Commercial empires aren’t exclusive to mainstream business. Successful multinationals exist in underground markets just as well. A textbook example is British Dragon, the Pattaya laboratory that supplied the world with steroids. Ironically, it was conceived as a direct result of the clamp-down on the illicit anabolics trade and found its demise when Thailand increasingly integrated with the international intelligence community. The rise and fall of a shadow empire.
In the late nineties Edwin Richard Crawley decided to start over in Thailand, after doing jail time in the U.K. for fraud. The Brit moved to Pattaya, attracted by the warm climate, relatively low cost of living and an abundance of gyms. A body building enthusiast, Crawley spent most of time at Chevin Gym, behind Tukcom center in the southern part of the city center. Nicknamed Ox, he mingled with kindred spirits, most of them focussed on one thing: finding money to finance their lifestyles. The illicit trade in steriods quickly became an obvious choice.
In those days it was easy to send cheap steriods overseas, which was exactly what Crawley did, supplying contacts in his home country. When producing homebrew performance enhancers became popular, trade diminished when the competition started sourcing steroid powders from China by the kilo and selling them cheaply in small portions. Crawley teamed up with Ashley Vincent Livingston, beter known under his Internet moniker Redicat, to find a few to compete. Together with a chemist, they developed an ingenious way to deliver and transport their product: paper anabolics. They soaked edible rice paper, saturated it with the steroid of choice, and printed it over with a square grid. Customers would cut these squares out and eat them, in stead of taking a pill. By September of 2000, their product had been perfected. Easy to transport, impossible to trace, convenient to administer.
As a marketing and sales strategy, Livingston started bribing administrators and moderators of popular online fitness and body building forums to promote and sell the product. A black market product had been launched using an underground network. Trade quickly went through the roof.
With homebrew and paper anabolics popular at the lower end of the market, the vast majority of users still preferred the more traditional pills. That market was dominated by the pink pentangle-shaped Anabol tablets produced by the genuine Thai pharmaceutical company The British Dispensary. Extremely popular, local online pharmacies would send these around the world. Craving a piece of that market, Crowley partnered with an Iranian national called Mark. Details about this person are murky at best, but more about that later.
Mark brought along his Chinese girlfriend Youlan, who was very well connected and knowledgable about the Chinese chemical industry. She was able to source extremely high quality steroid powders, and have them laboratory tested. When thinking of an underground lab, we tend to think of a hidden high-tech facility, which is usually not the case. Most underground labs don’t really go through the chemical process of producing them, as that can only be profitable in very large quantities when economies of scale come into play. Most steroid labs just source steroid powders in China, mix (and hopefully filter) them in a garage-type setup and put them into vials that can be sold. Steroid powders can even be sourced from alibaba.com, these days.
Crawley had Youlan’s powders manufactured into the exact shape of British Dispensary Anabol tablets by his paperbol chemist. With underground word-of-mouth and distribution already in place from the paperbol trade, success was large to the extent that The British Dispensary had to alter the tablets and start using holograms on the packaging to distinguish genuine product from the forgery.
A stroke of luck came, when Thai authorities were pressured by the United States to shut down the online pharmacies that illegally sold prescription drugs to American customers. Raids, arrests and closures created a huge void in the market Crawley jumped into with products he branded British Dragon. Using his online network, British Dragon was able to circumvent export limitations. Rumor has it that Crawley and Mark even flew out to Greece to produce product and expedite from within the European Union.
With significant profit, British Dragon was able to improve manufacturing and branch their product range out, even to injectables. By 2005 they were allegedly producing from within three geographical markets: Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Middle East, with branded packaging and anti-counterfeit measures in place.
In Eastern Europe, Crowley and Mark partnered up with their successful local dealer, Alin. His professional approach bordered on operating as a mainstream enterprise, which inspired Crawley and Mark. Together they decided to move towards a legal pharmaceutical company, and even registered the British Dragon brand. They set up a plan to keep improving the production process, and start a legitimate laboratory in Romania. Full registration and licensing was the objective.
Considerable profits attract competition, and in a stroke of irony, British Dragon would see their product copied. The chemist who originally enabled them to copy British Dispensary products, started selling the distinctively shaped tablets to other customers. When Ukranian competitor Vadim started reselling them, rumors started that many of the British Dragon products were fake. This significantly hurt the brand and caused discussion within the operation. They were able to get the chemist in line but Vadim, having tasted lucrative sales, started an official British Dragon company in Hong Kong and had high quality product manufactured at BM Pharmaceuticals in India. Crawley had to flex his online muscle and use his influence over internet forums to fight the similarly named competitor. Aggressive marketing became part of the BD modus operandi.
When Crawley and Mark found out in 2006 that the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was on their trail, it became abundantly clear that moving towards a legally-licensed pharmaceutical company would not stop any potential legal prosecution. Both of them decided that they needed to get out of the Eastern European partnership with Alin and either wanted to buy him out or be bought out themselves. Obviously, ownership of a stake in an illegal operation that never officially existed in the first place, brings along intense discussion, that even spilled out onto internet forums.
In March 2007, Mark committed suicide in a hotel in Vienna. Apparently, he had visited the local DEA office. Supposedly to provide the DEA information, hoping to avoid a jail sentence. When he tried to board a flight out of Vienna afterwards, he was refused because he was drunk. That evening he jumped out of a 6th floor hotel window. Unable to find any newspaper article that even mentions his full name, while details about Crawley were plastered all over the media, give his part in the story a shady impression.
The very same month, Thai Police and DEA raided Crawley’s and Livingston’s houses. Both of them were arrested. Livingston (RediCat) cooperated fully and was quickly extradited to the US where he served 24 months. Crawley fought extradition for three years, and eventually just served 4 months in US prison, as his time in Thai jail was credited. He was released early, ill with pneumonia, and died soon after. What happened to his millions remains unknown to this day.
Before his arrest, Crawley sold the British Dragon website. It is now in use by a new laboratory that claims to be the true successor to the original and repeats the aspiration to become a legitimate facility. The website went offline late last month.
This case clearly illustrates that flying under the radar is becoming increasingly hard for criminals in Thailand. With allegedly around 40 USDEA agents, some 20 FBI agents, about 15 CIA operatives alongside intelligence officers from UK, France, Germany and Israel stationed in Bangkok, all interconnected and exchanging skills with local agencies, Thailand is very well locked into the international law enforcement community.
The opening of Thailand’s second Transnational Crime Data Center at the Jomtien office of the Chonburi Immigration bureau chases down undesirable foreigners by matching photos, known associates, accommodation reporting, visa extensions and habits to data in foreign law enforcement computer systems. Big Data applied to fight crime.