The Coder Who Became A Criminal Mastermind – Paul Le Roux

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all your online accounts secure! In 2011 a British security contractor named
Dave Smith was found dead. He’d been drinking in a bar, then while
walking outside was kidnapped, thrown into a shallow grave and shot. His bloodied body was then covered with earth,
buried on the orders of his boss, a man known to his associates as The Mastermind. This was one of many assassinations carried
out by hitmen working for one of the most unusual and intelligent criminals in modern
times. That criminal is Paul Le Roux, a brilliant
programmer who branched out from tech into much darker territory. He’s one of the men responsible for the
USA’s drug crisis; he dealt in North Korean-made methamphetamine; he sold military-grade weapons
such as missiles, to very unsavory characters; had yachts carrying fortunes of drugs and
gold, as well as planes stacked with cash and contraband. And if you worked for him, well, existence
was tenuous. This is the story of a bona fide criminal
mastermind, but one which differs from most tales about sociopathic wrongdoers. His activities spanned the globe and left
trails of blood in their wake, but unlike most murderous villains, he started out writing
code and trolling people on forums. In another life he might well have worked
for Apple, but he eventually ended up seeding the underworld with hardcore drugs weapons. He’s been called the kid, whizz, who really,
truly, broke bad; who makes Walter White look like Mary Poppins; a nerd with an amazing
aptitude for computer science, a kind of dangerous genius befitting the role of any villain you
might find in a James Bond movie. As a kid he was loved and doted on; he was
a good student with tons of talent, and as an adult he became an entrepreneurial crime
lord who had few scruples about taking out his enemies or the people who worked most
closely with him that he no longer trusted. How did this happen? How could such a brilliant young man with
an ordinary life and acumen for creating complex algorithms turn into something resembling
a person who might fit the title of Dr. Evil? Let’s start from the beginning. Le Roux was born on December 24, 1972, but
was soon given up for adoption in his hometown of Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. Some sources say that his mother was a poor
teenager and that there is no mention of his father on his birth certificate, although
in American journalist Evan Ratliff’s book on Le Roux – called The Mastermind – it’s
said his father was a South African named Darroll Hornbuckle. That father, says the book, would later meet
his son and actually get involved with some of the criminal activity. As for his mother, some sources say she is
actually married to a U.S. senator. So much secrecy surrounds this guy it’s
very hard to follow his story. For example, some people even claim he was
the creator of Bitcoin, the one and only Satoshi Nakamoto. This is very unlikely, but after hearing his
tale, well, anything would seem possible. What we know for sure is that Le Roux was
adopted into a caring family. They took him to another part of Zimbabwe
and it’s said there he was loved, and with his sister had a happy childhood. His new parents named him Paul Calder Le Roux. The family left Zimbabwe shortly after Robert
Mugabe came to power and ended white minority rule. They went to South Africa where the father
found a good job working for a mining company, and this made them quite a wealthy family. Le Roux has been described as a clever student,
though the book about him says he looked down on other students and called them dimwits. He had little interest in socializing or sports,
but had a fondness for playing video games. His bios make him sound like quite a reclusive
kid, and that apparently got worse after he was arrested aged either 15 or 16 for selling
pornography. At this time though some of his talents were
manifesting, and believing he didn’t need school the young boy dropped out and started
learning programming. It’s said here he excelled and finished
a one year course in just eight weeks. At 17 he left South Africa and headed to the
UK where he found a job as a programmer and would meet his future wife. We really don’t know that much about this
time in his life and most of the information we do know is from that book we mentioned,
with the author relying mainly on unnamed sources and police data to tell the story. He writes that Le Roux spent some time in
the US, but quickly went over to Australia where he was granted citizenship. So far, there was nothing too out of the ordinary
about this man except he was obviously gifted and fiercely independent. We know some things about his character because
of messages he posted on a Usenet newsgroup in the 90s. It was obvious he understood encryption at
a highly technical level, but you can also see that he trolled a lot of people and used
racist language. This was maybe his first sign of unpleasantness,
but also a sign that one day he would become what some people have called the world’s
most notorious cyber-criminal. The author of the book we mentioned, Evan
Ratliff, says on his website that he spoke to a person called Lulu, who gave him many
details about Le Roux in the early years. Indeed, it seems the young Le Roux was obsessed
with code, but as Ratliff writes, his life would turn out to resemble a cross between
