pretty early stage like—
PF—serious person working in encryption.
ER Yes! And participating in the open source software movement. He gave away E4M for free and he actually became kind of embittered by that, giving away the software for free, watching other people commercialize it—
RZ Mm hmm.
ER—not making any money. He was having a really hard time. There were rich people all around him. It’s like 1990, 2000. And so he decided to get into online pharmaceuticals. And he developed an online pharmaceutical network which was brilliant in its construction. And he made hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers to Americans.
PF This was illegal.
RZ Well this is where it gets funny, right?
ER Yeah, best described as grey area at the time [yeah].
ER The ones that he was selling—the painkillers he was selling were not controlled substances. So they were not on the scheduled substances like—like oxycontin or something.
PF Right so he was selling like “lycodin” and “moxycontin”.
ER [Laughs] Kind of. They were like Tramadol is one of ‘em [gotcha]. Lorcet’s one of ‘em. Soma’s one of ‘em. So they are addictive painkillers; they were not scheduled; you still need a prescription, but the way he had set up the network was that American doctors and American pharmacies were his distribution network. So he recruited them into this network. So if you wanted some Tramadol, you might just Google Tramadol at the time or—
ER And then—
PF “My back hurts.”
ER—all these sites would show up [mm hmm] and then you go to one of the sites, looks just like any ecommerce site; you get some Tramadol; you put it in your cart; you have to fill out a survey: “what’s your condition?” “What’s your”—you know “have you had a [stammers] medical examination in the last year?” You just fill that out, and then that would go to a real doctor, and the doctor would approve your prescription, write a prescription, but virtually, and then that would go to a real pharmacy, and like the pharmacy was—The one I write about in the book is like a 70-something year old pharmacist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin who was like trying to compete with big box retailers, didn’t have any web presence—
RZ Shipping out.
PF And every now and then a pick up truck filled with Tramadol would just come and drop ‘em off.
ER Well he would—he would—he would send them out through FedEx and so then the umbrella organization which is Paul Le Roux’s organization, RX Limited, they’re handling all of the digital part plus the FedEx account and so—
RZ And taking their cut.
ER—like millions and millions of doses are shipped out from that.
PF This is a perfect VC backed product company with the exception of the grey market part because it’s a market.
RZ This is, I mean, not unlike, you know, Viagra and like erectile dysfunction stuff also exploded like that on the internet [yeah] cuz people didn’t wanna go their doctors or whatever.
ER One of the smartest things about it was all the—he had the whole like tech stack, basically. So, when they would try to, for instance, have the URLs shut down, like go to registrars and say like, “Ok, shut down rxpills.com.” He had actually created his own domain registrar in The Philippines; gotten it officially approved by ICANN so that he [ok] was just minting his domains. So you couldn’t shut him down. He would just make more.
PF Oh so he was full stack in a way that we don’t even think about. Like—
RZ I mean, he was aiming to be as independent as possible.
RZ He wanted to eliminate any sort of avenues to—to curtail what he was doing.
ER Yeah and to get to him. So—
RZ Successfully! It sounds like.
ER Very successfully and he had an incredible business and then he had call centres in The Philippines and Israel to handle the customer service and outbound marketing and everything. And then what he decided to do with his money was to get into real, like, on-the-ground crime all over the world. So like arms dealing; cocaine dealing; methamphetamine; he started a militia in Somalia—
ER—he was doing gold dealing in Africa; he sold arms to Iran; he was getting methamphetamine out of North Korea. So he just like—he decided to leverage his online success into a like conglomerate of the biggest crimes that you could think of.
RZ Ok so—
PF So it’s the opposite of philanthropy [crosstalk]—He was just sort of like, “I—I need to make the world much, much worse.”
RZ So wait, is he—is he known as Joe Smith [ha!] at this point?
ER Uh at the time he’s doing all this?
ER No, I mean he would surface in the news a couple of times over the years. So he started the pharmaceutical business in 2004 and then you could find a little bit about him online cuz he was doing weird stuff like he tried to lobby the US government to buy a bunch of land in Zimbabwe. He’s from South Africa, by the way. He was born in Zimbabwe and raised partly their, partly in South Africa.
