Meth, Murder, and Pirates: The Coder Who Became a Crime Boss

How a brilliant self-made software programmer from South Africa single-handedly built an online startup that became one of the largest individual contributors to America’s burgeoning painkiller epidemic. In his world, everything was for sale. Pure methamphetamine manufactured in North Korea. Yachts built to outrun coast guards. Police protection and judges’ favor. Crates of military-grade weapons. Private jets full of gold. Missile-guidance systems. Unbreakable encryption. African militias. Explosives. Kidnapping. Torture. Murder. It's a world that lurks just outside of our everyday perception, in the dark corners of the internet we never visit, the quiet ports where ships slip in by night, the back room of the clinic down the street.

MONROVIA, LIBERIA. SEPTEMBER 26, 2012

On a gray afternoon, three men enter a drab hotel room for a business meeting, months in the making. Two are white: a portly South African and his muscled European deputy. The other, with dark hair and a paunch of his own, is Latino—Colombian, or so he says. The hotel is in the Liberian capital, abutting the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of West Africa, but it could be any number of places in the world. The men’s business is drugs and weapons, and drugs and weapons are everywhere. They shake hands, nod heads, and begin speaking in the elliptical but familiar way of people who share the vernacular of a trade. They are cautious, but not cautious enough. A video exists to prove it.

Excerpted from The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal by Evan Ratliff. Random House

“I can see why you picked this place,” says the South African, settling his substantial bulk into a maroon leather couch pressed against the wall. “Because it’s chaotic. It should be easy to move in and out, from what I’ve seen.” His name is Paul, and to a trained ear his cadence carries a tinge of not just South Africa but his childhood home, Zimbabwe, where he lived until his teens. His large white head is shaved close, and what hair remains has gone gray as he approaches forty. He has the look of a beach vacationer cleaned up for a dinner out, in an oversize blue polo shirt and a pair of khaki cargo shorts. His clothes seem out of keeping with both the scope of his international influence and the deal he is about to complete, with a man he believes to be the head of a South American drug cartel.

“Very easy,” replies the Colombian, whom Paul refers to only as Pepe. In the video recording of the meeting, Pepe sits down just offscreen, on a matching couch. His disembodied voice speaks in flawless, if heavily accented, English.

“Very few people, not too many eyes. It looks like the right place.”

“Trust me—what’s your name again?” “Paul.”

“Paul, trust me, it’s the right place. I’ve been here already for quite a bit of time. And always, me and my organization, we pick places like this. First of all, for corruption. You can buy anything you want here. Anything. You just tell me what you need.”

“Yeah, it’s safe here,” Paul says. “If there’s a problem here, you can fix it. I understand this type of place.”

“Everything is easy here. Just hand to hand, boom boom boom, you can see,” Pepe says, laughing. “Well, thanks to your guy here, now we are meeting.” He gestures at the third man in the room, the European employee of Paul’s who goes by the name Jack. It was Jack who made the initial connection between Paul and Pepe.

About the Author

Evan Ratliff is an award-winning journalist and founder of The Atavist Magazine. He is a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Awards and the Livingston Awards. His 2009 Wired cover story “Vanish,” about his attempt to disappear and the public’s effort to find him, was selected by the magazine as one of the twenty best stories in its history.

The deal Jack brokered was complex enough that, when I meet him years later, I need him to walk me through it several times. The Colombians, who deal primarily in the cocaine produced in their own country, are looking to expand into methamphetamine, which they want to manufacture in Liberia and distribute to the United States and Europe.

Paul, a computer programmer who heads his own kind of cartel based in the Philippines, will provide the materials to build the Colombians’ meth labs: precursor chemicals, formulas for cooking them into meth, and a “clean room” in which to synthesize it all. While the labs are being built, Paul has agreed to also sell Pepe his own stash of meth, in exchange for an equivalent amount of cocaine at market rates.

After months of back-and-forth, Jack has urged Paul to travel to Liberia and meet his new associate “boss to boss” to finalize the deal.

“So where do you want to start?” Pepe says. “First of all is the clean room.”