Bill Gates and a mafia Godfather. His genius could be seen in those posts he
made online in his early days, but at the same time he seemed quite moronic regarding
his cultural outlook. He seemed to hate Australia and enjoy making
his fellow countrymen mad. Word for word he once wrote, “As I recall,
the genetic effects of human inbreeding are not as disastrous as those of breeding with
animals. A lesson Australians have never learned.” He also made a few spelling mistakes in there,
so one might wonder if all his talents were in one basket. He once wrote, “People like you should be
rounded up, castrated, then shot.” And that was a reply to someone who had gotten
upset at him for saying all Asians had DNA defects. You get the picture; this young bright man
had some very hateful opinions. In 1997 he created something called “E4M—Encryption
for the Masses.” Ratliff writes, “Le Roux’s software allowed
users to encrypt their entire hard drives—and to conceal the existence of encrypted files,
so that prying eyes wouldn’t even know they were there.” Remember, we have a loner of a kid, someone
who has been arrested for pornography, and someone who hides behind a computer and insults
races. Encryption you could say suited his personality. After thousands of hours of programming and
two years after he started E4M, he released it to the public. In his manifesto for his software he wrote,
“The battle for privacy has long since been lost in the real world. As more and more human activity becomes computerized,
governments are scrambling to preserve and extend their powers.” According to Le Roux, only strong encryption
could save people from a government we shouldn’t trust. If big brother was watching, Le Roux was blowing
smoke into his line of sight. We know that he got divorced and we are told
it was a tempestuous break-up. He wasn’t really making much money from
his genius, and after splitting up with his wife he moved around a lot, to Hong Kong and
then to the Netherlands where he met his second wife and had a kid with her. He started another company with a Dutch man,
who later went on record saying Le Roux was desperate to earn money for his wife and kid. This partner said Le Roux told him he wanted
to be rich, to have what he wanted in life, but the partner said much of the time there
was just something about Le Roux that made him suspicious of him. His words were, Le Roux came across as “disingenuous”. He did say that he was exceptionally talented
though, and when he had to learn a new programming language to build an online casino website
he did it fast. The partner said, “In one week, he was better
than most of the programmers I know that program in that language.” It was around this time that he found out
he was actually adopted, and some people have said this might have had something to do with
how his character became somewhat aggressive and misanthropic, how he edged towards a darker
side of existence. There are many cases of adopted kids being
told the truth later in life and not taking it well. Still, he was a long way from killing his
colleagues at this time. But soon he got out of the encryption business
and started his criminal career. He created something of an online prescription-drug
empire, known as RX Limited to the U.S. government. He first did this with two Israeli brothers
called Tomer and Boaz Taggart whom he had met online. Le Roux created a complex system which linked
people eager to buy prescription drugs to doctors and pharmacists, and no doubt many
of you have seen such sites where you can get your hands on prescription drugs easily. Soon millions of people would start seeing
the words, “Buy drugs online,” in their inboxes. At this point it’s said Le Roux’s appearance
changed, and he became very fat and a little imposing. As a manager, though, some people said he
could be very good to work with and always listened to his employees. One person wrote, “He was always buying
gifts for people. His representation of himself, as far as I
am concerned, made him seem more legitimate.” It’s said his RX business was at one point
earning him five million dollars a month, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him
as his preferred sartorial style was flip-flops and shorts. As a rich man he acquired a bunch of different
names, and at various points he was called John Bernard Bowlins, Benny, Alex, Johan William
Smit and William Vaughn. He also created a slew of shell companies
and RX spawned a few other rogue online pharmacies. Later Le Roux would be accused of being the
man, or one of the main men, behind drug addiction epidemics all over the world. That wasn’t just the online stuff, though,
but we’ll get around to his hardcore substance business later. It’s said what he was doing wasn’t exactly
illegal, but operated in a gray area. He made both the buyers and the people prescribing
the drugs think everything was legitimate, but what he’d really done was create a way
for people to get their hands on drugs that was much easier than doing it the traditional
way. Inboxes all over the globe were filled with
spam emails from his dodgy online pharmacies. He had call centers in Israel and also in
the Philippines and business was booming. At this point one of the managers working
for Le Roux in Israel had the idea of starting a similar business while also working for
him. The shorter story is that this guy was almost
murdered by the man named Dave Smith, the security boss for Le Roux. But Le Roux wasn’t happy with just many,
