In “Breaking Bad,” Walter White went from ineffectual nonentity to super-competent tough guy and moral monster, and millions of us couldn’t look away. The true-life story of Paul Le Roux offers the same binge-caliber morbid fascination. Two new books seek to give Le Roux his full, grisly measure. Evan Ratliff’s “The Mastermind” and “Hunting LeRoux” by Elaine Shannon drop with TV and movie adaptations — from all-A-list Noah Hawley and the Russo brothers, and Michael Mann, respectively — already in the works. There’s a boomlet on in scandal and skullduggery: Blood-testing scam Theranos is the subject of upcoming HBO and ABC documentaries plus a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, while Netflix and Hulu documentaries spotlight faux music festival Fyre. But Le Roux makes Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and Fyre impresario Billy McFarland look like milquetoasts.
“The Mastermind” chronicles Le Roux’s metamorphosis from garden-variety misanthropic nerd with mad coding skills (born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, beguiled as a teen by programming’s power “to create worlds in code”) to sociopathic kingpin. It’s unclear why a doted-on kid from a well-off home broke bad, but Ratliff surmises that discovering at 30 he was adopted flicked a switch. Whatever the catalyst, his arc thereafter is one of exhilarating human agency, moral vacuity and abject depravity that intersects with the storylines of our time — failed states, war in Iraq and Afghanistan that washed up footloose vets and ex-military contractors in the fleshpots of Manila as bagmen and muscle for Le Roux’s ventures, and the opioid epidemic.
Principally though he was the master criminal of the “move fast and break things” age of internet capitalism. Like other tech founders of the 2000s, Le Roux saw an opportunity for web-based disruption and went big, fast. His internet pharmacy shipped pain meds by the pallet to U.S. consumers, grossing $250 million a year at its peak. Shunning controlled painkillers and recruiting real doctors to issue prescriptions — based on “patient” responses to online quizzes — plus accredited chemists to fulfill orders, Le Roux could have been acclaimed a visionary in telemedicine, had he stopped there, Ratliff remarks. But he went fully black hat with his next move, parlaying the proceeds into a globe-girdling agglomeration of criminal enterprises that dealt drugs and weapons to and from rogue regimes, warlords, terrorists and street gangs.
“The Mastermind” is a tour de force of shoe-leather reporting — undertaken, amid threats and menacing, at considerable personal risk. Ratliff’s reportage unfolds in crisp, atmospheric prose, and he brings a dispassionate eye to a milieu lousy with unreliable narrators, triangulating where possible to separate fact from legend.
Ratliff anatomizes an operation — traversing shell corporations, safe houses, precious metal stashes and an in-house skunkworks staffed by Romanian engineers functioning as a pop-up military contractor — that trafficked coveted North Korean methamphetamine (the real Heisenberg “blue”), peddled an explosives recipe to Iran, sought to produce a guidance system for Iranian missiles and mocked up a mini-submarine for stealthy transit of contraband. Le Roux’s “throw money or people at the wall and see what sticks” strategy suggests a warped, demented venture capitalist. Opportunities he staked out in lawless locales — for instance, partnering with Somali pirates on a fishing venture (also an ahead-of-its-time exercise in capacity building, suggests Ratliff) — gave new meaning to subprime investing. He presided over his fiefdom from an aerie atop a luxury Manila high-rise using an encrypted laptop, a shifting cast of hatchet men and a scheming mind that never slept.
But business convention wasn’t the only thing he broke. Underlings suspected of being on the take were terrorized (tossed in the ocean, raked over with machine gunfire; their homes firebombed) or murdered (he admitted to ordering seven killings), and he didn’t shrink from lending his hit men a hand. He took a baseball bat to a date who declined to gratify him and delegated employees to procure women from Filipino villages and install them at his properties — for pleasure, but also so he could sire “a trusted brigade of his own offspring.”
Le Roux’s undoing was his zeal for the deal. Flagging the volume of his online pill slinging, drug enforcement officials in Minneapolis were on his trail from 2007. But by 2012 the breadth of his dealings had landed him in the crosshairs of the DEA’s special ops “960 group.” Agents cooked up a blockbuster coke-for-meth-and-meth-labs deal with a Colombian cartel to lure him to Liberia, where he was collared. In custody, he went undercover to reel in criminal associates. Which explains why this may be the first you’re hearing of Le Roux: His capture six-plus years ago went unannounced, and details of his crimes seeped out — reported in the New York Times and other outlets — only through his testimony at the trials of confederates he helped nab.
But this endgame is no mere coda, and it’s worth shifting here to “Hunting LeRoux,” which advertises its inside track on the DEA sting.
This yields precious insight. Shannon’s description of the ruthlessly transactional Le Roux recalibrating his new reality — “eyes twinkling like a computer rebooting” — to turn informer aboard the plane from Liberia, is priceless. In detention, agents equip him with a laptop, setting up the pretense he’s still at large to choreograph the roundup of his confreres (like a latter-day Howard Hughes, he managed much of his operation remotely though proxies, so, even incarcerated, he barely skipped a beat). “Faced with a keyboard and monitor, he entered a trancelike state geeks call zombie mode.”
But “Hunting LeRoux’s” F-bombs-flying smell-the-funk “proximity” to the action comes wreathed in fumes from its high-octane prose: “With his imposing 350-pound physique, anvil-shaped forehead, and blue-black eyes that gleam like lit cigarettes, [Le Roux] strides into a room and takes command, projecting the menacing gravitas of an absolutely powerful medieval monarch, a Gilded Age robber baron, or a Wagnerian antihero.” Or, “He loved the Iranian missile guidance project, and nothing and no-one else.”
Shannon valorizes the DEA takedown and plays up the villainy of the lowlives Le Roux helped bust. But the deal he cut opened the door to a more lenient sentence for himself. Were officials played?
Le Roux dangled the prospect of helping agents infiltrate Iran and North Korea’s arms and meth-dealing networks. Instead, after determining that — short of running him as an asset in the field — they didn’t have enough to go on, they moved to roll up “the LeRoux criminal network.”
But, as Shannon notes, Le Roux ran a bare-bones shop, analogous to a “lean startup” and used “the gig economy to procure contract mercenaries and temp workers.” Three of the scalps he brought in had no prior dealings with him.
“Most of the people … LeRoux … helped the DEA catch had become criminals entirely at his behest,” adds Ratliff. “[B]alanced against what the DEA knew about Le Roux it was hard not to think that he had manipulated them into overlooking the gravity of his own crimes.”
A 960 group source tells Ratliff he expects Le Roux to draw 15 years. With time served, this would give him back his liberty — with, by agents’ own reckoning, much of his fortune still intact — in his 50s.
As of this writing, Le Roux may have saved his best deal for last.
William Morrow; pp. 368, $27.99