Paul tells him that the parts needed to build it are already en route by boat. “If you have any problem, I’ll send guys here to assemble it like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“We shouldn’t have any. I got my guys here, my chemist.”

“To compensate you for the delays, we will just, when we do business, we will give you back the money.”

“Paul, you don’t have to compensate me for nothing.”

Paul flicks his hand in the air. “We feel bad it took so long.” “This is just business,” Pepe says. “We don’t have to compensate, just doing business. This is about money.”

Pepe turns to the second part of the deal: the trade of his Colombian cocaine for Paul’s methamphetamine, a sample of which Paul has shipped to him from his base in the Philippines. “Let me ask you a question,” Pepe says.

“Sure.”

“You are not Filipino, why the Philippines?”

“Same reason you are in Liberia. Basically, as far as Asia goes, it’s the best shithole we can find, which gives us the ability to ship anywhere. It’s the best position in Asia. And it’s also a poor place. Not as bad as here, but we can still solve problems.”

“You are cooking your shit in the Philippines?” Pepe says. “Actually, right now we manufacture in the Philippines and we also buy from the Chinese. We’re getting it from North Korea. So the quality you saw was very high.”

“That’s not just very high. That is awesome.” “Yeah.”

“I was going to tell you that later on, but now that you talk about it: That stuff is fucking incredible.”

“That is manufactured by the North Koreans,” Paul says. “We get it from the Chinese, who get it from the North Koreans.”

“So my product is going to be the same, the amount that I’m going to buy from you?”

“The same. Exactly the same.” Paul nods. “I know you want the high quality for your market.”

“Yeah, because the product—you know that one of the best customers, and you probably know that, is the Americans.”

“Number one.”

“It’s the number one. They are fucking—they want everything over there. I don’t know what the word is from Spanish. Consumistas? Consumists?”

“Consumers,” Jack interjects, off-camera.

“Yeah, they buy everything and they never stop,” Paul says. “So everything that I ship is to America,” Pepe says. “Trust me, when I brought this, fucking everyone was asking me for it. Everyone.”

Paul and Pepe consider different payment possibilities. First they will trade the cocaine for meth. After that, Paul says that he is happy to be paid in gold or diamonds. If they need to conduct bank transfers, he works primarily through China and Hong Kong, although he sounds a note of caution. “We just had, in Hong Kong, twenty million dollars frozen, by bullshit,” he says. “You need to be cautious. It becomes worse, because the American, he likes to control everything. And they are there, making a lot of trouble.”

“I say fuck Americans,” Pepe says. “Americans, like you say, they think that they can control everything, but they cannot. It’s not impossible, but they cannot. We have to be very careful.”

They discuss shipment methods, and how many kilos of each drug the other could move in a month. Paul owns ships already picking up loads in South America and traveling to Asia, but he much prefers to work in Africa, territory he knows well. His customers are in Australia, Thailand, China. “We are not touching the US right now,” he says.

“Why not?”

Eric Petersen

“Actually we move pills in the US,” Paul says. “These American fucks, they have an appetite for everything. They will just spend and spend and spend.” Indeed, Paul has gotten rich, fabulously rich, by selling tens of millions of prescription painkillers to Americans over the Internet for nearly a decade. But unlike Pepe’s organization, Paul carefully avoids shipping street drugs like meth to the States. “It generates too much heat,” he says.

As the meeting winds down, Paul flashes a hint of his technical prowess, offering to send Pepe mobile phones that he has set up with encryption software to allow the two organizations to communicate securely. He tells Pepe he can get him any weapons he needs out of Iran, particularly if a Liberian general can be produced to make the transaction look official. Then he pauses to reflect. “I can tell you, you won’t find a better partner,” he says.

He is a man, he explains, who keeps his organization in line. “One thing I tell all the guys, OK, everyone I deal with: Just don’t fucking steal. You know what I’m saying? That’s the one thing that pisses me off.” Earlier he described an employee who stole $5 million from him, then began driving a Lamborghini around Manila, buying his girlfriends designer handbags and diamond necklaces. The employee was no longer a problem, he said. “He’s moved on, let’s put it that way.”

