"The Mastermind"

I didn’t plan to read Evan Ratliff’s account of the crimes of Paul LeRoux, but after I read the prologue I couldn’t stop. “The Mastermind” is a mesmerizing story of a smart but damaged computer programmer who builds an international criminal network out of nothing but his own innovation and drive. Along the way, Le Roux helps fuel America’s opioid epidemic before getting involved in money laundering, drug smuggling, gun running and murder.

Ratliff spent several years of his life researching and writing this book. He breaks his narrative into two stories. The first story is how the DEA becomes aware of a mysterious person known as Paul Le Roux.

Le Roux coordinates an unheard-of online network that illegally supplies prescription drugs to consumers in the U.S. As the investigation deepens, they find an International network that includes Israel and the Philippines. It’s a fascinating look at the way the government investigative bureaucracy functions as it builds its case, slowly, against a formidable criminal.

The second part of the book tells the story of Le Roux himself—his early life in Southern Africa and how he eventually became a criminal “mastermind.”

A few years ago I remember how my junk e-mail e-mail folders filled with offers from online pharmacies. Now it appears that was largely due to the efforts of Paul Le Roux. His primary innovation was to take advantage of the Internet to create a network of doctors and pharmacies that illegally filled online prescriptions. Through his own computer expertise, Le Roux created encrypted hard drives and e-mails that hid the details of his network of centers, pharmacies, and doctors—most of whom are convinced they are doing legal work.

This prescription drug business nets Le Roux tens of millions of dollars in income. But “the sheer gluttony of his criminal appetite” leads him to expand his business into other, riskier outlets—methamphetamines, cocaine, weapons, small mercenary forces and drones, to name a few. He manages a team of assassins and enforcers. He purchases escape homes at international locations around the world in case he needed a place to hide.

Paul Le Roux is a complicated character, always beyond understanding. Le Roux comes off—and I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear this—as a character in a James Bond film. In recent Bond movies, the main villain often employs a brilliant programmer to enact his nefarious schemes. In this case, the programmer becomes the main villain. I have little doubt that this whole story will find its way into the hands of a talented screenwriter and director.

Ratliff juggles a cast of characters living in the gray areas of crime. In telling this story, Ratliff touches on much of recent history, such as racism and land rights in Southern Africa, the lawlessness of Somalia, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The endless details of Le Roux’s operations and the parallel investigation make this a great read. Readers who like true crime and suspense novels alike should pick up a copy of “The Mastermind.”