When the Baltimore riots erupted in April 2015 after Freddie Gray's death in police custody, James "Brick" Feeney and Willie "Wax" Harris*, two tech-savvy teenagers with ties to Maryland's Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), saw opportunity. Using the chaos as cover, they managed to steal at least a million doses of prescription drugs and heroin from city pharmacies and rival dealers. But even if their caper was essentially an old-school, smash-and-grab-style theft, the teens had plans to sell the drugs in a more sophisticated manner: via the Dark Web, where pills went for upward of $100 each.
Leaning on location-based technology and encrypted messaging software, Brick envisioned their operation as an "Uber of drug dealing."
As the looted drugs were shipped up and down the East Coast, a spike in opiate overdoses in African American communities raised eyebrows, and the DEA and FBI eventually took notice. In his forthcoming book Pill City: How Two Honor Roll Students Foiled the Feds and Built a Drug Empire, veteran crime reporter Kevin Deutsch profiles the the teens' massively profitable scheme, which he contends had (distant) ties to El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel.
Deutsch enjoyed incredible access to the two teens and some 300 other dealers, addicts, gang bangers, police, and drug-treatment specialists for the book. A reporter who prefers to work with his "feet on the ground," Deutsch saw the vicious effects of America's opioid epidemic in an urban setting. VICE talked to the journalist about how he wrapped his head around the technology in play, how opiates were never just a middle-class white problem, and where Brick and Wax are at now.
VICE: The first thing that struck me about the challenge of writing this book is the technology involved. Your background's in crime reporting, not tech journalism, so how did you make sense of that stuff?
Kevin Deutsch: When I first heard Brick and Wax were using digital encryption to sell product, I began learning everything I could about that technology. That meant attending crypto parties, online forums where web security experts share tricks of the trade, and reading books about hacking and programming. And I wrote a number of stories for Newsday about Dark Web drug markets like Silk Road, cultivating relationships with several high-level law enforcement officials who would later provide crucial guidance for the book.
I was also able to conduct numerous interviews with the two teenage dealers themselves—conversations that often focused on their use of technology. Their motivation for speaking with me was pretty straightforward, I think: They sought notoriety and fame, both wanting their legacy in the Baltimore underworld to be a positive one long after they were gone. The only way they could ensure that outcome, they said, was to talk to a journalist. "They only write about gangsters who get caught," Brick once told me. "But we're not going to [get caught]."
The book leans on the chaos of the Freddie Gray protests as a key moment. Do you think the looting of the pharmacies was just a spur of the moment thing, or was it a more concerted effort to capitalize on the chaos for profit?
Some of it was spur of the moment crimes borne of opportunity, anger, and desperation. But my reporting showed that dozens of those who took part in the pharmacy looting did so as part of a well-developed plan crafted in anticipation of the riots. At the time of Freddie Gray's arrest, Brick and Wax were already working on launching an encrypted Dark Web drug market, and said they saw the expected rioting in Baltimore—gang members online were already calling the anticipated unrest the "Purge"—as a business opportunity.
The teens felt that targeting pharmacies while police were occupied with rioting elsewhere in Baltimore would be the easiest way for them to secure inventory. If looting drugstores seems like a perilous way to get into the drug-dealing game, Brick and Wax thought it preferable to the alternative—another year spent in a failing, violence-plagued school, and another year of watching as Wax's mom worked the streets as a heroin-addicted prostitute. To them, the drug-looting seemed a risk worth taking. And through their partnership with the Black Guerrilla Family, Baltimore's most powerful gang—of which Brick's cousin was a high-ranking member—the teens were able to bring their plan to fruition.
How did they steal $100 million worth of prescription opioids in a day, and where did they stash all the drugs?
It wasn't just prescription opioids they stole. Much of the product the Pill City organization obtained in April 2015 was heroin and other illicit opiates—drugs their BGF partners stole from rival dealers and stash houses across the city. Collectively, the street value of all of Pill City's stolen drugs was a little more than $100 million, according to records kept by Brick and Wax. They stored their inventory in stash houses across Baltimore, making sure the drugs were spread around in case one or more of those locations was sniffed out by law enforcement.