Now Paul has more management advice. “Don’t steal,” he repeats, “and don’t fucking run your mouth to the government. You get caught doing anything, remember: You keep your mouth shut. You’ve got some guys—I’m sure you’ve had this: They come like this”—he makes a motion as if operating a jabbering puppet—“they get afraid in jail and then they think that the government is going to help them. They think the government is their best friend. I’m sure you’ve seen this, right?”

“That is only in movies,” Pepe says.

“They are running their fucking mouth like this. What’s going to happen when you get out, you make the deal? You think we’re going to forget about you?” He slaps his hands together. “You have a problem, we help you. Your family has a problem, we help them. Nobody has a problem. Just follow these rules, we are very straight on that. So I tell you, we do business, you trust me one hundred percent. We will deliver for you. One hundred percent.”

“This is a trust deal,” Pepe says, before the three men stand up to shake hands. “That’s exactly what we are going to do.”

In the months before and after Paul and Pepe’s meeting, a series of strange events occurred in disparate parts of the globe, events that appeared unrelated. I say “appeared” as if anyone on the outside was observing them at all. At the time no one was, including me. Even if anyone had been, none of these incidents appeared tied to any other as they filtered into public view. Like a handful of random jigsaw-puzzle pieces, each one was incomprehensible without an understanding of the larger picture. It would be a year before I picked up even one of those pieces to examine it, and several more before I began to understand the image that the whole collection of them combined to reveal.

In March 2012, six months before Paul and Pepe’s meeting in Liberia, agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration walked through the glass doors of a small pharmacy on Main Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. They were armed with search warrants targeting its 82-year-old owner, Charles Schultz. A pillar of the local community for four decades, Schultz had been charged with shipping more than 700,000 illegal painkiller prescriptions from the back of his two local pharmacies. In return, the agents calculated, he had received more than $27 million in wire transfers from a mysterious Hong Kong bank account.

Roughly a month later, officers from the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau in Hong Kong raided a warehouse in Tsuen Wan, a bayside district north of the city. Inside they discovered twenty tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, divided into a thousand bags and falsely labeled as sodium chloride. It was enough to create an explosive 10 times more powerful than the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

On the warehouse lease they found the name of an Israeli-Australian citizen, a former member of an elite division of the Israeli Defense Forces. When they raided the man’s office and apartment, they turned up deeds for two stash houses, receipts for tens of millions of dollars in gold bars, and handwritten directions to a meeting in Buenaventura, Colombia, with a man named “Don Lucho”—the head of one of the world’s biggest cocaine cartels.

Then, in November, a pair of spear fishermen diving off an atoll in Tonga discovered a wrecked forty-four-foot sailboat with a badly decomposed body on board. Lining the walls of the boat’s cabin, local authorities found, were 204 bricks of cocaine, neatly wrapped in brown plastic and worth more than $90 million on the street in Australia, where they suspected it had been destined.

In early December, 3,000 miles to the northeast, a contractor for the National Security Agency named Edward Snowden organized a gathering of cryptography buffs in the back room of a strip mall storefront in Honolulu. After a couple dozen people had assembled, he plugged his laptop into a projector and began an instructional talk about a free program called TrueCrypt.

It was, he said, the world’s most secure software for encrypting a laptop hard drive, protecting it from the prying eyes of governments. Very little was known about the people behind TrueCrypt, he cautioned; the programmers who created it were anonymous. But Snowden also knew something about TrueCrypt that he was not yet ready to reveal: He had stolen documents from the NSA showing that the agency couldn’t break it.

When I began trying to investigate this series of events later, they were tantalizing but baffling to me. As I rewound back through them, each seemed like a kind of message from an adjacent reality that few of us experience directly. In that world, I would learn, a brilliant self-made software programmer from South Africa could single-handedly build a dystopian company to rival today’s tech giants. Through his creation, an online startup selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of pills to American customers, he would become one of the largest individual contributors to America’s burgeoning painkiller epidemic, and the most successful cyber-criminal in history. He would leverage that fortune into a sprawling criminal empire, fulfilling his seemingly insatiable appetite for the clandestine and the illegal. His ambition for wealth and power would slip the bonds of the Internet and enter the realm of flesh and blood. “The scope of his criminal conduct,” as one US federal prosecutor later put it, “is simply staggering.”

