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Doctor gets jail for Web pill sale

The Temple MBA student from India ran the network from his apartment.

A young doctor who orchestrated a staggering Internet pharmacy network from his modest Philadelphia apartment - reaching to Europe, Australia and his native India - was sentenced yesterday to 30 years in prison.

Akhil Bansal, who was an MBA student at Temple University, created and operated a wholesale network that smuggled 11 million prescription pills from India and distributed them to 60,000 Americans, earning $8 million. At its height, the network shipped 75,000 pills a day, including Viagra, sedatives and painkillers.

"The evidence of your guilt is overwhelming, sir," U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond said. "You distributed poison throughout the country."

The judge said it was implausible, as Bansal had asserted at trial, that a trained doctor could believe it was legal to distribute so many pills without requiring a prescription.

The Bansal investigation, dubbed Operation Cyberchase, marked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's first-ever major investigation of its type. The case took agents here to India, Costa Rica and Australia.

Bansal's double life as student and rogue Web pharmacy supplier - as well as the hunt to catch him - were chronicled last year in an Inquirer series called "Drugnet."

Bansal, 29, briefly addressed the court before he was sentenced. He spoke softly, but defiantly.

"Truly in my heart, I believe I did not commit these serious charges. . . ." he said. "I am studying the law and I ask myself every day, 'How did I end up here?' "

Noting that he plans to appeal, he added, "What I have not lost is my belief in the justice system."

Defense lawyer Paul J. Hetznecker told the judge that Bansal "has been demonized by his own stubbornness and apparent arrogance in the courtroom."

Hetznecker said Bansal grew up in a strict family and did what he did to please his father. The lawyer said: "Behind the arrogance is a tremendous amount of pain."

Prosecutors Frank Costello, Bea Witzleben and Jim Pavlock challenged that view, arguing Bansal was a calculating, greedy criminal and that the evidence showed he knew he was breaking the law.

"Not once in this courtroom . . . did he ever express remorse that anyone could have been harmed by what he did," Costello said. Noting that Bansal graduated from medical school in India, the prosecutor said, "I can't appreciate a person who would be more in a position of understanding his actions."

Bansal faced a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. The advisory sentencing guidelines called for 30 years to life.

The DEA-FBI investigation began in February 2003 at Philadelphia International Airport when a suspicious package was found to contain 120 tablets of generic Valium.

Agents investigated much of the case by reading Bansal's e-mail because this is how he executed much of his business. Illegal online pharmacies forwarded customer orders by e-mail to Bansal's network, which then packaged and shipped the pills from a safe house in New York.

Yesterday, to demonstrate Bansal's greed, the judge read aloud from an e-mail Bansal wrote to one online pharmacy - a guy operating out of Romania and a trailer in Texas, who had been late with payments.

"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. "On the other hand, you guys sit in an unknown country, with Web servers in a different country and merchant account in yet another different country. You have no risk in this business aside from losing future money. I wrote the above paragraph to convey that we take all the risk for MONEY."

For agents, the climax came April 19, 2005, with 17 synchronized arrests in Philadelphia, New York, Florida and India, where Bansal's father and sister were arrested. Authorities also seized bank accounts in 11 countries.

Akhil Bansal was arrested at gunpoint at 1:30 a.m. by FBI agent Jason Huff outside his Roxborough apartment. Bansal was carrying an hours-old plane ticket to India; authorities believe he had just discovered that his accounts were frozen and was fleeing the country.

Most of those arrested, including Bansal's roommate, Atul Patil, struck plea deals and received sentences of less than three years.

But Bansal, arguing that what he did was legal in India, risked trial. So did Sanjeev Srivastav, Bansal's loyal friend and mentor since medical school. Srivastav was sentenced to 15 years.

Most DEA and FBI agents who worked the case came to the sentencing yesterday because it marked the conclusion of the biggest case of their careers. Lower Merion Police Detective Christine Konieczny, who ran surveillance on the case, brought her husband. DEA investigator Carlos Aquino, joined by agents Eric Russ and Gerard Gobin, said he wasn't surprised by the turnout.

Aquino explained: "The amount of drugs, the amount of money, the offshore bank accounts, the complexity of the whole scheme, what it took to chase him and catch him. . . . "

Read The Inquirer's series about the case at