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The Strange Saga of the Drug-Smuggling Ring That Gave Rise to ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Twenty years before Piper Kerman went to prison and a cultural phenomenon was born, a crew of young Americans worked as mules, transporting premium-grade heroin around the world for a Nigerian drug lord. This is the story behind the story of the hit Netflix drama.

Nicholas Fillmore, a young American drug smuggler, was trying to stay calm. But honestly, things were looking pretty grim. Here he was, sitting on the floor of a mud hut somewhere in the bush of Benin, in West Africa. He could see that his sullen-faced employer, a Nigerian heroin trafficker known as “Alaji,” wouldn’t look at him. That couldn’t be good.

Fillmore couldn’t quite pinpoint where things had gone so wrong. As one of Alaji’s drug mules, he had been responsible for a network of other smugglers scattered around the world. During a recent trip to Indonesia, a suitcase full of pure white heroin in his charge had inexplicably gone missing. Fillmore had tried to find it — and the contact who had apparently absconded with it — and failed on both accounts. Alaji, understandably, hadn’t been pleased, and had summoned Fillmore back to West Africa to account for the error. Which is how he wound up on the floor of this mud hut, choking back sweat and tears. And now he watched as a group of Marabout voodoo priests tossed spotted cowrie shells and dried chicken bones into a black pan while drinking a toxic brew of African gin and yelling in a cacophony of tongues. They were beckoning the spirits for counsel on his fate. Fillmore began to despair.

It was the spring of 1994, and before long, more people would be despairing. Just months after Fillmore’s African escapade, federal agents nabbed another of Alaji’s mules at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and the whole smuggling ring began to collapse. The bust and its aftermath inspired an important piece of pop culture history: Nearly two decades later, the acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black debuted. It was the fictionalized story of Piper Kerman and her 15-month sojourn in a federal prison, the result of her real-life association with Fillmore, the mysterious Alaji and 12 other co-defendants in what remains one of the largest drug ring takedowns in the last 20 years.

The recently released fourth season has cemented OITNB’s status as both groundbreaking TV and biting social commentary — helping transform how audiences and critics think about everything from portrayals of women, minorities and the intimacies of prison life to casting choices and the problem of mass incarceration in America. By focusing on the lives of the mostly African-American and Latino women behind bars, its socially conscious tone also reflects how recent mass movements like Black Lives Matter and Say My Name have transformed the nation’s political discourse. Awards, including a pair of Emmy and SAG Awards, have kept pace with the show’s many innovations. Uzo Aduba — who portrays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, a cranky and volatile inmate besotted with Kerman’s character, Piper Chapman — has also nabbed two Emmys: guest actress in 2014 and supporting actress in 2015. Recently, fans went wild with a mixture of excitement and anger when creator Jenji Kohan brought in one of her oldest friends, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, to direct season four’s penultimate episode, which features a (spoiler alert) brutal death of one of the show’s most popular characters, Samira Wiley’s Poussey, asphyxiated by a scared and out-of-touch prison guard played by Alan Aisenberg.

Since its premiere in 2013, OITNB has rocketed to popular and critical acclaim, recently coming in at No. 26 in THR‘s poll of Hollywood’s 100 favorite TV shows of all time, behind The Big Bang Theory and ahead of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (beating out such fan favorites as The Wire, Homeland and The Good Wife). And while Kerman was first out of the gate with the memoir that brought this massive scheme into the public eye, her co-conspirators aren’t far behind. Harper Collins recently released Out of Orange, a memoir by Cleary Wolters, Kerman’s one-time real-life girlfriend who is portrayed on the show as manipulative and cunning vixen Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Wolters, who says the character bears no resemblance to her, is now in discussions about a show based on her own experiences. But for all the drama that befalls Piper Chapman inside OITNB‘s Litchfield Penitentiary, it probably can’t match the untold story behind the drug ring that inspired it. Based on exclusive interviews with three of the key smugglers who formed the core of the drug ring’s main American cell, the saga of the rise and fall of the international drug smuggling ring that landed the group in prison is just as rich and just as crazy.