PF Who is coming after him? By the way. Is it like the feds? Like what?
ER Yeah, the DEA.
PF Ok. The FBI or the DEA.
RZ This is tricky. I mean, this is big.
ER He actually, as they were tracking him, he started pulling his name off stuff. So [mm hmm] his name used to be on the—on the servers at the pure locations and it used to be on the websites and then he started [mixing it up] hiding. He was getting kind of encased in these layers so it would be harder to get to him [sure] and then he was living in The Philippines; he had bought off the authorities and the government in The Philippines for protection. So he had like people bought off inside the US embassy. So when the DEA went after him he knew. Like he could track them, what they were looking at.
ER And so that’s part of the reason why it took so long to catch him and he was really unknown to the world for many, many years except for occasionally surfacing [ok] in kind of like weird hot spots like Somalia.
PF Did he have a very large house with lots of burly men and guns?
ER He did.
ER He had—he had many houses in The Philippines and penthouse condos and then his burly guys with guns were mercenaries that he had hired. Some ex US military, ex British military, ex South African military guys who kind of had worked in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then were out of work, and they would do anything for him, including intimidate and kill people. So he had a kill team that he would send out to take care of people.
PF Well now we just got—no, ok. Ok.
RZ Now we’re in the big leagues.
PF That’s really bad! Don’t—don’t do that.
RZ I imagine big granite lions.
PF Yeah. Me too. Does he have a family?
ER He does have a family. Yeah, yeah [oh boy] he was married and had kids.
PF How do you get in the story? Are you one day like, “I just wanna get a little Tramadol, just sort of see what’s happening [others laugh], fire up your Tor Browser. Like what—what—how’d you get into this?
ER Basically, one of his mercenary guys, a guy named Joseph Hunter, whose nickname is literally Rambo. Everyone called him Rambo [someone snickers]. If you see a picture of him, you’re like, “Oh that man looks like a mercenary.” He’s like an MMA fighter [mm hmm]. Um he was arrested in 2013 in a sting operation by the DEA where he was part of a kill team that was gonna kill a DEA agent. And that was in the news [yeah]. And so that’s the first time I heard about any part of this organization. Paul Le Roux’s name was still not very public at that time but that’s when I started reporting on who was Joseph Hunter and where did this team come from and it kind of like all went from there.
PF And it’s got this tech angle so you’re sort of like, “What—what—” Like how’s that all fitting together? Ok. Ok.
ER Yeah. And like how did a guy who’s like he’s basically the—the like prototypical tech founder in some ways like—and then he starts a venture in a market and it just it follows this like startup story and that really fascinated me.
PF Julian Assange is like this too. Like he wrote, you know, the Unix anagram finder and released it open source and just like oh ok. And then one day his ideology takes over and he’s like Wikileaks and then the crazy starts happening.
RZ I think what’s distinct here though is he’s got that just ambition.
RZ Right? I mean.
RZ I mean it’s not money at that point. You said he made a ton of money of the—the drugs.
ER Yeah, it’s one of those things, you know—
RZ Just kept going.
ER Yeah, you look at any of those guys or Elon Musk and you’re like, “Well, you could just stop now and you could just—you’re fine.” It’s like, “No, I need more. I need bigger.” And he would say the same kinds of things like just wanting to grow the organization or just, “I love big deals. I just wanna make bigger deals,” you know? He was [what else are you gonna do? Yeah] obsessed with growth for no particular reason. He didn’t need more money.
RZ Right, right.
PF So he is like a grim parody of startup culture.
ER I think so.
RZ We’re still early. What year are we now?
ER 2010, I would say. He was like deep into all of these—
PF Big recession, too. Good hiring. You could get some great people for not a lot of money.
RZ A lot of opportunity.
PF Yeah. Yeah.