In the adjacent world he came to occupy, everything was for sale if you knew what to offer and to whom. Pure methamphetamine manufactured in North Korea. Yachts built to outrun coast guards. Police protection and judges’ favor. Crates of military-grade weapons. Private jets full of gold. Missile-guidance systems. Unbreakable encryption. African militias. Explosives. Kidnapping. Torture. Murder. Former soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere, drifting in the murky realm of global security contracting, could reinvent themselves as roving assassins for hire. Call center managers in Tel Aviv could wake up and find themselves arms dealers. Family doctors could turn into conspirators in an international drug cartel at the click of a button.

That world lurks just outside of our everyday perception, in the dark corners of the internet we never visit, the quiet ports where ships slip in by night, the back room of the clinic down the street. The events of 2012, I discovered, were simply the edges of that world crossing over into our own. And I came to understand how ordinary people could take one morally ambiguous step across that divide, then a second and a third, until suddenly cops or killers were at their door.

There was one puzzle piece I couldn’t get out of my head.

At 6:30 am on the morning of February 13, 2012, Jeremy Jimena, a garbage collector in the Philippines, had just started his shift. He set out with his driver on their regular route through Taytay, an industrial city an hour east of Manila. It had rained most of the night, and a light drizzle fell as they turned down Paseo Monte Carlo, a quiet road with no lights. Their first stop was a large vacant lot overrun by low shrubs, a green carpet of vines, and a scattering of banana trees.

The field wasn’t an official pickup spot, but local residents often dumped garbage there, and the collectors had informally added it to their route. That morning there was a small pile of trash spilling into the road: two large bags filled with waste and a bulging, rolled-up bedspread. Jimena, a small, wiry man with jet-black hair and a wisp of a mustache, hopped off the truck and approached the pile. When he leaned down and grasped the damp edge of the blanket, he saw a woman’s foot sticking out.

Jimena dropped the blanket and ran, shouting to the driver, and the two of them abandoned the truck and sprinted to the municipal headquarters. There they told the local head of security what they had found, and he called the police. Jimena returned to his route in a daze.

He never spoke to the police himself, and never learned who the woman was. When I met him four years later, I didn’t tell him what I knew: That her name was Catherine Lee, and she had been an accomplished real estate agent with a husband and a child. That she’d been shot below each eye with a .22-caliber pistol, rolled up in a blanket, and dumped out of a van. That somehow, her death connected back to a pharmacist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a warehouse raid in Hong Kong, a wrecked boat in Tonga.

Eric Petersen

Jimena didn’t seem to want to know those details anyway. Mostly he just seemed to want to forget. For years, he told me, he dreamed of her every night. The woman, wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes she would be asking him for help. Other times she would just scream.

So much of reporting, it took me a long time to discover, is waiting. Waiting for people to call back. Waiting for documents to arrive in the mail. Waiting for a plane to take you halfway across the world, only to arrive at the appointed time in a dreary office and sit in a plastic chair, waiting for an official who never shows up. Standing on a doorstep, waiting to see if a victim’s family will return. Sending out pleas for information and staring at a phone, waiting for them to boomerang back. All of it, in some sense, amounts to waiting for the same thing: that one sliver of fact that will help make sense of all the ones that came before it.

In December 2015, when I flew to the Philippines to try to untangle the connections behind Catherine Lee’s still-unsolved murder, I discovered entirely new magnitudes of waiting. Much of it I did in a rented van, with a Filipina American journalist I’d enlisted to assist me, Aurora Almendral. The two of us were stuck in the grip of Manila’s endless traffic, crawling to appointments that would inevitably involve more waiting once we arrived.

So it was that one afternoon, a few weeks before Christmas, we pulled up to a neglected cinder-block building on a steep hill in the town of Taytay. We’d been told this was the investigative division of the local police. We walked in, past a woman stapling paper holiday decorations to the wall, through a pair of swinging doors, and into a cramped room with four desks. An air conditioner rattled in the window and three detectives pecked away on ancient-looking computers.