Cleary Wolters, author of Out of Orange and the real-life inspiration for the OITNB character Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon.

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The Nigerian Impresario

This story must begin with the mysterious Nigerian businessman known as Alaji. He haunts the backstory of OITNB at almost every turn, yet never fully materializes. But according to court documents and interviews with people who knew him, the network that Alaji headed up was immense in its scope and ambition. With tentacles on at least four continents, his cartel allegedly employed dozens of money couriers, heroin mules, financiers and middlemen. A larger-than-life Nigerian impresario, Alaji had homes in two countries and used at least three aliases. He owned a bevy of cars and cultivated a playful demeanor that masked a sinister and cunning will to power. The show refers to him only obliquely, but former drug mules like Wolters and Fillmore who knew him personally say that in addition to Alaji, and sometimes Salman Kasman, they also knew him simply as “God.” U.S. prosecutors allege that Alaji is really a sitting Nigerian senator named Buruji Kashamu, a longtime supporter of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. According to Nigerian media outlets, Kashamu allegedly helped orchestrate Jonathan’s 2010 election, raising funds and support, and retained a degree of political immunity until Jonathan was ousted in May 2015, when he conceded the subsequent election to Muhammadu Buhari. For 20 years, U.S. authorities have been trying to extradite Kashamu to the States to stand trial.

Alaji’s American cell drew its core from a circle of young men and women who spent time in and around Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. The smuggling jobs were attractive to different people for different reasons, according to the mules who spoke with THR. Some got in it for the thrill, others for the fast cash. Alaji’s magnetic presence also drew some people in — including Wolter’s sister, Ellen, who was romantically entangled with Alaji for about six months. Another original member was a dashing young man named Peter Stebbens, who spoke excellent French and would go on to become one of the Nigerian’s most trusted confidants and skilled mules. Wolters says she was exposed to the ring after trying to rescue Ellen from Alaji’s grasp. In 1993 she traveled to Europe to help Ellen escape, but wound up joining her sister as a smuggler instead. At first she thought she would be ferrying diamonds, but before long she discovered that her cargo was premium-grade heroin from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia.

The first trips were easy. Overseen by more experienced smugglers, Wolters carried Italian suits and leather bags whose linings had been packed with heroin from Paris and Brussels to Chicago, where she handed them off to couriers. “It was as easy as sneaking into a movie theater,” Wolters tells THR. “Far too easy.”

But the operation quickly got complicated. Alaji seemed to be running multiple plans on several continents. Perhaps in a calculated exaggeration, he told Wolters that together they were part of a much larger operation, one in which even he was a bit player. He told Wolters that there was a rating system in which people were given “stars” — he had 16 stars whereas those above him might have as many as 24. He cautioned her that working for the Russians could get you killed; the Arabs would double-cross you. He bore a striking resemblance to Wesley Snipes, exuded power and authority, but leavened it with a jovial goofiness. More couriers were brought in, including Fillmore, who soon became a senior coordinator. Soon, mules were flying into the United States through numerous airports several times a year, bringing with them massive loads of heroin each time. “We made him millions,” says Fillmore. “If we brought back six bags, for every $60,000 we got, he got ten times more.”

Wolters says the logistical arrangements Alaji had set up for drug and cash transfers ranged from ad-hoc to highly organized. Heroin-laden mules were expected to go to specific prearranged hotels upon arrival. Alaji told them to call him upon arrival and then wait — everything else happened “as if by magic,” Wolters says. They’d wait for hours or days, sometimes up to a week, for a courier to arrive and fetch the goods. A third party would deliver payment. Mules weren’t allowed to leave their rooms until the packages had been delivered, so they ordered take out and watched TV to pass the time. Couriers arrived in all shapes and sizes, “from PTA moms to Cabrini-Green gangsters,” says Wolters, alluding to the notorious former housing project on Chicago’s North Side. In Jakarta well-dressed Brazilians would meet them. A knock on the door of a Chicago hotel would reveal a man who looked like a mobster from central casting. In Benin, they once saw a group of well-heeled French tourists in an SUV who formed another arm of Alaji’s network.