ER Yeah, yeah. Then, you know, the DEA started closing in on him a little bit and they also were moving to—to make the drugs controlled, the ones that he was working on. So by 2012 they start to—I think that’s when—or maybe in late 2011 is when Soma, one of the big three drugs got controlled, and then the other two got added later but they were kind of circling around him. And so then he did this insane thing where he moved from The Philippines to Brazil. He was gonna sort of restart in Brazil. He had a new shell company registered there and new people there. He was doing a lot of cocaine trafficking out of South America anyway. And then [Rich laughs] [wow] he tried to he basically paid these women for him to impregnate them, so that he would have Brazilian children. So it would be difficult to extradite him from Brazil. So he was basically like having children in order to establish a foothold in Brazil which worked! Actually because they were like, “We can’t get ‘em out of Brazil.” But then they lured him to Liberia which is where he was arrested.
RZ So he just keeps pivoting and tweaking and changing—like if we keep running with the Amazon metaphor, the impregnation of Brazilian women is like the Amazon Echo. That shows up, it’s like, “Why would Amazon do that?” [Evan chuckles] Right?
PF Well cuz you’re trying to build a platform.
RZ You’re trying to build a platform.
PF You’re trying to build a global platform.
RZ I’m trying to understand how people live their lives.
PF No, and if you—we talk a lot about the concept of lock in.
PF I’m just sort of fascinated by the level of malevolence here, right? It’s—so did you ever talk to this person? Is that in the book?
ER I did not speak to him. He testified for many, many hours. So most of the questions that I would’ve asked him got asked [hmm]. I didn’t get to sit across from him—
PF Where is he now?
ER He is incarcerated here. He’s in jail in New York City.
PF Oh! So like he and El Chapo are like passing notes.
ER Yeah. I assume they’re both in some sort of isolation [yeah] well El Chapo at least—
PF I would not put them together. I wouldn’t put ‘em together.
ER Well, there is a crazy story which comes at the end of the book which is about who they did put him with.
PF Oh no.
ER They put him with this hacker named Mir Islam who was part of this hacking group called UGNazi. They housed him adjacent to Le Roux, in the same kind of small population, and then Mir Islam got out and was communicating with Paul Le Roux to like restart his business in The Philippines.
PF Oh boy!
RZ See why would you do—just look at the roster, like just look at the—
PF You know you think that the warden of that prison is like, “You know what? I shouldn’t put—” Like—
RZ I guess everything would clash with that guy.
PF Have you ever been to the staffing meeting in this company? What that’s like when you try to like—[Rich laughs]
ER Yeah I don’t the HR files on people—
PF Yeah, they’re not like—no one is prison is like, “Oh man, those guys have, you know, don’t put that product manager with that designer [Evan laughs] [yeah] and if you put a frontend and backend guy together, you’re gonna get [music fades in] a whole platform!” Like that’s not how they’re filling the cells.
RZ Yeah, fair [music plays alone for seven seconds, ramps down].
PF Rich, let’s interrupt this and tell the people that we can do all the things that they do in The Mastermind but legally, for good things.
RZ Yes. We actually have many clients that are NGOs; and also we just, you know, we think thoughtfully and ethically about the kind of business we take.
PF We work for heavily regulated international finance organizations and [Rich laughs] media organizations that follow codes of journalistic ethics. So if you like following the rules of world and want something beautifully built, quickly and well, by good, talented, ethical people, firstname.lastname@example.org [music fades in]. Now let’s get back to the murder guy [Rich laughs] [music plays alone for six seconds, ramps down].
RZ So, he’s in Brazil.
ER He’s in Brazil—
RZ He’s made some moves to sort of lock himself in there so they can’t extradite him.
ER Yeah. So—so [and] these are real spoilers. So people can like pause and read the book and come back or—or not. So, he’s in Brazil, he—he feels somewhat secure there but then another part of the DEA called the 960 Group which is—goes after narco terrorist people at the intersection of drugs and terrorism, they got very interested in Le Roux and they designed these like high-end sting operations all over the world. So they got a former employee of his to—to sort of re-enter his organization and lure him into a trap, and the trap was over a deal that they were setting up for him, a big deal with a Colombian cartel.
ER So, that’s—that’s how they eventually got him somewhere where they could arrest him and quickly get him out of the country and bring him to the US.
RZ And this is when?
