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Despite evidence & conviction in $8M ring, online drug peddler refuses to admit it

EVEN AFTER acknowledging that he'd lost almost everything in the world - not just his $8 million in ill-gotten gains selling drugs on the Web, but his fiancee and the love of his own father - Akhil Bansal stood before a federal judge yesterday and refused to show remorse.

It was a decision that the 29-year-old former Temple grad student paid for, dearly.

"I truly believe in my heart that I did not commit these serious charges," said a barely audible Bansal, in a green jail jumpsuit at his sentencing hearing yesterday - despite overwhelming evidence that he had run a global Internet drug ring from his Roxborough apartment.

"What I've not lost is my belief in the justice system," he added.

But minutes later in that Center City courtroom, that justice system came down hard on the Indian native. U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond sentenced the convicted drug peddler to 30 years in a federal penitentiary, and he cited Bansal's refusal to apologize or even acknowledge his crimes as a factor.

"Never once has he expressed any concern that someone could have possibly been harmed by what he did - never," said Diamond, who also sentenced Bansal to five years' probation after his release and fined him $250,000 on top of the just over $8 million he's been forced to give back.

Federal authorities alleged that Bansal and 19 others were part of an international conspiracy that made it easy for Americans to buy drugs such as morphine, codeine, Valium, Prozac and Viagra over the Internet and without a prescription.

Bansal's father - a licensed doctor in India now in custody there - supplied the drugs to his son, who then forwarded them to a Florida salesman who operated the Web sites and dispensed the pills to customers.

Bansal was pursuing an MBA degree at Temple in 2005, when the feds busted up the drug ring, which also sold the horse tranquilizer ketamine, which is considered a "club drug."

He was convicted of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to introduce misbranded drugs in interstate commerce and money laundering, among other charges after a 5 1/2-week trial that ended in April 2005. So far, 11 other drug-ring participants have also been convicted in the United States, with four people in custody in India and one more awaiting extradition from Canada.

After unsuccessfully fighting allegations that he ran the ring, which distributed an estimated 70,000 pills a day, here in the U.S., Bansal was facing serious time. His conviction required a minimum of 20 years, under federal law, but Bansal's pre-sentencing report called for a longer sentence in the range of 30 years to life.

Bansal has represented himself in the case, but yesterday he also allowed his court-appointed legal adviser, Paul Hetznecker, to deliver an impassioned plea for leniency - even as he acknowledged that Bansal has continued to come off as arrogant and refused or was unable to produce favorable witnesses for yesterday's hearing.

"I guess what I'm [asking] your Honor to do is to overlook a lot of things," said Hetznecker, who nevertheless said that Bansal largely had been motivated by a desire to please his father and that he could still contribute to society if sentenced to just 20 years.

The U.S. attorney's office agreed that Bansal shouldn't get life behind bars, but argued his crimes merited a long sentence. "Every person who purchased these drugs was at risk for harm," said prosecutor Frank Costello.

Judge Diamond seemed to agree with that harsher notion when he recessed briefly and then - just before handing down the sentence - read in open court an e-mail written in 2005 when the drug ring was thriving.

"In this business we take all the risk right from buying of medicine from India, sending it to USA, storage in USA and then shipping it to your customer's doors," Bansal wrote a co-conspirator, later adding: "I wrote the above paragraph to convey that we take all the risk for MONEY." *

Staff writer Michael Hinkelman contributed to this article.