All the while, Alaji made sure Wolters and other couriers knew he watched them closely. He told Wolters that he monitored her sister and her own family. He commanded Fillmore to provide his parents’ home address. He also flatly told them that he had killed before and, while it was distasteful to him, wouldn’t hesitate to do so again. “He told us about two brothers he’d had to kill in Philadelphia; it made him very sad,” Wolters recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t ever make that happen.'” (There is no available evidence supporting this assertion.) Fillmore, Wolters and others were by now hard at work trafficking heroin. All of them, no matter their rank — including Piper Kerman, who dealt in funds, not drugs — were subject to Alaji’s constant scrutiny.

Piper Kerman

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The Thrill of the Smuggle

For the mules, the workaday business of running drugs was thrilling. But the fear factor mounted quickly, and soon Wolters began to worry for her and her sister’s lives. They were making so many trips a year — to Europe and Asia, primarily — that they routinely had to “lose” their passports to avoid suspicion with immigration authorities.

Wolters began seeking a way out for herself and her sister. Alaji seemed to have other plans. In late 1993 he flew Wolters, her sister and Fillmore down to the coastal town of Cotonou, Benin, Nigeria’s western neighbor, where he maintained a lavish complex. For Wolters, who grew up in an “upper-middle-class Ohio” neighborhood outside Cleveland, the trip was exotic. In the midst of bleak poverty, Alaji occupied a marble-floored mansion with black leather furniture and a dining room table that sat 16 people comfortably. Outside was a kidney-shaped swimming pool, and along the mansion’s perimeter an 8-foot cement protective wall topped with shards of cut glass and patrolled by barefoot machine-gun-wielding guards. A Maserati, a Lamborghini and a Mercedes 500SL were parked in the driveway. Alaji threw lavish dinner parties and invited local and international dignitaries, including an Italian general, diplomats and Beninese military officers. Fillmore came away with the sense that Alaji was employed as the chief of security for the Beninese president, though he could never be sure.

The drug lord took his mules — he always called them his “American friends” — to the local Sheraton Hotel, where they lounged around an Olympic-sized pool before returning to the mansion where his cook served up meals of freshly slaughtered goat. Alaji was alternately charming and sinister. “I love all you people,” Fillmore recalls the Nigerian saying, in a deep, bass voice tinged with accents of French and Yoruba, “I want you to be here with me.”

Once, for fun, the group traveled to a nearby open-air voodoo market where monkey heads, seashells and animal claws were on offer. Alaji told them snippets about his past: He said he had grown up in a small village, spent time in African jails, and been shot once during a local political conflict. Ostensibly a Muslim, Alaji made no secret of his abiding affinity for black magic and consulted regularly with a group of marabout priests, religious figures whose syncretic faith blended aspects of Catholicism, animism and Voodoo. One day Alaji took the group to a soothsayer who occupied a temple devoted to a local snake god to see if they were “dangerous” to him. Back at the mansion, Wolters says Alaji had his cook boil up “an invisibility concoction” that had helped shield him from bullets in the past. Then he told Wolters that she would have to take a bath in it as well. “Maybe it worked,” she says. “It was awfully easy going through customs.”

But while Alaji’s belief system blended the anachronistic and the pragmatic, his drug smuggling network was modern and efficient. Global drug shipments originating in Asia were routed through Europe, and sometimes Africa, destined mostly for the U.S market. “He’s not the first Nigerian politician to be accused of connections with drug smuggling,” says John Campbell, a former U.S ambassador to Nigeria and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Twenty years ago there was a kind of epidemic of Nigerian involvement in heroin trade into the U.S.” Campbell says traffickers of Alaji’s era and ilk often used women as drug mules including some from “quite prominent families, who would find themselves arrested at JFK for drug smuggling.” Those who got caught could face years in prison. If they weren’t killed first, mules carrying heroin-filled condoms stuffed into coat linings, swallowed or crammed into the orifices of their bodies, traveled from Asia through Africa and on to Europe and North America where Nigerian street gangs would handle distribution. For a long time, Campbell says, “it was Nigerians who dominated heroin trade in the U.S.”