many millions, he wanted a lot more. He bought land in Zimbabwe with a plan to
give it back to the white farmers who Le Roux said had it unfairly taken from them under
the Mugabe government. He also got into logging in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, but that didn’t last long. Still, he wanted more, and this tech wizard
was now willing to get his hands dirty, or should we say filthy. His former associate would tell Ratliff, “The
only way to do that was illegal. He was living inside a movie, you could almost
say. He always had a dark side, it just developed
more with money.” At this point he moved to Manila, and from
there with many staff and soldiers as security, Le Roux entered into new businesses which
included large drug shipments, arms trafficking and a fair bit of money laundering. He used Hong Kong as his financial hub, and
there he had houses stuffed with gold bars, silver and diamonds. He had former elite Israeli, British and American
soldiers making sure no one took any of that from him. He also had all those shell companies, and
when he moved stuff around he used his own boats or private planes. It was difficult for anyone to track what
he was doing because of course he was a master of encryption. Different names and passports also helped. What is also interesting is that his encryption
tech had been used to help Edward Snowden release all those documents that unearthed
a lot of U.S. military secrets. The National Security Agency weren’t up
to cracking that encryption. The U.S. was no doubt interested in Le Roux,
and it would later be found out that he was behind an arms trade on a boat called the
Captain Ufuk. When the Philippine Coast Guard became suspicious
of this ship they stopped it and on board found crates full of SS1 assault rifles and
other guns. It’s thought the shipment was on its way
to a terrorist organization. La Plata Trading, one of Le Roux’s companies,
had purchased that ship. Arms dealing was one of his main activities,
and Le Roux was also behind a shipment of AK-47 assault rifles and light machine guns
sent to Somali militias. There are rumors that Le Roux intended to
invade the Maldives with his own militia, but that’s likely not the truth. What most people think he was doing was creating
a force to fight off Somali pirates who had been causing havoc on the high seas. It didn’t stop there; Le Roux was also said
to have been involved with trying to ship missile guidance systems to Iran. We don’t know the full extent of his arms
dealing activities, but let’s just say he had his finger in a lot of dirty pies and
he didn’t seem to have scruples regarding whom he sold arms to. Then back to the drugs, because Le Roux never
gave up on them as a way to make money. It’s said he was involved in plantations
where the coca leaf was grown; that he had several operations involving the cultivation
and distribution of various drugs worldwide including opium and cannabis, and with this
and arms dealing and so much money and gold around he needed a lot of protection. One person who was his main hitman for a while,
a former American drill sergeant and sniper instructor was said to have done hits for
Le Roux and also recruited other mercenaries that had once been soldiers or defense contractors. In terms of violence, he had the best working
for him. In terms of the death toll, that’s likely
higher than he has admitted to. And many people did go missing, with Le Roux
giving the orders each time and on occasions likely being there. A man named Bruce Jones who was implicated
in the Captain Ufuk arms shipment was put into the witness protection program, but that
didn’t save him. He was assassinated in Manila on his way home
from a shopping mall after he had grown confident enough to go out in the streets again. Le Roux was never convicted for the hit, but
many think he was behind it. Ratliff writes that Le Roux was becoming paranoid,
and he was more than willing to take out anyone who he thought might interrupt his business
and lifestyle. Even Jones’ lawyer, a man named Joe Frank
Zuñiga, left his house one day and was never seen again. Another man, Mike Lontoc, who had worked for
one of Le Roux’s shady companies met the same fate. He was shot in his car at an intersection
in Manila after he stopped when he got a phone call. Four men got in front of the car and shot
at the driver with Uzis and handguns. Later Lontoc’s wife would say he had been
involved in arms deals and couldn’t get out of the business. Le Roux was never convicted, but it’s said
by some sources that the person behind it was simply the “mastermind.” Another man involved with that fatal shipment
on the Captain Ufuk also went missing. His name was Herbert Tan Tiu. There was good reason for thinking all this
was Le Roux’s work, because one of his hitmen named Ronald Baricuatro was arrested and at
his house police found a kill list. He had been employed by Dave Smith, but denied
killing Lontoc even though that’s what some people thought. Baricuatro did tell the cops, though, that
he’d been hired to take out a journalist that had gotten too close to the truth. The long and short of it is, they all worked
for one man… the mastermind. Le Roux moved to Rio when things heated up
and from there planned to do some drug shipments via yacht to Ecuador. One shipment didn’t work out, and a dead
man was found on a washed up ship along with 120 million dollars’ worth of cocaine. And it just gets murkier and murkier. Le Roux admitted to ordering a hit on a woman
