Part 2 of 2 (Read Part 1 here)
By the time his sophomore year rolled around, Amadou had helped the members of Theta Chi pick out a multi-unit building on North Frances Street—a white craftsman townhouse two doors down from the lakefront—and began selling weed out of a first floor apartment he shared with four other fraternity members.
It was cold, “stupid cold” as Amadou likes to say whenever someone asks about the house, and for years after the fraternity moved out we heard long-running jokes about the giant spiders living there.
More than a social circle, Greek life also presented Amadou with an opening—a ready-made network through which his new cannabis business could be funneled. For Amadou, then as well as now, every opportunity was a business opportunity. Every party, every class, every hand he shook, was an opportunity to get his name out there. And as his network grew, so did his ability to leverage those relationships. Amadou’s entrance into the Greek system immediately gave him a new pool of clients, with people to vouch for them, and business exploded, seemingly overnight.
This, in turn, presented a practical issue: Amadou needed a supplier who could keep up with the increased demand. “It seemed like a natural progression,” he said. “I always knew I was going to step up a level, and had been planning to do that for years. Then it just kind of happened.”
What he needed, like any good business looking to expand, was capital—and a lot of it. So he set out to find investors.
There were a few people in particular that Amadou began to court, whose real names I’ve promised not to use, in an effort to protect their continuing culpability in any future criminal cases. Let’s call the first duo Eric and Matt.
Eric was an upper crust kid from Minnesota, which meant that though he could be snobby at times, he was also disarmingly polite, in an incredibly disconcerting way given his business at the time. He spent conspicuously, not even attempting to hide his staggering disposable income, and bragged openly about buying drugs in bulk: marjijuana, cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, whatever he could flip in short order to his classmates.
It was an urban legend in the journalism school that he had served as an anonymous source for a student newspaper series on campus “smart drug” usage. Two reporters there had conducted an undercover experiment in which they set out to see how quickly they could acquire Adderall at each campus library. The first time, it took fifty-six seconds—a student in the entryway immediately gave them Eric’s number. He was downstairs. The second time took several minutes, and they were again given Eric’s number. I could never verify whether this was true, but the thought that Eric could have been this anonymous source is undoubtedly accurate.
The kind of exposure Eric’s loose lips presented was dangerous, not just for himself but for Amadou—an especially huge liability for an undocumented person for whom the consequences of being caught would be that much more severe. Perhaps most concerning, Eric had what several people described to me as a drinking problem. “I just thought his way of doing business was just preposterous.” But the money, Amadou said, “was right.”
One Friday after class, Amadou and Eric went to the Kollege Klub, the chic basement bar known on campus for being home to generations of Greeks, athletes, and all manner of social strivers. It wasn’t two hours before Eric was stumbling drunk, with a wad of more than $5,000 in his back pocket. He dropped it several times and threw much of it into the air, the entire time offering drinks to everyone, and to no one in particular. In the end, nobody knew quite what to do, other than let him pay for everything.
After Eric sobered up, Amadou staged an intervention of sorts—there was business to be done, after all, and he was in this for the long haul. “I had to look out for him,” Amadou said. “I’m not sure he would have held it together otherwise.” This was an especially terrifying concept for people who knew Eric, all of whom I talked to said that he could be a little frightening. Underneath his nice-guy exterior laid a volatile temper, and the implicit threat of violence. You don’t get to that level of success in many industries without making enemies, and this particular trade is a little more rough than most. “He knew people who would literally kill you,” said one of Eric’s associates, who I knew in college but only found out recently had been selling drugs himself. “He was moving significant weight. To do that, you have to displace other people. That doesn’t just happen.”
Matt, for his part, was slightly more reserved, but with similarly high ambitions—he and Amadou got along right away. He was a small kid from another moneyed Minnesota family, soft-spoken but smart, one of those people who tends to disappear into the background. He was Jewish, and in a Jewish fraternity, and was the de facto leader of a small group of Jewish dealers who primarily stayed within their own circles. But he wanted to use whatever capital he had on hand to expand, to capture business from the rest of campus, and knew a partnership with Amadou was his way of getting there.
There were a number of others, contributing various smaller sums of money for a percentage of the final take that the group had all agreed upon in advance. Investigators would note a number of times in subsequent court proceedings the incredible amount of organizational work it took to put an operation like this together. This was Amadou’s area of expertise. Just as he had learned in his business classes, he put together a business plan. The group closely guarded this series of spreadsheets, complete with estimated expenses and projected profits, down to the decimal.