ER This was 2012.
RZ Ok. And then brought back in 2012; there’s a big, fantastic trial.
ER No! They kept him in complete secrecy because then they wanted to use him to catch other people [uh, got it]. So they pretended to the world of his employees that he was still out there [somewhere] cuz he would always disappear. I mean he could work from anywhere [sure] and they never knew where he was [right] and so—
RZ I mean the world is a connected place, Paul, with VPN you’re kind of set.
PF It’s true. I wonder if they wear blue jeans, Google Hangouts—
PF Zoom. This—
RZ We just—we just alienated three potential clients right there.
PF This definitely sounds like a Zoom kind of organization.
RZ Yeah, it’s feeling Zoom?
PF Actually, you know what this is? Is a . . . webinars. Like they do the webinars—
RZ He’s webinaring to run his business?
PF Yeah, yeah, yeah, anyway. Um.
ER Well he did have—you guys would appreciate there were these—I only put a little bit of it in the book but like, you know, he was, at some level, like a very, very accomplished programmer [right!]. He would create his own email servers, encrypted email servers, so that even if you had a search warrant you couldn’t get into them.
PF This is very poor delegation overall though.
ER Yes. And! He would also try to get these employees to use encryption [mm hmm] like to use—at first he was trying to get them to use TrueCrypt for their—for their computers and also like PGP for email before he wrote his own.
PF This is—it’s so hard.
ER So can you imagine? These are like—these are mercenaries.
PF Have you ever tried to use PG—Like I mean it’s—I—I—I write my email in Emacs, I can’t—
RZ I have an advanced degree and I don’t use PGP [chuckles].
PF No, I know.
ER Well that was—they would describe like these guys like yelling at each other [Rich laughs] over—and I could just like, I could totally relate to it like I—I yell at my computer [yeah] when I’m trying to use PGP and [oh—] but he would get so angry at them, and he’d be like, “I can’t even read your fucking emails! You’re not doing it right!” It’s just like [sighs].
PF This is what happens. He—he couldn’t give up programming—
RZ It’s ambition, ya know?
PF Yeah but it’s dangerous for a CEO. He should’ve delegated to—
RZ Oh you’re talking about—this is the management—
PF Yeah I mean he shoulda—
PF It should’ve gone to the CTO and he said, “I want a secure environment”.
PF And, you know, you have to pay ‘em three times or four times as much but—
RZ Alright, so he’s in secrecy! They’re using him to lure other people.
PF And he has severe product problems throughout his organization.
RZ Poor delegation.
PF [Laughing] What is the infrastructure?
RZ Wait a minute! No, no. We’re messin’ it up. He’s in jail.
ER He’s in jail at this point.
RZ He’s secretly in jail. He’s not doing anything really. They’re trying to make it look like he’s doing something.
ER Yeah, so they would just take him out of jail during the day and he would send a bunch of emails and make a bunch of calls, and then they’d put him back in.
RZ Oh boy. Ok.
ER So his employees are just sort of—
PF [Breathily] Wow.
ER—think he is working and also he’s got new deals and new plans and so they kind of like—
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ER—being sent all over the world to do new things and meet with new people and it doesn’t occur to them that those new people all happen to work for the DEA.
PF Oh! So this is a real flaw in the truly decentralized organization, right? Which is that at anytime a hostile actor could make one of the nodes start to behave as if everything was still normal while—
RZ Even though everything’s been compromised.
PF—while they were gathering intel.
ER Yeah, you need some sort of verification, ongoing verification that you’re actually dealing with the same person you were dealing with before—I guess they were dealing with the same person.
RZ But you are! I don’t know how you could verify that.
ER I don’t think they could solve that.
PF As I like—As I like to say as the CEO of Postlight: you have to cut the snake off at the head [pregnant pause].
RZ You’ve never said that [laughter].
PF No, I’ve never—imagine me at like an all hands, “Ok everybody”.
RZ No, I’ve never heard that from you.
PF Um, how long is he in prison for?
