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Long sentence expected in vast pill-selling case

A young Indian doctor who orchestrated a staggering global Internet pharmacy network from his apartment in Roxborough will be sentenced Friday, 32 months after FBI agents nabbed him here as he tried to flee the country.

A young Indian doctor who orchestrated a staggering global Internet pharmacy network from his apartment in Roxborough will be sentenced Friday, 32 months after FBI agents nabbed him here as he tried to flee the country.

Akhil Bansal, who was an MBA student at Temple University, stands convicted of smuggling 11 million prescription pills from India and distributing them to 60,000 Americans.

The wholesale operation supplied dozens of illegal online pharmacies, offering Viagra, sedatives and painkillers without a prescription. The network included Bansal's father and sister in India, as well as his best friend and roommate here. By shipping 75,000 pills a day from a New York safe house, the Bansals reaped roughly $8 million.

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, faces a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. However, the advisory sentencing guidelines, which U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond must consider, call for 30 years to life.

This is not the largest online pharmacy case on record. But in 2004, Operation Cyberchase marked the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's first-ever such major investigation. It began at Philadelphia International Airport, where a suspicious package was found to contain 120 tablets of generic Valium, and the case took agents to Australia, Costa Rica and India.

The climax was in April 2005, with 17 synchronized arrests in Philadelphia, New York, Florida and India, where Bansal's father and sister, Brij Bansal and Julie Agarwal, were arrested. Authorities also seized bank accounts in 11 countries.

Akhil Bansal was arrested on April 19 in Roxborough at 1:30 a.m., carrying an hours-old plane ticket to India.

Most of those arrested struck plea deals.

Bansal's former roommate, Atul Patil, became a star government witness against his old friend. Patil was sentenced to three years; he'll get out next summer.

Several convicted Web site operators, the people the Bansals supplied, are due to be released in the next 14 months. They include a South Florida radio personality, a Canadian marketing expert, and a Texan who ran his Web site from a trailer near Waco.

Bansal and the two others who risked trial and were convicted face longer terms. Two were sentenced last week.

Fred Mullinix of Sarasota, Fla., who made more than $1 million creating Web sites that took orders and forwarded them to the Bansals, got 121/2 years.

Sanjeev Srivastav, Bansal's loyal friend and mentor since medical school in India, was sentenced to 15 years for his role in the conspiracy.

Bansal has always maintained that he thought what he did was legal - because in India, he says, it is. His court-appointed legal adviser, Paul J. Hetznecker, said that in a global economy, "There are conflicts of law and conflicts of culture that I think we will start to have to address."

Because many who know Bansal best are in prison, overseas, or have testified against him, he has struggled to find character witnesses for his sentencing hearing. As a result, prosecutors' view of him may go unchallenged.

Said Hetznecker, "He feels very much alone in this struggle."

In his cell, Bansal has been studying American law, much the way he crammed as a prep school student in his native Agra. Lawyers involved have been impressed by his post-trial filings, although the actions have brought Bansal little success so far.

The latest delay came after Bansal discovered that the jail recorded his calls, including some to his attorney during the course of his trial. Prosecutor Frank Costello said that all inmates are notified that calls are taped and that authorities never listen to any attorney-client calls. Other Bansal calls, he said, were not fully translated until after trial.

Taped legally or not, the calls offer a window into Bansal's mind-set. Talking to his mother in India, he spoke of suing prosecutors and agents and putting liens on their homes.

According to a U.S. government translation of a call, he said, "I will make them pay through the nose a billion rupees for each damned month they've kept me in jail, these bastards."

On another call, Bansal spoke with his fiancee, pediatrician Foram Mankodi, who was not accused of any wrongdoing. Bansal grew angry as he spoke of legal sparring with "barking" prosecutors.

"Let them sentence me . . . and I will file a damned appeal, and then go and bark all you want in the appeals court."

Mankodi listened for a while. Then she said, "Yes, OK. I love you."

He said, "I love you more."

She said, "Come soon."