The group—a motley crew of Greeks and briefcase-carrying, suit-and-tie business school denizens and rich hippies that Amadou had networked together—had managed to raise something close to $50,000 in just a few weeks, according to Amadou. This represented, for a group of college students, half of whom could not yet legally drink, an absolute fortune. Now, all they needed was a supplier.
They wouldn’t have to look far.
Directly next door to Theta Chi sits Tau Kappa Epsilon, or TKE. The house, pronounced “teek,” was not one of the bigger or more well-known fraternities on campus, but it had a well-earned reputation for throwing the biggest, dirtiest, most underage-friendly parties on campus. Their building was a classic roman revival ripped straight from Animal House, with a particular holes-in-the-wall, doors-ripped-off-their-hinges, common-bathrooms-that-haven’t-been-cleaned-in-a-generation aesthetic favored by such institutions.
It was through a friend of a friend of a friend that Amadou first connected with Enis Gashi, one of the brothers who lived at the TKE house. If you were smoking pot and happened to be a member of the Greek system—the center of a Venn Diagram into which a good chunk of campus would have fit—Enis told me that it was likely thanks to the smuggling efforts of the boys at TKE. Amadou knew this, and was prepared to make them an offer too good to pass up: combine forces, and grow both of their market share by, as Enis put it to me recently, “leveraging both of our strengths.”
Enis had the connections to facilitate a bulk order the likes of which the campus had never seen, while Amadou had the business acumen to raise cash quickly on the front end and the infrastructure in place to manage a complicated system of mid-level distributors and low-level dealers on the back end. So the pair set up a meeting: a tense, weekday afternoon affair that both Enis and Amadou say left everyone tingling with both excitement and apprehension about what the future might hold.
This was a deal that represented, for everyone involved, a significant step up in payout—but with that came increased risk. It certainly did not go unnoticed that this meeting raised the legal stakes from a simple intent to distribute to what could become a conspiracy investigation and federal charges.
“You know that painting of the dogs playing poker?” Amadou said when I asked about that first meeting, one that would, perhaps more than any other, fundamentally alter the trajectory of his life. “It was kind of like that. Dimly lit, everyone is looking around suspiciously. I always remember those first meetings like that—planning shit out with my dogs.”
For his part, Enis said his first impression of Amadou was a good one. He was clean cut and articulate and clearly business minded, in retrospect more Stringer Bell than Avon Barksdale, which isn’t always the case for campus weed dealers.
But Enis could feel the weight of what they were about to do, and wanted to make sure they were on the same page. “Over time, you definitely improve your ability to determine which people are trustworthy,” Enis said. “It’s the little things. Are they twitching? Are they sweating? Are they too happy? Smiling too much? Are they closed off or defensive?
“You learn how to read other people,” he said, “as much for your own safety as anything else.”
Amadou, it seemed, had passed the test.
Enis, and his childhood friend Haris Riza, a local technical school student who was there that day in October 2012 as well, were also Muslim, and both refugees too. They had come to the United States from Kosovo in the mid 1990s, following civil strife in the region. Their families were relatively poor, and they were also the only practicing Muslims in their neighborhood, and at school.
Informed by similar experiences as childhood immigrants to the American Midwest, the trio immediately bonded. Their lives up until this point, Amadou noted recently, had been defined by what they were not—and the things they did not have. “Here, right in front of us,” he said, “was an opportunity to change that.”
Amadou had it all organized down to the smallest detail. Investors had put money down, drivers had been recruited, the route and gas mileage calculated, each person’s cut shown on a spreadsheet that factored in changing market rates and gas prices. They were looking for a little over forty pounds of cannabis—worth somewhere near $120,000, depending on the street price they could get for the stuff in Madison.
Enis, it turned out, was good friends with a member of TKE’s chapter at Sonoma State University in California, who in turn had direct connections with farmers in the northern reaches of the state, as well as a few across the border in Oregon. For a fee, Enis could facilitate a pickup for Amadou, who would then need to coordinate a way to transport everything across the country.
But Amadou knew this, and had a driver already lined up: Another member of Theta Chi named Chris, who agreed to speak with me under the condition that I only use his first name. Chris was a lanky, blonde prep-school kid from Milwaukee—a product of Marquette University High School, the storied Catholic institution that remains one of the highest-ranked, and most expensive, private high schools in the state.