We tried to rouse one of them and explain the reason we were there: to visit the vacant lot where Jeremy Jimena had encountered Catherine Lee’s body. The chief of police had promised, over the phone, to take us there, but that morning he’d been called away by a kidnapping. The other cops had no idea when he would return. No one claimed to know much about the body, and in the years since the murder, those people who did know something had tended to disappear. Some murders, perhaps, were better left unsolved.

So Almendral and I settled in to wait, sitting on a bench in front of a framed police “Loyalty Pledge” that hung on the wall. “Remember that an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness,” it read in English.

If you must growl, condemn and eternally find fault

Why! resign your position.

And when you are outside,

Damn to your hearts content.

But as long as you’re a part of the institution,

Do not condemn it.

If you do, the first high wind that comes along will blow you away

And probably you’ll never know why.

It read to me more like the blood oath of a criminal enterprise than the pledge of a law enforcement organization. But this was before I fully grasped how easily, under the right conditions, the two could sometimes come to resemble one another.

After some coaxing by Almendral in Tagalog, an officer named Abigail Del Monte agreed to pull the case file for us. She returned from a back room and proceeded to flip through it idly at her desk, as if trying to discern why I had flown 8,000 miles and then driven three hours to visit a crime scene nearly four years after the fact.

Finally another detective showed up, a friendly guy in a jean jacket. He introduced himself as George Arada. Suddenly everyone shifted into action. “You’re here for the Catherine Lee case?” he asked. “OK, let’s go.” We offered our slightly beat-up van and driver for transportation, and Del Monte decided to join as well. Along the way we picked up the local watchman who had called the cops after Jimena’s discovery. Then we drove over to the vacant lot.

At the site, the watchman showed us where the body had been positioned, and how he’d marked off the area back in February 2012. “The body was moved a little bit by the guy who picked up the blanket,” he said. “I didn’t find out anything about who she was.”

We walked over to an older woman selling drinks at a roadside stand. She remembered that day. “I saw the body,” she said, “but it was covered up, so we couldn’t see who it was. Three streets down, somebody had been missing for a couple of days, so we thought it could be them.” Later, word came back from the cops that the body belonged to a real estate agent from another part of the country.

When I asked what happened to the missing neighbor, the drink-stand woman said that the family had just moved on. I wandered around taking photos, looking for signs that Jimena’s horrible discovery had somehow transformed this otherwise ordinary place. If the body had left a mark, it wasn’t visible.

We piled back into the van, and on the drive to the station I asked the detectives whether they often encountered corpses in Taytay, a city of just over 300,000 people. “Sometimes over five in a month, but not over 10,” Arada said cheerfully. “It’s kind of a well-known place to dump bodies. Don’t tell the chief!” He laughed. The cases were difficult to solve, he said. The bodies were often mutilated or “broken up and stuffed in garbage bags.”

I asked if I could look at the case file, and to my surprise Del Monte turned and handed it to me. Photos taken at the crime scene showed Lee’s body, unwrapped, dressed in a black jacket and jeans, lying facedown with her feet in the road. A crowd stood at the edge of a police cordon. The facts in the file were spare: A team from the national police’s Scene of Crime Operations division had arrived at 7:50 that morning. An autopsy report listed the cause of “instantaneous death”: a gunshot wound under each eye.

The investigators had little trouble identifying the victim. She was found with her identification: Catherine Cristina Lee, 43, from Las Piñas City, an hour south of Taytay. Also with the body were a cellphone, an Anne Klein wristwatch, a silver bracelet, and a pair of rings, one silver and one gold. She had not been robbed; there was no sign of sexual assault.

Flipping through the file as we drove back to the police station, I came across mention of a 2015 meeting between Filipino officers and a special agent from the DEA’s Los Angeles office, along with a copy of his business card. I wasn’t the first person, it seemed, to travel to the Philippines and ask questions about the body.