ER That’s—that’s as yet not known. He hasn’t been sentenced yet. And he’d [ah]—he’d cooperated. He provided significant cooperation, so it’s quite variable what sentence he—
PF [Sighs] He’s gonna be out in five years and he’s gonna start a show called Shark Tank but it’s literally him just putting people in a shark tank.
RZ How—how is Netflix not all over this?
ER It is—
RZ It’s airtight.
ER There are people it is in development. I’ll say that. It’s—yeah. It’s with—with really great people, too, the Russo brothers and Noah Hawley and the producers of The Walking Dead.
RZ Ok, has it been cast?
ER No, it’s not at that stage.
RZ Ok. Alright, let’s cast it, Paul.
PF Well, what’s the guy look like?
ER He’s a big guy. He’s—let’s see he’s a few years older than me, he’s now—he was born in 1972 so he’s—
ER When he was out he would often like bleach—bleach his hair. Like, he had bleach blonde hair. He has a—he has a—he has a huge head.
RZ Like hide his identity? Bleaching the head? Or?
PF No, nobody does that. You don’t do that to hide—
ER No, he’s very recognizable.
RZ That doesn’t help? [Laughs]
PF You do that because you watched like Johnny Mnemonic seven times [Rich laughs]. You’re in a virtual reality.
RZ Alright, let’s—I—I got the lead. Elliot Gould.
PF Too old.
PF Josh Brolin.
RZ Josh Brolin.
PF Or is this guy a talker?
ER Yeah. He’s a talker.
PF Who’s like a fast talker big dude? John C. Reilly!
ER John C. Reilly could be good. He’s add a little—a little like a—
PF A little comedy.
ER—a comedic—I mean the ultimate—the person who would’ve been perfect would’ve been Philip Seymour Hoffman.
PF Got it!
ER Absolutely perfect.
PF Genuinely nerdy but also just like—
RZ Well that’s depressing.
RZ That’s sad.
PF Is there like a strong female lead in this narrative?
ER Yes! As a matter of fact, one of the Minneapolis investigators is an investigator named Kimberly Brill who—she was really the person who, when no one would pay any attention to this guy—
PF It’s her crazy wall.
ER She was like—Yeah. She was like, “No, no, you have to understand like he’s—it’s huge! Like the thing is huge,” and people would say like, you know, kind of pat on the head.
PF Well, it’s gotta be really hard too because you’re like, “It goes to DNS!” And everybody’s like [skeptically] , “Yeah [Rich laughs], ok”.
RZ You know the pinboard—where there’s all kinds of like—
PF Yeah, the crazy wall. That’s the crazy wall.
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ER Well yeah and first like she and her partner when she started out, they had to teach themself all that stuff. So [right] like domain servers, all that. I mean they’d been trained on a little bit of it but there was [no, I mean—] no one to tell them what it was and so they figured it out all on their own. Then they tried to explain it.
PF This guy’s a world class expert on information security and internet infrastructure. Like one—clearly one of the best in the world. Like you don’t pull that stuff off without—
RZ Probably delayed things years.
PF There’s clearly like 70 points where this guy coulda said, “Cool. That’s enough. I’m gonna walk away and be incredibly wealthy and powerful for the rest of my life. Do a couple crooked things on the side. But not end up in federal prison in the United States for the rest of my life.”
RZ The angle here—I mean I think it’s amazing the skills he had, right? It’s like John Gotti like fully understanding TCP/IP, right?
PF This is amazing!
RZ Right. Which I think delayed—like that bought him so [yeah] much time.
PF Like if Al Capone could write C. What would that mean?
RZ Yeah [laughs].
ER Well there’s been an example because El Chapo—In the El Chapo trial, he had this IT guy—
PF Oh right.
ER—to come in and write this encrypted communication system and that guy ended up—the—the feds flipped him and that was part of how they got inside his thing. But it’s like imagine if the IT guy was actually running the organization, he’s not someone you hired. That is Paul Le Roux.
PF Well, see, again this is another larger issue which is, you know, the CTO isn’t the CTO anymore. Often they should be the CEO.
RZ Well, [skeptically] yes. Yes. [Paul laughs]
ER But then you get into the management problems that you were talking about before. You also have to be a good manager.