He cut an interesting contrast with his new associates. During one of those early meetings Amadou brought the group’s new driver along for a meet-and-greet—standard practice in any illegal enterprise. Each new person is a risk, and it’s always best to personally assess those risks.
Enis lived in one of the TKE house’s back rooms—a sizable double that amounted to a large open space in which two naked mattresses, several dressers, and a makeshift living room had been haphazardly thrown together. It was, in keeping with its surroundings, endearingly dirty, with a healthy cannabis odor and paraphernalia lining the walls. Chris, rather than meet his hosts’ eyes, walked straight into the room and examined his surroundings with what seemed to both Haris and Enis, at the time, to be a critical eye.
“I knew he was bad news from the moment I met him,” Enis told me, unprompted, when the name came up. “I didn’t like the look of him, yeah,” Haris added. “He was timid, a little too afraid for my liking.”
Chris, for his part, remembers their interaction differently. He told me the group were fast friends, and only later, when things began to turn for the worse, did their relationship sour.
Either way, there was work to be done, and money to be made.
This was fall 2012, the year of Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington State—something that had, for most of this new Madison crew’s lives, been nothing more than a dream: full legalization of cannabis for recreational use.
It was, for some members of this group of nineteen and twenty-year-olds who had been involved in the industry’s darker side for years, a proverbial lighthouse. Change was coming, and all that work, all that risk, could build towards something concrete, something legit.
Amadou had no interest in the burgeoning marijuana industry—he was still pursuing his Wall Street dreams with a single-mindedness that bordered on obsessive—but Enis, and to some extent Haris, had other plans. Enis had decided to major in agricultural business management as a way to break into legal cannabis, a path Haris was hoping to follow by majoring in business after transferring to UW in 2014. The pair followed headlines and talked often of their desire to head west, to build a new life in an industry that, at the time, appeared to be poised for an explosion. Every stoner from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo had similar ideas, but this pair knew that, in order to make it happen, they also needed capital. Prohibition at the federal level meant (and still means) that banks are wary of lending to small cannabis businesses, especially ones with a pair of inexperienced founders whose only resume lines include service-industry jobs and extensive black-market experience.
Amadou made no secret that this trip was a lifeline—it’d soon be time to apply for the prestigious New York City-based internships that he and his father had been dreaming of the majority of their lives in America. He knew that he would need a sizable fund to pay for the Manhattan rents and exorbitantly priced social arrangements that can make-or-break a young élite’s career.
As Amadou and Enis stepped onto their plane for a weekend flight from Madison to San Francisco, just a few short weeks after their first meeting, the pair held each other at a distance. Speaking with me nearly a decade later, the pair both said they would come to be something like friends—eventually—but they were cautious at first, knowing that one wrong move from either could end both men’s precarious hold on their own version of the proverbial American dream.
The supplier’s house was a neutral-colored ranch, located in a cookie-cutter subdivision just outside the first ring of Bay Area suburbs. It was nondescript—almost disarmingly so. Enis said he drove past it at least twice to make sure he was at the right place. The blinds were drawn, but the well-manicured lawn and fully furnished front porch belied any semblance of the illegal activity inside.
Amadou and Chris, who had driven out to California by himself a few days earlier, were waiting in the parking lot of a nearby convenience store. They weren’t sure exactly where Enis and his friend from Sonoma State University were headed, but the group had all agreed not to ask too many questions of each other. For what seemed like an eternity they sat and waited, stepping out of the car occasionally to pace and smoke the cigarettes they had purchased inside.
Walking up to the house, Enis was sure they had the wrong place. He put on a bright face and hoped for the best—he had no idea what the names of the people he was meeting were. It was for the best, of that he was sure, but he was also hoping not to sully his first impression with these new contacts. Criminals, after all, can be a fickle bunch, and he was hoping for repeat business.
Before Enis even had a chance to knock the door swung open, and both he and his friend were ushered inside. Two men, both sporting large beards and heavily distressed flannel shirts, poked their heads outside suspiciously before closing the door and addressing their arrivals.
“He’s cool, right?” one asked.
“Yeah, he better be cool—or it’s my ass, too,” Enis remembers his friend saying, a fairly transparent attempt to diffuse some of the attention. A second passed, then another, and both men began to smile—it had worked.