Hoping to make some sense of what happened in Taytay, Almendral and I went to see Rizaldy Rivera, an agent at the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation who we’d learned had been assigned to the Lee murder case. The NBI’s Death Investigation Division was housed in a charmless room with tiled floors and the insipid fluorescent lighting that marks bureaucracies worldwide. On the wall was a whiteboard outlining agents’ assignments, organized by nickname: “Cardinal,” “Undertaker,” “Mechanic,” “Hitman,” “Braveheart,” “Snakedoc,” “KGB.”

A genial cop with a waist-length ponytail and a talent for sharp-shooting, Rivera was a natural showman. Almost immediately after we had shaken hands, he urged me to check out his target- shooting videos on YouTube. (Later I did, and had to admit that the clips were impressive—in one he cuts a credit card in half at 20 yards with a handgun, aiming over his shoulder using a compact mirror.) Most people called him Zaldy, but his nickname around the NBI offices was Slayer, bestowed after three shootouts early in his career, one of which left a bullet in his thigh.

Rivera had picked up the Catherine Lee case after her husband contacted the NBI and requested that it look into her murder, the day after the body was discovered. The agency is required by law to take over cases at the request of victims’ families, and often those requests stem from concerns that local officers are incompetent, or worse.

The ranks of local and national police in the Philippines are rife with corruption, and the NBI had a better, though not spotless, reputation for integrity. In the case of a murder-for-hire, which is what Rivera deduced the Lee case to be, it wasn’t unusual to hear whispers that cops themselves were in on the job. Police work pays poorly, with as much as 60 percent of the national police force living below the poverty line. Contract murder was a thriving industry in the Philippines; having someone killed cost as little as 5,000 pesos, or around $100.

“I cannot provide the real names of the witnesses, or their addresses and photos, in order to protect them,” Rivera said when we arrived. Otherwise, “I can probably answer any question that you want me to answer.” He gestured to a pair of plastic lawn chairs in a cubicle, facing a desk completely devoid of papers or equipment.

We started at the beginning, talking above the sounds of an NBA game—basketball being a Philippine national obsession— from a television somewhere just out of sight. Over the course of an hour, Rivera laid out everything he knew about Lee’s murder. He spoke in the world-weary manner of a cop who had seen his share of vicious crimes. But at times, he sounded as mystified as I was about how all the pieces of Lee’s killing fit together.

Rivera had reconstructed Lee’s movements from interviews with everyone she had encountered the day she disappeared, as well as clues found on her laptop and phone. The day before her body was discovered, Lee had been out showing properties to two foreigners, Canadians named Bill Maxwell and Tony. For some of the showings she had invited along several friends and fellow real estate agents.

They’d last seen her climb into a silver Toyota Innova minivan with the Canadians, mid-afternoon, to go look at another property. From the friends and a security guard at one gated community, Rivera gleaned enough detail to generate sketches: two white men, one goateed and the other clean shaven, both wearing baseball caps. But when it came to their identities, he hit a wall. “It was very hard to check with the immigration bureau in the Philippines,” Rivera said, “because Bill Maxwell and Tony—the names were fictitious.”

As for physical evidence, there was little to go on. The body had been out in the rain long enough that Philippine police technicians were unable to check for trace elements of DNA. The Toyota van lacked license plates, although the security guard had written down the number from a temporary registration sticker. When Rivera tried to trace it, nothing matched. He concluded that the number was probably faked. Without the van, there would be no fingerprints, no hair, no fibers.

One aspect of the crime stood out to Rivera: Lee had been shot under each eye, with what forensics determined was a .22-caliber handgun. “In our experience,” he said, “if you shoot a person dead, you don’t normally use a low-caliber firearm.” Hit men in the Philippines, he said, typically used “Armalite weapons, hand grenades, or a .40-caliber pistol. This is one of the few times that I discovered that the caliber was a .22 magnum.”

To Rivera, the weapon said something about the crime, namely that it might be a type of “signature killing.” He believed that Lee’s death was not a crime of passion but a professional murder committed by someone looking to send a message. “That’s an arrogant way of killing, putting two bullet holes beneath the eye,” he said. “That’s not how you normally execute a person.”