PF That’s the thing. It was great that he had the understanding but his ability to delegate was terrible.
ER And he had, you know, an employee who he—who left, who then he tried to have killed and then that employee, being very unhappy about that, later went to the DEA or the DEA found him and then he went back in the organization and helped lure him to his ultimate arrest. So [see this is why—] you have to be careful with the employees.
RZ Take care of your people.
PF Our first hire was HR.
RZ Direct lines in the relationship between an organization, which is what you could call the mob or a company or what this guy had put together, and each one of those people is a tenuous link. I mean it is right there, right? Like what you say, how you handle, when you let them go. It’s a big process.
PF What blows my mind is that after years and years of working sort of, you know, in tech in general, now I’m management. And everything that I’m hearing about is this familiar like people problem.
ER That was one of the things about Paul Le Roux that was so intriguing was that he—now, once he had wealth, once he was making so much money on the pharmaceuticals, he could get into anything [right]. His strategy was he would send—he would maybe have some very tenuous idea of like, “Ok, I’m gonna get in the cocaine business.”
PF Uh huh.
ER Or, “I’m in the cocaine business. I wanna be further into it. I guess I’ll send a guy to Peru where I’ve heard that there are cartels.” Like literally just send him and be like, “Uh see if you can find some connections.” Someone would just wander around trying to figure out who to talk to.
PF If you have a hundred thousand US dollars like in a—in a bag, you can get a lot done in the world.
ER Exactly. And then eventually, if you get the meeting, you find the real people and they have the real stuff, he would wire them a million dollars. On the spot. And then you’re in business.
PF I bet if you just like had the right search terms on LinkedIn. You know you just—
RZ [Scoffs] I don’t know if it’s in LinkedIn.
PF Tell us a little bit—how’d you—ok, just talk a little bit about your process. It sounds like there was a ton of research to do.
ER Yeah, there was a lot of reporting. So, I mean, I went to a lot of the places where he operated. So I spent a good bit of time in The Philippines; and Hong Kong, where he was laundering his money; Israel, where he had call centers; Brazil, where he ended up.
PF All very warm, I noticed. Interesting.
ER Yeah, they’re not bad places to go. I mean the main thing that I wanted to do was to find people in the organization cuz [ok] a lot of the people never got caught.
ER So, I went and met with mercenaries who had worked for him; people who had worked for the call centers; people who ran his money; all sorts of things; people who moved gold for him, and sort of piecing together the whole organization from all of their perspectives and kind of getting their story. So, that took—I mean I worked on it for five years. So, it took—
PF And he’s not talking to anybody.
ER He’s not talking to anybody, as far as I know. I mean he’s trying to—
PF His—his lawyer.
ER Yeah, his lawyer and his lawyer’s not talking to me. So, I mean, he was forced to testify. So, he—there was a lot about him admitting to [right] murders and other crimes. But yeah and finding people who victims of his or families of victims of his and things like that.
PF Sure. Ok, so five years.
ER Mm hmm.
ER Thank you.
PF It’s a good feeling [Evan chuckling]. Are there are people like this in the world today?
ER I would say yes. I mean he’s a little bit singular in terms of his skills. I mean it’s almost like he made a template and someone’s probably out there like thinking about following it. I mean there’s a lot of focus on the dark web which is really something different in many ways than Le Roux. Like that’s—he was not cryptocurrency; he was not Tor Browsers; he was not trying to access some corner of the web; [no, I mean that’s why he—]. He was like working out in the open like any other retailer on—online retailer.
PF Well you can’t make hundreds of millions of dollars otherwise.
RZ He sought the man. He saw people would buy a thing and went out and sold it.
RZ You know? And—and these are not people that are criminals or part of a network, they’re normal people in the midwest buying drugs.
PF What’s banana cakes here is that this guy—like he’s great at setting up call centers and delivering customer satisfaction. Like he could’ve—there is a way that he could’ve just made hundreds of millions of dollars without actually destroying people’s lives.
RZ The same skills that you build a billion dollar company with.
RZ I mean it’s just—except he, you know, destroyed lives.