Not that the pleasantries would have mattered even if they were cops: Nearly forty pounds of marijuana, their entire haul, was already scattered around the sparsely decorated three-bedroom flat, packed loosely in identical black garbage bags—not exactly a professional operation. One was sitting open on the kitchen island between the four men, clearly intended for inspection. “It was shit, quite frankly,” Enis told me recently, though this was a fact I was already familiar with. I was living with one of the group’s distributors, John, at the time, and listened to his complaints for days before he gave me a bag of “shake” to sample—the loose bits left over after the work of unpacking and weighing out and distributing the bulk of the order was done. It was rough stuff, filled with seeds and stems that tasted like burnt pine needles when sparked.
Worst of all, there was one final surprise that Amadou kept from everyone—even the others involved with smuggling and selling it all: One of the bags contained a sizable dead rat, one that he immediately threw away but the thought of which continued to haunt him.
At the time, everyone agreed, there was no complaining. It was their first purchase from these men, and they were hoping to earn repeat business—or at least to avoid angering them. Enis and his friend from the area nodded their approval, and the men packed everything into several suitcases.
In all, the entire interaction couldn’t have taken more than fifteen minutes.
Chris was late, “really late,” Amadou later recalled. More than twelve hours had passed since their crew—Enis, Haris, Amadou, and a half-dozen of the group’s odd investors—had met at TKE in expectation of their driver’s arrival. He wasn’t answering their calls or text messages, and they feared the worst.
But Chris arrived late that night, nonplussed by their indignation. He said something about his phone dying, and making a pit stop to sleep somewhere in Wyoming, or maybe Nebraska. The details remain murky for those involved, all these years later, lost in a haze of elation. The group had, after all, pulled off a major coup: In just a few short weeks, they had become the biggest game in town. Still, something was off. “In hindsight, that behavior probably should have alarmed us, or at least alerted us to the idea that something was wrong with Chris,” Amadou told me. “Not even necessarily that he had been compromised, but just that he was flaky. And there’s nothing worse than a flaky criminal.”
But there was little time to reflect. The work of weighing and measuring and packing and passing the product through dozens of hands before it ended up in the customers’ hands had begun.
To celebrate, the group went to a white-tablecloth steakhouse on Madison’s capitol square, Tornado Room, and one drink turned to two turned to ten. Soon after that, they began to plan out another trip. Communication would be better, they all agreed. The group knew each other now; they had been tied together by anxiety and fear and the exhilaration of getting away with something.
They planned these trips around school breaks or long weekends, one more that semester and nearly once a month the whole next year. When the university’s football team went to the Rose Bowl that New Year, Amadou and company were there in Pasadena, ready to head north the next day with more than $70,000 stuffed into a duffle bag. The next year, when the Badgers made a repeat trip, the group was, again, ready to travel, with double the cash. They convinced their friends to drive, or to give up their cars for a week at a time—the money they paid was enough that nobody asked questions. Eventually, someone finally convinced the group to rent their own vehicles, and when they were running out of space to hide everything in cars, they graduated to trucks.
Enis stepped back, and Haris said he stepped forward to lean on the suppliers, to ask more from the shadowy men who they vowed to always hold at arms’ length. Plausible deniability, or something like that.
Through that initial contact at Sonoma State they met others, in the northern California backwoods and across the border in Oregon, with sophisticated outdoor irrigation and indoor greenhouses that could handle their pleas for higher-quality product. For this, they could charge a premium. Plus, campus tastes were changing, as students from New York City and Los Angeles brought with them a demand for the stronger stuff they had grown used to in their more cosmopolitan hometowns.
Amadou was now, quite literally, a business—on several fronts. It was during this time that he registered “The Trust” as an LLC, and the name quickly became a sensation around campus. He used the organization to plan and execute parties of increasing scale, and the trickle-down effects for everyone in Amadou’s orbit were substantial. Wherever you went, his name was a pass to skip the line, good for entrance at the door and comped drinks once you were inside. On YikYak—an early, anonymized Twitter clone that served as a message board where the Greek system could revel in its own form of Mean Girls-style gossip—people would post messages that began and ended with “Son,” in imitation or mockery of Amadou’s distinct speech pattern. Though we only found out later about Amadou’s cross-state smuggling operation and its astounding scale, it was an open secret among Greeks that he was involved with the campus drug scene at some level. To the average student, however, he was simply a socialite—and everyone, I mean everyone, knew who he was. On a campus of 42,000, that was no easy feat.