I think Americans, right now, often see prescription drugs as a rural or suburban problem. But this was squarely in the city of Baltimore. Can you talk about that?
Despite the glut of media coverage focusing almost exclusively on white opiate addicts, painkiller and heroin abuse is also a problem in many African American communities. The rate of heroin overdose deaths increased 213 percent among African Americans between 2000 and 2014, the largest increase ever in that category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015 and 2016, amid the epidemic's second wave, things have gotten worse: While blacks represent about 13 percent of the US population, they now account for approximately half of all overdoses caused by illegally purchased opiates, my reporting showed.
In blighted urban areas—West Baltimore and elsewhere—it's nearly impossible to find a block untouched by the epidemic.
The operation has been compared—at least by one of the teens behind it—to Uber, and one detective said it was genius from a criminal perspective. What made the scheme these kids ran so unique?
Listening to the teens discuss their business, it was easy to forget they were operating a sprawling, illegal drug network rather than a legitimate startup. Even the handwritten notes taped to their walls at the time contain Silicon Valley–esque mottos like "Make Ideas Happen" and "Move Fast and Break Things"—reminders, they said, of the "disruptive" philosophy they had applied to the drug game.
The uniqueness of their business model lay in the fact they'd created this Dark Web drug marketplace focused on inner cities, and that they had hundreds of street-dealing gang members across the country working with them, using this software to blanket racially isolated neighborhoods with drugs. As far as I know, nothing like that had been attempted before. Advances in technology have made it possible for most any dealer with a smartphone to do what Brick and Wax did in their own backyards.
When in their lives did the two teens decide to adapt programming and encrypting to criminal ventures?
Both were enamored with computers from a very young age, wowed by the sleek design of the new iPhone and MacBooks, as well as the speeds at which they processed information. Librarians, teachers, and friends let them use digital devices of all kinds. By their 12th birthdays, there was no task Brick and Wax couldn't perform: Coding, software design, and rudimentary hacking all had a place in their repertoires. And what they couldn't glean on their own, they learned from more experienced tech geeks online. Before founding Pill City, they'd also learned a great deal about traditional corner dealing, having spent their childhoods in the care of heroin-addicted mothers, even copping drugs for the women on occasion. Then they built a system to overtake the corner-dealing model that had kept their mothers high, letting software do the heavy lifting once required of drug kingpins.
Is opioid addiction underreported in African American communities, and if so, why?
Part of it is the cultural stigma of addiction, which transcends racial lines and demographics. Part of it is that there are simply more journalists, researchers, and public health workers gathering data in whiter neighborhoods than there are in blacker ones. Still another part of it is the fact that some opiate overdoses are not officially counted because of non-standardized reporting procedures and a lack of postmortem testing in some impoverished communities.
The book alludes to Brick and Wax's operation having a relationship with El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel. Did they know him?
They didn't have a relationship with El Chapo himself. Rather, one of their partners in the BGF had a relationship with a trafficker who was a cog in the wheel of El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel. Pill City was able to obtain large orders of heroin through this supplier. In that way, they were no different from any other inner-city drug-dealing organization that has contacts with cartel-connected middlemen and suppliers. If it wasn't someone with Sinaloa connections, I imagine they'd have found another high-volume seller to work with. Where there is money and desire, heroin can usually be found.
OK, so people want to know: What happened to Brick and Wax—where are they now?
I don't want to spoil the story for readers. But I will say that Wax managed to parlay his tech skills into a very lucrative position not at all connected to the drug game. There's more on that subject in the book. In my mind, it's one of the most heartening developments to come out of this tragedy.
There are so many amazing, heartbreaking crime stories we don't ever hear about because arrests aren't made in most cases. Brick and Wax wanted their story to be known no matter what—freedom, incarceration, or whatever else was in store for them.
Learn more about Pill City, which drops January 31, here.
*The author changed some names to protect sources.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.