RZ Which leads me to my final question: what can just a normal business person, entrepreneur, especially in the technology world, what’s the one thing they can take away from this person?
ER Well. I mean. I think his biggest downfall as a leader of a large organization was, I mean, it was just wanting too much too fast. He didn’t want to have average returns on whatever business he was getting into [growth]. He wanted absolute growth; he wanted 5,000 percent returns. And the only places to get those were in incredibly risky businesses which happen to also be criminal but it—I mean the parallel is just not being satisfied—I guess in the case of—of a company it might be [mm hmm] because you have VC investors or whatever that are—that are demanding a certain growth but like not being satisfied with very healthy, profitable business.
RZ Right. Exac—[laughs]
ER And wanting something that’s many times that size for no real, discernible reason.
RZ Yeah. I mean you touched on it though, this is exactly what VCs expect. If you’ve got, you know, 20 percent year over year growth, that’s really not interesting.
RZ And it has to be explosive and so—for a lack of a better term.
PF Did he get off on the—on that sort of growth or on the power—on like—like there’s a, you know, what makes someone wanna have a Somalian [sic] militia?
ER I think it was all of it. I think it was um he wanted to be notorious in a way, like he wanted to be—
PF The [in deep voice] mastermind.
ER—the biggest criminal in the world.
ER And he would say to people like, “If I ever get caught, I’m gonna be on CNN.”
PF Oh! Ok. Ok.
ER Like he—he—he wanted that.
RZ Damn, he didn’t even pick a major network [all laugh].
ER But he was also like a—It was like he was playing a video game, you know? Like—
ER He was doing it all from his laptop and I think it had that sort of quality of distance between the impacts of what he was doing, you know, he was basically mashing buttons and people were getting killed.
PF It must’ve been fun when you go to like the internet cafe in Rio and no one recognizes you but you’re controlling a giant empire. Like, that’s cool! In a horrible way.
RZ What’s crazy here is—is people’s—when he couldn’t find his charger, people’s lives were spared.
PF Oh! It was bad.
RZ People survived.
PF [Sighs] We joke. This is grim.
RZ This is grim. Anyway, it sounds awesome. I’m—
ER Thank you.
RZ—going to read this. I—
PF I am too.
RZ—wasn’t planning to but it sounds like a lot of fun [Evan laughs].
PF First of all, I’m gonna order it. I’ll probably read it on my digital reading device. I’m assuming it’s available on amazon.com.
ER It is, in fact, available on amazon.com.
PF Is it? I’m gonna buy it at full retail but if I wanted to buy it in a store it sounds like I could do that too.
ER It’s available in—in all of your local and nationwide bookstores.
PF So no one has any excuse. At all. Not to read.
PF The Mastermind . . . by Evan Ratliff [all in deep, dramatic voice] [Rich chuckles].
RZ Thanks so much, Evan. This was good.
ER Thanks, guys.
PF Thanks, I really enjoyed talking to you [music fades in] about—
RZ Really fun.
ER It was great to be here.
PF [In deep voice] The Mastermind [chuckling]. I am fascinated by the fact that guy basically like 80 or 90 percent of what he did was typical startup stuff and then it’s all just crazy criminal evil.
RZ Yeah I’m [stammers]—
PF Like the delta’s not big.
RZ No, I’m struggling with the fact that I admire him in some ways.
PF He’s obviously like his infrastructure ability and his perception but you know he—the fatal flaw there is he wasn’t able to release control and he clearly had problems with product throughout his organization.
RZ Also the fact that he was a horrible person. Even—we talked about, oh, you know, he could’ve just settled for a mildly successful business that only ruined less lives.
PF Well, let’s be clear: this is a murderer. Like this is one of the [yeah]—this is a very [yeah, yeah] low, brutal form of humanity but it is married with this sort of elevated technology skills that we celebrate [yup, yup]. It just goes to show you that life has a loooot of paradoxes.
RZ Jesus, Paul.
PF [Laughs] Look: people need to reach us after this podcast, if there’s any clients left, they should send an email to email@example.com.
RZ Have a great week.
PF Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for six seconds, fades out to end].