Amadou had always been friends with high-rollers—people with family money, management-track strivers, professional athletes—but now, it seemed, he was finally able to keep up. And he was changing. Amadou began drinking for the first time in his life, at first in fits and starts, but eventually he built up a capacity to binge with the best of us. Meanwhile, his friend Montee had been drafted that spring, in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, and quickly signed to a four-year, $3.5 million dollar contract with the Denver Broncos. The deal came with a signing bonus of nearly $1 million. The two egged each other on during the star’s frequent visits to campus, spending lavishly on designer clothes and high-end meals, ordering bottle service at clubs and flashing wads of cash everywhere they went.
“Looking back, it’s a double edged sword for me. On one hand, it was kind of shitty to be gassing each other up like that. We were all doing it to some extent—our disposable income had skyrocketed and we were getting used to it, forming new habits,” Amadou said. “But at the same time, you kind of have to reminisce and laugh at yourself a little bit. You’re only young once, you know? And what’s the point of making all that money if you aren’t going to spend some of it on stupid stuff?”
Enis and Haris were also—somewhat independently, it seemed—getting caught up in the lifestyle. The pair rented out a penthouse that year at a modern luxury building called City View, a towering just-opened monstrosity that represented the opening salvo in a construction boom that has cemented Madison’s resurgence as a midsize oasis for moneyed young professionals. They started by throwing parties there, packed affairs that one could hear—and see—from blocks away. A few years earlier, they had agreed to form their own “Trust” of sorts, calling it the “Power Ragers.” The group, though not formally organized as an LLC, also existed to plan and execute parties. If they were going to throw so many events, the thinking went, at least they could make a little money in the process.
One night during this period, a mysterious invite went out to my friends and me, as well as half of campus, it seemed. This sort of thing wasn’t exactly surprising, nearly every weekend you’d hear from someone who heard from someone that Amadou or one of his friends was throwing some kind of bash.
I arrived late to the Theta Chi house that night for what was, clearly, a particularly raucous pre-party, and found myself following the sound of revelry down into the House basement. Amadou, as always, seemed to be the center of attention, though that night a larger-than-usual crowd had gathered around him and was giving various well wishes: “Congratulations,” “So happy for you brother,” “Excited for you.”
“What’s that all about?” I whispered to a nearby friend.
He leaned in close, as if whatever it was happened to be a well-kept secret. “I heard he just got approved for DACA,” the US immigration program that allows the children of undocumented aliens legal status to live in the US without the threat of deportation. Crucially, it also allows recipients to qualify for federal student loans and work permits.
Just a few weeks later, another mysterious invite, another celebration. This time, Amadou had been offered an internship at J.P. Morgan Chase. His dream, it appeared, was finally within reach. All he had to do was reach out and grab it.
Around Theta Chi, everyone has a different story about where exactly things went wrong. Next door, at TKE, I’m told it was much the same.
Enis told me the first indications were small, little details that were easily dismissed. The cell service in his apartment would cut in and out at random. An unmarked van parked outside for several hours, or driving slowly down Langdon Street, the university’s fraternity row. Nobody thought much of it at the time. Court records show the federal conspiracy investigation began after several independent contacts between law enforcement and the group’s more workaday members, who did not initially inform their leaders.
Enis and Haris had a friend, Ilir, a fellow Albanian who had been involved with Enis’ operation in the early days, around 2011, before Amadou came along and convinced the group to ramp up their output. He was also friendly with the group’s contact out west—and was an investor in the group’s first smuggling trip—but largely dropped out of their operation soon after. They soon discovered that he was building his own team and network of investors as a workaround, to secure a larger share of the profits for himself. “But he was so sloppy about it,” Enis said. “He didn’t vet people and he didn’t care much about whether or not he could trust them.” Perhaps worst of all, he started working with the group’s shared suppliers to ship bales of cannabis through the mail. This was an extremely risky move that nobody else would have signed off on, they agreed, had they known.
It wasn’t long before a few of those packages were seized by the postal service, and traced back to Ilir and his associates. This was sometime in the spring of 2013, just as the smuggling trips were beginning to hit their stride. Years later, both Haris, Enis, and Amadou would discover in court that Ilir had been confronted by police about the shipment, and passed along their names as a way to minimize his own punishment. It was, to their knowledge, the first time that authorities got wind of their dealings—and the beginning of a yearslong investigation into what authorities called in court documents the “UW-Madison pot investment group.”