John Campbell

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In this era, there were more than a few young Americans eager to make a quick buck and put everything on the line — though some were out for more than money or adventure. According to one of the mules who had a close relationship with Alaji(who spoke to THR on condition of anonymity), many of the mules were gay men desperate to find ways to pay for expensive anti-retroviral AIDS medicine for themselves or their HIV-positive lovers. “It was great to be able to say to my friends: go buy your medicine, or go party, don’t worry about it,” says this former mule, who spent several years in prison for her involvement in the ring, “I gave money away. It wasn’t a Robin Hood thing, but it felt like that in a sense.” Though she wouldn’t say how much she made, in general the mules tended to make tens of thousands of dollars a year, mostly in large chunks.

But as Alaji’s operations expanded, so did the risks. Fillmore’s disastrous trip during which he lost the suitcase was an example. “I was supposed to meet a guy in Zurich and grab a bag off him and he never showed,” Fillmore recalls. Fillmore — who has written his own account of that time in his life, titled Smuggler, which he is shopping around to book publishers — says he immediately called Alaji and told him the bag and its carrier had never materialized. “I never dreamed things could go badly so simply. Nobody fessed up; I just don’t know what happened.” Alaji wasn’t happy. He summoned Fillmore back to Benin and told him they would sort it out once he got there. Fillmore would have to “take an oath.” A well-spoken English major who studied poetry at the University of New Hampshire with Charles Simic, Fillmore knew that he could be killed on the spot if Alaji couldn’t be convinced.

So there he was — stuck in the back of an SUV on a four-hour car ride up to the northern edges of Benin, where he and Alaji skirted the border with Nigeria, heading into the bush. After a couple of excruciating hours, Alaji pulled the convoy over for a rest stop. “You okay Nicky?” the Nigerian quipped in his booming voice, a mischievous smile on his face.

Eventually they arrived in a village where a local headman wearing a papier-mache mask and a black crucifix was holding court. A group of marabout priests led Fillmore and Alaji into a tent where the examination began. It lasted for hours and involved much shouting in French, English and two dialects of Yoruba, Alaji’s native tongue. Finally, Alaji turned to his mule. “Everything will be OK, I will fight for my side,” Alaji told Fillmore. “Now you take an oath.” Fillmore pledged allegiance never to tell a soul about his work with the drug lord. When he looked down later, he saw that a thorn had been stuck in his arm.

Later, Alaji took Fillmore aside. “You cannot be a man if you talk about people,” he said, “Perhaps one day you’ll become sick.” Fillmore knew he had to keep quiet. The voodoo priests had done their job.

Nicholas Fillmore

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The Feds Close In

But U.S. authorities were doing their job, too. In March 1994, another member of the American cell named Kary Hayes was arrested at O’Hare with a suitcase containing 14.16 pounds of heroin. Within a year, the Feds had nabbed virtually all of the dozen or so active mules, including Fillmore. Two members remained at large — Alaji and one mule.

Wolters remembers the night the police came for her. She was leaving home and suddenly an army of police cruisers had surrounded her sedan. Like most of the other arrestees, she started talking almost immediately. The only one who didn’t was Peter Stebbens, who decided to take his case to court. He lost and spent several years in prison. Others, like Piper Kerman, received shorter sentences.

Alaji himself managed to slip through the net — for a time. While U.S. prosecutors were building their case, he remained at large, his whereabouts unknown. American authorities filed a warrant for his arrest. Then, in 1998, in a surprising break, a Nigerian businessman named Buruji Kashamu showed up at London Heathrow airport carrying $230,000. On the understanding that Kashamu might be the mysterious Alaji, Metropolitan Police promptly arrested him.

During the extradition proceedings, however, a series of missteps by U.S. officials upset the case and contributed to a multiyear legal drama that was harmful to U.S.-U.K relations. When a British magistrate discovered that officials from the U.S. Department of Justice had failed to disclose key information to U.K. authorities — namely that Fillmore had been unable to properly identify Kashamu in a photo lineup — he promptly threw out the case.