After a few months, Rivera’s leads dried up. Other murders required his attention. But like Jimena, he was haunted by Lee’s murder, and his failure to solve it. “I couldn’t sleep soundly at night,” he said. “I was thinking about that case. But the fact is, I cannot just proceed without solid evidence.”

For three years the Lee file languished at the NBI. Then, in April 2015, Rivera got a call from the US embassy in Manila. The Americans had some information regarding the Lee murder: A man the DEA had arrested three and a half years earlier on drug charges had been cooperating with the government, and he had tipped them off to possible suspects.

Eric Petersen

A few months after that phone call, three DEA agents came to meet with Agent Rivera at the Death Investigations Division. Rivera walked them through what he’d learned about the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to recap the investigation’s key points. When he finished, he asked them jokingly, “From one to 10, how would you rate my investigation?” Everyone laughed. The DEA agents confirmed Rivera’s hunch: Bill Maxwell and Tony weren’t the men’s real names. They were not Canadian, nor did they live in the Philippines. They were, the agents suspected, Americans from Roxboro, North Carolina.

Rivera introduced the DEA agents to the witnesses he had interviewed about Lee’s last days. The agents showed them photos of the two Americans, Rivera told me, “mingled with seven or eight different photos of seven or eight different individuals.” Some of the witnesses identified the two Americans as having met with Lee. Others didn’t. But after those sessions, one of the DEA agents faxed a report back to the States. The next day, the two men were arrested in Roxboro.

Rivera was pleased with the arrests, but he also expressed frustration about his own continuing investigation, which he resumed after the DEA meeting. A local accomplice had allegedly helped supply the murder weapon and vehicle to the suspects, but Rivera still didn’t have enough information to track him down. He pointed out to me that the NBI hadn’t gotten any credit for the arrests, while at the same time suggesting that such credit was unnecessary. “We were not included," he said. "We were happy about that, it’s no problem with us. We have nothing to gain with being famous.”

But something else was bothering him: There was someone, or something, much bigger behind the crime that remained shrouded in mystery. Why would the US government send agents across the world to gather evidence against two Americans for the murder of a Filipino woman? Overseas murders, no matter how tragic, typically don’t fall under American jurisdiction. Why not just extradite the pair to the Philippines, where the crime occurred, and hand them off to the NBI?

I had the same questions. Perhaps it was related to something more fundamental about the case that I still didn’t understand: Why was Catherine Lee important enough for two men from North Carolina to fly across the world to kill her?

Rivera had an answer, although at first he was reluctant to tell me. The crime, he said, was the work of “the Mastermind.” At first, Rivera would only identify this Mastermind as the head of a powerful crime organization based in Manila. But he did tell me the motive behind the murder: The Mastermind had once enlisted Catherine Lee to purchase vacation property for him in Batangas, a coastal region south of Manila. He had given her money, at least 50 million pesos, or around a million dollars. “But the deal never materialized,” Rivera said, “because the person who Catherine Lee instructed to do the verification of the land, to arrange the deeds and everything, went off with the money.”

That person had also been killed, Rivera said, “the body was never found.”

And then the Mastermind had ordered Lee’s murder, too. Catherine Lee, it seemed, had stepped across the invisible divide between her world and the underworld, oblivious to the chain of events she had set in motion that would end in her own death.

I asked Rivera if he would tell me the name of the Mastermind, and at first he refused. He had a name but he didn’t want to say it. The DEA, he told me, would “neither confirm nor deny it.”

But I already knew who it had to be. “If I tell you the name that I think it is, will you tell me if that’s the person?” I asked.

“I will confirm,” he said.

“Paul Le Roux.”

Rivera slammed his fist down on the table, then held my gaze for several seconds in silence. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “This Paul Le Roux,” he said, “is a very badass guy.”

  • One man’s epic quest for his Cambridge Analytica data
  • The pitfalls of Facebook merging all its chat apps
  • Ending the government shutdown won't fix flight delays
  • Drones drop poison bombs to fight a rat invasion
  • Have phones become boring? They’re about to get weird
  • 👀 Looking for the latest gadgets? Check out our picks, gift guides, and best deals all year round
  • 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter
Read also:   It Started as an Online Gaming Prank. Then It Turned Deadly