Soon after, Ilir was also the victim of a string of robberies. “He was definitely known as an easy target,” Haris said. Both he and Enis, who had lent Ilir money just a few weeks earlier, lost close to $10,000 on the stickups—but nobody seemed to panic. “We felt untouchable. We thought we ran campus, and in a lot of ways we did.”
Then, in another stroke of bad luck that summer, another pair of drivers, Joe and Connor, were rushing a return trip to get back in time for the popular Tennessee music festival Bonnaroo. They were pulled over and searched by state troopers somewhere in California, Haris said. The full shipment, nearly forty pounds worth, was seized. Again, they gave police the names of their associates: Amadou, Haris, and Enis included. But this time, unbeknownst to anyone back in Madison, the DEA had been called in. It was the start of a federal conspiracy investigation that would rock the campus Greek system and lead to charges against more than a dozen people.
At the time, Amadou, Enis, and Haris all agreed they were “hot,” that local police had been alerted to their operation and would be on high alert. Authorities soon seized Ilir’s car, a brand-new 2013 Mustang GTO, as evidence. It was a bad sign, and everyone agreed to lay low for a little while. But these kinds of conspiracy cases take serious time—often years—to build, and after a few months of waiting, and waiting, everyone seemed to agree that police interest in their operation had subsided.
Amadou was interviewing for full-time roles at prestigious investment banks around then, and says he had mostly stepped back from his role organizing these smuggling trips anyways. Enis and Haris said they were also beginning to wind down their involvement, but others were angling to keep the operation running.
After the short hiatus, Chris was the one nominated to run point on the operation: organizing travel logistics, calculating expenses, raising money. In all, his drivers set out to California with more than $70,000, much of which was provided by Amadou, Enis, and Haris. Here, everyone agrees, is where things really started to fall apart.
Enis and Haris remember Chris arriving back in Madison empty handed. Their money, he said, had been seized by the authorities—something he still maintains to this day—but everyone else I spoke with believes Chris had simply kept the cash, or took the entire haul and sold it himself. According to several people present that day, the group of investors held a meeting where they discussed the merits of putting out a hit on their colleague, who they believed was compromised—to what extent, they did not know—or at the very least had lost their trust. “One of my friends, I forget who, approached me and said that I should skip town for a little while because those guys were planning to kill me,” Chris told me recently. “I remember that being the moment I went, ‘This isn’t so much fun anymore.’” They decided against it, and insist the discussion was never that serious in the first place, but they all agreed to never work with Chris again, and soon after ceased their operations entirely.
Around the time of graduation that spring, Chris remembers there being a knock at his apartment door from a man and a woman, who he initially assumed were some sort of religious evangelists. But they greeted him with badges—these were DEA agents who wanted to talk, informally it appeared, about the case that was brewing against him and his associates. “I just remember being hung over at the time, and super confused,” Chris said. He wasn’t being arrested, they assured him, so he shut the door and quickly called a lawyer. He did talk to authorities, eventually, but said the only thing on his mind initially was telling everyone else to get a lawyer as well. “I met up with everyone and tried to make it as clear as I could—this bridge is burning.”
“It’s like that situation when you’re on a flight, the lights start blinking and those oxygen masks fall down,” Amadou said. “You know something is wrong, but you’re not quite sure what, and you’ve got no choice but to stay on the flight. You’ve just got to sit there and hope everything turns out okay.”
Following his graduation, in May 2014, Amadou says he cut ties with the group, and only communicated with them sporadically. Despite the heat others back in Madison were drawing, he assumed that putting some distance between himself and that business, both literally and figuratively, would render him safe.
That summer, Amadou took a job at a multi-billion dollar private equity real estate investment firm based in Chicago. His contract was for a $70,000 base salary, and included a $10,000 signing bonus and commissions that easily pushed his annual earnings into the low six figures. “Everything I had done, everything I had been through, was in service of getting to that greener pasture,” he said. “And here I was. I did it, you know? I was there. It was the high point of my life.” But word kept filing in from Madison, vague “sketchy shit,” that Amadou said kept him nervous even as he was settling into an extremely high-stress career in banking. Chris and his new associates pushed, and pushed, to set up new trips, to talk about past experiences that nobody wanted brought up again. “He was definitely acting weird,” Amadou said, adding, “But I was out of the game, I just thought, ‘that’s on them.’”