A second extradition request was filed, to which Kashamu then had an answer: It was all a sad case of mistaken identity, he claimed. The Nigerian insisted that, contrary to what U.S. authorities were saying, he had long been an informant for the Nigerian drug enforcement agency, the NDLEA. Furthermore, Kashamu said, he had told the NDLEA about his own brother, Adewale, who resembled him and was the drug trafficker they were looking for. NDLEA officials countered that Adewale had been killed during a raid, but later had to concede that he may have lived longer than they believed when Kashamu’s lawyers provided a passport that offered strong evidence that Adewale had been alive at the time of the supposed death.

A frantic back and forth ensued, with Assistant U.S. District Attorney Diane Macarthur sending urgent faxes to the DEA’s field officers based in Lagos as they tried to get to the truth in time for looming court proceedings in London. Yet in the end, the legal challenges dragged on for years as each new piece of evidence presented U.S. officials was rebutted and challenged from Nigeria. Kashamu’s lawyers were providing letters on NDLEA letterhead categorically stating that he had been an invaluable tool in the fight against illicit narcotics in West Africa. But the NLDEA told U.S authorities that these letters were forged and that Kashamu was, in fact, a “wanted drug smuggler” and should be immediately extradited to the U.S. In March 2001, the NLDEA wrote to American authorities that Kashamu “had, at no time, been an informant of this agency nor has the agency had cause to reward him for anything.” Later that year, another NDLEA missive stated that any claims by Kashamu or his lawyers about his being an informant were “absolutely false.”

Miffed by the legal flubs and the confusion surrounding Kashamu’s identity, the British magistrate found the U.S. case increasingly problematic. The evidence supplied by American authorities, he said, “has now been so undermined as to make it incredible and valueless,” according to court documents.

Buruji Kashamu

After five years in custody, U.K. authorities sent Kashamu back to Nigeria in 2003.

There, he immediately got back to work. He opened up several import-export businesses, dealing in everything from rice to cars. And then he got into politics. “You sort of feel this voodoo had something going for it,” says Fillmore. Back in the U.S., meanwhile, Wolters, Kerman and the others were headed to jail, and the seeds of Orange Is the New Black were being sown.

Now, more than two decades after the first arrest took place and 12 years after he was released from British custody, Kashamu’s case is heating up again. Last year, armed police showed up at Kashamu’s Lagos home to arrest him. A spokesman for Kashamu said the then-senator elect hadn’t been arrested but was “under siege.” Nigerian media outlets reported that a terrified and paranoid Kashamu hid from the agents in his bathroom. Repeated requests by THR to reach Kashamu through his lawyers in Nigeria and the United States were rebuffed. (“Sen. Kashamu will not be available for an interview,” said one of his U.S attorneys, Matthew Piers, “The same is true for his legal counsel, both here and in Nigeria.”)

Since then, the NDLEA has tried to seize some of Kashamu’s properties, including real estate holdings that include a Best Western hotel. U.S. officials won’t comment, except to say that the case is ongoing, and they remain committed to extraditing him to stand trial in the U.S. “The case is still pending in the U.S.,” says Peter Carr, a DOJ spokesperson, “[The] goal is to get somebody to the U.S.”

As for the mules caught up in the bust, many remain scared of the long reach of the mysterious Nigerian they knew as God, the man they called Alaji but whom they assume is Kashamu. “I can almost hear him laughing, saying, ‘They tried to get me, but I’m too smart for them,'” says Fillmore. “But you can’t help but think that the wheel is going to turn against him one of these days.”Wolters, who lives in a woody patch of rural Ohio, not far from where she was raised, remains scarred by her smuggling days. “I’m still scared of him,” she says, “But the one thing that has done the most to alleviate my fears is the popularity of Orange Is the New Black. By being a public figure I’m less afraid of him.”

Cleary Wolters‘ memoir Out of Orange

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