One afternoon in late September 2012, Paul Calder Le Roux was sitting in a hotel room in Monrovia, Liberia, working out the final details of a large cocaine and methamphetamine deal with the head of a Colombian drug cartel. As the pair discussed prices and drop-off points, Le Roux—a programmer who had turned an online pharmacy business into a global criminal empire, trafficking in drugs, arms, and violence—reflected aloud on the two ways he kept his criminal organization in line. The first was zero tolerance for stealing: He’d ordered his top lieutenant killed for as much.
The second, he said, was ensuring that employees never informed on him, or the business. “You get caught doing anything, remember: You keep your mouth shut,” he would tell them. There were those, we went on, who “get afraid in jail and then they think that the government is going to help them. They think the government is their best friend.” For them, he said, he always had a message: “What’s going to happen when you get out, you make the deal? You think we’re going to forget about you?”
Le Roux’s philosophy was quickly put to the test when he was arrested the same day in a sting operation orchestrated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The supposed Colombian cartel leader, it turned out, was a paid informant, and the trusted Le Roux employee who had orchestrated the drug deal had been working with the DEA for months. By the time the DEA’s plane carrying Le Roux was over the Atlantic headed for New York, he was already asking how he and the government could help each other.
Nearly eight years later, that cooperation finally came full circle as Le Roux, 47, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison on Friday in New York. Le Roux, who will be credited with his seven-plus years in custody, had faced up to a life sentence after pleading guilty to crimes ranging from methamphetamine trafficking to selling weapons technology to Iran. Both Le Roux’s attorney and federal prosecutors had argued that Le Roux’s extensive assistance to the DEA, in which he helped set up his former employees and testified against them, warranted a lesser sentence. “The violence in this case was wrong, and I am sorry for this,” Le Roux wrote in a letter to Judge Ronnie Abrams, who carried out the sentencing in the Southern District of New York. “I accept full responsibility for my actions. I have blood on my hands.”
In a video hearing marred by the kind of technical difficulties that would have infuriated Le Roux in his former life, Judge Abrams said Le Roux’s expressions of remorse rang hollow. “There’s no question in my mind that Paul Calder Le Roux deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison,” she concluded, calling him a continuing danger to the community. “The scope and severity of Mr. Le Roux’s criminal conduct is nothing short of breathtaking. I have before me a man who has engaged in conduct in keeping with the villain in a James Bond movie.” But the sentence, she added, needed to reflect Le Roux’s extensive cooperation and the danger he faced. “If judges don’t give cooperating witnesses a significant benefit at sentencing,” she said, “the criminal justice system will suffer, fewer people will be willing to cooperate.”
Le Roux’s career was marked by technical brilliance and almost surreal levels of criminality, as I reported over five years for my 2019 book on Le Roux, "The Mastermind." Born in Zimbabwe and raised partly in South Africa, he spent years in the late 1990s and early 2000s designing a piece of disk encryption software, called Encryption for the Masses (E4M). The code from E4M formed the foundation for TrueCrypt, considered among the most secure and widely used encryption programs until its anonymous creators abandoned it in 2014.
Meth, Murder, and Pirates: The Coder Who Became a Crime Boss
Along the way, he contributed to America's painkiller epidemic and got involved with North Korean methamphetamine manufacturing, Somali pirates, and murder-for-hire.
By Evan Ratliff
In 2004, operating out of the Philippines, Le Roux began his foray into the darker sides of the internet, opening an online pharmacy under the name RX Limited to sell prescription painkillers to American customers. The company, which recruited American doctors and pharmacists to write, fill, and ship the drugs, proved highly lucrative, earning hundreds of millions of dollars. By the late aughts, Le Roux had leveraged those proceeds into a staggering range of criminal activities, including cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking, gold smuggling, and weapons dealing. His empire grew more violent as it expanded, with Le Roux hiring teams of mercenaries to intimidate and kill his perceived enemies.
As part of his cooperation agreement, Le Roux admitted to ordering at least seven murders in the Philippines, including the kidnap and execution of a real estate agent named Catherine Lee, whom Le Roux suspected of stealing from him. In 2019, Judge Abrams sentenced an ex-US Army soldier named Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, the leader of Le Roux’s kill team—and two of its members, Adam Samia and Carl David Stillwell—to life in prison for Lee’s murder.
“It’s closure to a long hard journey for everyone involved,” said Mathew Smith, Le Roux’s cousin and a former employee. In 2008, after a dispute over money, Le Roux ordered Smith’s house in Zimbabwe firebombed. Smith escaped uninjured. “Paul is a phenomenon that caused a lot of pain and hurt. Thank you to the brave people who helped end this nightmare.”
From the moment of his arrest in September 2012, Le Roux’s case in the US was highly unusual. The DEA held him in secrecy for years as he maintained to associates that he was still at large, and then with his help, the federal drug agency developed elaborate sting operations against his employees. In a document detailing Le Roux’s cooperation, prosecutors noted that he “assisted law enforcement in shutting down his criminal organization and bringing a dozen of his former associates and mercenaries to justice.” In addition to Joseph Hunter, against whom Le Roux testified in court during his murder trial, Le Roux assisted in rounding up four other mercenaries, along with five associates who’d helped Le Roux purchase large quantities of methamphetamine out of North Korea.
Other attempts to leverage Le Roux’s cooperation, however, came to nothing. His weapons contacts in Iran failed to bear investigative fruit, authorities admitted. Three employees of Le Roux’s prescription drug operation, arrested with his assistance, were acquitted in Minnesota in 2017. Another escaped from a halfway house and has never been found. Le Roux’s case ultimately became a rare example of “cooperating down,” in which authorities made a deal with the top of a criminal organization in order to catch those beneath him. Because of his cooperation with prosecutors, Le Roux will serve less time than several of the underlings who had carried out his murders-for-hire.
Le Roux’s attorney, Jeff Chabrowe, argued in a filing that Le Roux should receive time served—in other words that the nearly eight years he has been in US custody, in federal facilities in New York City, were punishment enough.
Upon his release, Le Roux is expected to be deported to the Philippines, where he faces charges related to an arms shipment intercepted by the government in 2009. Rizaldy Rivera, an agent in the National Bureau of Investigation in the Philippines, told me recently that the government intends to pursue charges on the murders Le Roux admitted to in US court. “Many lives were lost including the brutal death of Catherine Lee,” said Rivera, who has tracked Le Roux’s crimes for years. “He has to answer for this under our judicial system.” During his hearing, Le Roux asserted that he would admit to all charges in the Philippines, and cooperate with the government to catch unnamed conspirators in his murders who remain free.
In recent years Le Roux has also attracted the interest of the bitcoin community, as a candidate for the cryptocurrency’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. In 2019 I examined the argument for Le Roux as Satoshi and found that while his biography made him a compelling possibility, there was no direct evidence to substantiate it. Neither the government nor the defense made any mention of Bitcoin in their filings. But in his letter to the court asking for a lesser sentence, Le Roux wrote that when he completes his sentences in the US and the Philippines, “I plan to start a business selling and hosting bitcoin miners,” using a custom chip design that would allow him to generate bitcoin “at an order of magnitude faster” than any available design. With today's sentence, that day will be a long time coming.
The government noted that during his criminal heyday, Le Roux had exploited government corruption in the Philippines to avoid prosecution, paying millions of dollars in bribes to “contacts at high levels in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and the Philippines National Police.” Two former employees I spoke with expressed concern that if Le Roux had been released to the Philippines, he might again buy his way out of criminal jeopardy. “It’s the best interest of the entire world if he stays in the US,” a former target on Le Roux’s hit list messaged me. “He believes everybody has a price.”