The final piece of the feds’ investigation into the group came in the form of a controlled buy, the gold standard in any drug case—incontrovertible proof that someone is involved in trafficking. Alex and Will, two good friends and street dealers for the group, were caught selling to an undercover officer. After some persuading, Alex agreed to wear a wire, providing audio of his interactions with Haris and Enis as evidence. It was all the feds needed to convene a grand jury. Word soon got around that Alex and Will had been subpoenaed to testify. Then another of the group’s street dealers. Then another.
One day as Enis was walking home, he spotted an unmarked black van with a large antenna parked in an alleyway nearby. When he got closer, he noticed two men sitting inside. It had been there all week, and when he walked by and peered inside, one of the occupants slammed a laptop shut. “I just thought, ‘That was super sketchy,’ and went inside,” Enis said. He didn’t think much of it. Haris, who was on their balcony at the time, told me there were at least six or seven cars idling outside the building, including another large black cargo van. It looked odd, he thought, and he recalls watching as several police officers in SWAT gear got out and crossed the street. It quickly dawned on the pair that these cops were there for them, though Enis said he didn’t even have time to register fear before the door slammed open and he had several rifles pointed in his face. There was nothing incriminating in the apartment—though that didn’t stop authorities from turning the place upside down anyway and taking their cell phones, wrapping the devices in several layers of tin foil to prevent remote deletion. “It was absolutely our worst nightmare come true,” Haris said. “All I could think was, ‘All this for weed?’”
By this time, Amadou had settled into his role as an investment banker: twelve-hour work days, million-dollar deals, designer suits, expensive steak dinners, and a $6,000-a-month penthouse overlooking Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. He said he didn’t have much of an idea of the scope of the burgeoning investigation, and believed himself insulated. Many of the things police were looking into, after all, seemed to have happened after he had left that life behind.
So when an opportunity to travel abroad, to Dubai, to work on a freelance underwriting campaign for another investment firm in the United Arab Emirates came up, Amadou jumped. He hadn’t left the United States since arriving nearly twenty years ago, and he could stretch his travel itinerary to include several days of vacation. He invited several friends, members of “The Trust” and his roommates in Chicago, along for the ride.
The group spent widely, going on a desert safari and club hopping near the city’s marina. As pictures from this trip floated around online, my friends and I in Theta Chi noted the strange timing—Both Enis and Haris had been arraigned on conspiracy charges just a few days before, and an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about the case named an “unidentified fugitive.” We hadn’t put together that it was Amadou, but we were worried about the situation nonetheless.
Amadou remembers that Enis called him shortly after he left the United States. “I give him a lot of credit for warning me,” Amadou said. “He didn’t want to talk much, I think he was sketched out that someone could be listening, but he just said ‘Things are getting bad here, maybe you shouldn’t come back.’”
News of the article trickled down to Amadou a few days later, and he quickly “put two and two together.” It was the first time, he said, that he really worried that his past dealings would affect the course of his life. At the same time, there were problems with his re-entry forms—even if Amadou had wanted to come back, US immigration wouldn’t allow it. He had DACA, but “it’s not much different than being undocumented, really,” he said, adding, “I thought, maybe it was a sign. Maybe I should try to strike out as a nomad.”
When he explained his immigration situation to his boss, he said, the company was “surprisingly cool about the situation.” They allowed Amadou to work remotely—he had already proven himself as a charismatic dealmaker, they figured, and theirs was an international business anyways. After a few days Amadou arranged to set up an office in the Philippines, and quickly rented himself a four-bedroom penthouse at Trump Tower in Makati, the country’s financial hub.
In the several months that followed, Amadou worked with the company’s lawyers to resolve his immigration issues. “They were pumping money into a immigration case for me, and it seemed like they were totally on my side,” Amadou said. “That really reassured me that everything would turn out okay. I think I was still in denial—still getting that direct deposit into my bank account every two weeks, still working like everything was normal—and honestly I was just more focused on other things.”
Then, one day, Amadou got word that the immigration issues he had been facing had been resolved. The typical application, lawyers had told Amadou, allows noncitizens around a week to return to the country. He had been given four months to come and go as he pleased—the exceptional results that expensive private equity lawyers could wrangle, it seemed. “So I thought for a while, and I reasoned that this was just a little marijuana case—I honestly thought it would blow over,” he said. His father, meanwhile, was insisting that he come home. If Amadou was in trouble, Habibou told me, his son must return and face justice. “I thought ‘that’s the American way,’” Habibou said. “And I wanted to believe that we were as American as anyone else.”