named Noimie Edillor. She was a real estate agent but had dealings
with Le Roux and had told him she could pay a bribe to get illegal goods through customs. Apparently she didn’t go through with that,
and so some of Le Roux’s hitmen pretended to be looking for a house with her one day
and then killed her at a place that was quiet. Another woman was killed in a similar way. Her name was Catherine Lee and Le Roux ordered
her murder when a property deal with him went sour. He’d been ripped off three million bucks,
and that was never going to be anything but a death sentence for the people behind it. Le Roux admitted to ordering the hit in court
later, but was not convicted of the murder because of an agreement he had made with the
authorities. The bodies had been piling up and Ratliff
said that Le Roux had created a climate of absolute fear. While all this was going on Le Roux was still
doing drug business with the Colombians and elsewhere and the DEA were on to him. They knew he was behind those online pharmacies
and they also knew he was shipping large quantities of ingredients used to make crystal methamphetamine. Throw the words North Korea and Iran into
the mix, and the Americans were prowling around like caged tigers smelling blood not too far
away. They soon discovered a whole bunch of companies
run by Le Roux, and with them lots of aliases he had used. Ratliff writes that the DEA compared this
once hardworking tech nerd with Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chápo” Guzman and Taliban-affiliated
heroin trafficker Bashir Noorzai. He also said that Le Roux just got greedy,
that he should have left the online drug business early and not branched out. There was no need, he already had millions. Criminal sociopaths, though, rarely hang up
their gloves in their prime. It was the prescription pill business they
were planning to get him for, not all the other crimes we have mentioned. It’s not clear anyway exactly what the DEA
knew at this point, but they knew enough to make him a major target. But when they tapped his phone in 2012 they
discovered something else. That was he, or at least his associates, had
a warehouse in Hong Kong containing 24 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, in 960 bags
labeled as sodium chloride- in Ratliff’s words, “enough to create an explosive ten
times bigger than the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing.” Around this time Le Roux and his operatives
were moving millions of dollars of gold around, likely knowing they were about to find themselves
in deep water. Millions more dollars were being shifted around,
and all the while some of the drug business was still going on. He was walking on thin ice, while trying to
protect his vast fortune. The master coder was now trying to encrypt
his very existence, but tangible goods aren’t as easy to hide as data. Le Roux was arrested by Liberian police in
an operation which included DEA agents posing as Colombian cartel members. He’d gone over to Liberia for a meeting
with this fake cartel member to sort out a deal involving a large shipment of methamphetamine. Then he got stung. He was handed over to the DEA after the police
in Liberia refused to take a bribe. But Le Roux subsequently agreed to work with
the DEA, and so no one actually knew he had been arrested. This is what he said, according to Ratliff
who was interviewed by Vice magazine, “I’ll cooperate. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life
in prison. What do you want to know?” Life went on as normal. He carried on doing his deals with criminals
which led to lots of DEA stings. Many of Le Roux’s associates went down after
that. Some of those arrested were what are called
mercenaries and most of those were former soldiers who had been enforcers for Le Roux,
with the most notable of them being nicknamed Rambo. According to Ratliff, there were scores of
these mercenaries all over the world working for Le Roux. Ratliff said they liked the money, but they
more than likely loved the thrill of the job. In 2014 Le Roux pleaded guilty to trafficking
methamphetamine, selling technology to Iran, ordering or participating in seven murders,
and also fraud along with bribery. Since he had helped the DEA arrest many of
his associates the U.S. government agreed to keep his family safe. He is still awaiting sentencing as we write
this, and he might actually get out of prison at a reasonably young age. He actually got off the murders because of
his cooperation with the DEA in bringing down killers and other criminals. What Ratliff likes to point out a lot, too,
is that while Le Roux was involved in so much depravity, blood-spilling, deals with guerillas
and mafias, he did most of his work through his laptop. He kept his head down and arranged for things
to happen with his machine, a machine nobody including the NSA, FBI, you name it, could
crack. And that’s the story of perhaps the world’s
most notorious cyber-criminal, a man who in some ways defied what we think of as a master
villain. A nerd with a nefarious nature, a brilliant
mind bent on wickedness and hate, and a story we guess that has not yet fully been told. Hackers are a real threat, both to individuals
and businesses, and not just the super mastermind ones like Paul Le Roux. But knowing how to protect yourself online
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