So Amadou boarded a connecting flight to Beijing, the first leg of his trip home to Chicago, and after a short, nerve-wracking delay at customs in China he lined up to board his flight home alongside dozens of other passengers. He had made it—or so he thought. After a moment, a large man standing next to him asked casually, “Are you Amadou Camara?”
Amadou looked around, and saw he was surrounded by at least three other clean-cut police types. They were huge, with dark-colored polo shirts tucked behind large belt buckles, curved brim baseball hats with Oakley sunglasses resting on top, and military issue boots tied snug. “They looked like they were created in a lab to be feds, you know?”
“He doesn’t look like a runner,” one of them said.
“Just come with us quietly, there’s no need to make a scene,” another said softly.
Subdued after a twenty-four-hour flight, Amadou sighed deeply, and nodded, “Okay.”
I’ll never forget the morning following Amadou’s sentencing—It was early on a Thursday in February 2015, the morning chill leaving spiderwebs of frost on my window. “Dude,” one of my roommates said as he entered my bedroom, entirely unannounced. Now, louder: “Dude!” I sat up, wondering what was so important. He handed me his phone. “Check this out,” he said, and I saw Amadou’s face staring back at me. It was his mugshot, beneath the headline: “Pot investment group’s founder gets 30 months in prison.”
It took us most of the morning to piece together the newspaper’s details with what we knew and didn’t know—namely that the scope of Amadou’s operation was beyond anything we had ever dreamed, with millions of dollars in revenue and dozens of lower-level collaborators. A conservative estimate we calculated put the group’s earnings at close to $3 million. And that’s just what the feds were able to prove in court. Haris told me recently that the original organizers were just a few trips away from reaching $1 million in personal profits—each.
I would later discover, through friends and subsequent news coverage, that Amadou’s punishment was significantly more harsh than anyone else’s, compounded by his role as the scheme’s “founder” and his unwillingness to cooperate, or give any information that would have incriminated others. “I loved all the guys I was working with, those were my brothers,” Amadou said. “How could I look at myself knowing I had brought them down? I still talk to them today—that’s what got me through everything. I knew we’d still be close years down the line. Those relationships were more important to me.”
Stepping off the plane in Morocco, in June 2019, Amadou was free for the first time in nearly three years. He was there to catch a connecting flight to The Gambia, the second leg of a deportation journey that almost didn’t happen.
Just a few months before Amadou was set to be released, The Gambia, under a new president named Adama Barrow, finally accepted an agreement from the Trump Administration to take the 2,000 or so people that the United States had marked for deportation—Amadou among them. Six months of fruitless immigration proceedings and several months in an ICE detention center, where conditions were “terrible, like living in a concentration camp,” Amadou said, and he was back in a country that he had not stepped foot in since he was four years old. Luckily, his uncle, Yusupha, was there to meet him at the gate. It was a welcome surprise—as a local property developer, Yusupha had already arranged for an apartment that Amadou could stay in while he found his footing.
The unit is simple, a three-bedroom flat with linoleum floors and white walls, but it’s big enough to host a number of guests. Amadou still sends me videos of people playing music and dancing in his sparsely decorated living room, parties that feature everything from house music to friends of his playing the kora, a traditional West African instrument similar to a harp or a lute.
Amadou’s new neighborhood, Brusibi, is a fifteen-minute walk to the beach and represents the trendier part of town, though even there it’s common to see goats standing outside your door or the odd donkey-drawn carriage meandering down the city’s dirt roads. The Gambia’s culture is relatively liberal, especially for a Muslim country–drinking is allowed—though most of the city’s residents wear traditional Muslim clothing.
Once a prolific user of social media, especially Instagram and Snapchat, Amadou has mostly gone silent following his return to freedom. He posts the occasional local scene that he thinks his friends back in America might find funny, or interesting—a pot of jollof rice and pepper soup at a dinner party, livestock holding up a line of traffic, chickens wandering into a bar blasting reggaeton—but it’s been hard, he says, to show people who knew him as a high-roller what life is like in a developing country. “There’s a huge dichotomy between the haves and have-nots here—you can forget sometimes when you’re in the developed areas of town, but a lot of my friends live in ghettos, for lack of a better word.”
So Amadou decided soon after arriving to lay low online, and focus his attention instead on building a career. He thought for a while about trying to start a business, some kind of investment fund, but it would have been difficult as an outsider to cultivate a big enough network of investors to reach anywhere near the scale Amadou needed to bid competitively on the development projects he had his eye on.
So when a friend of a friend of Amadou’s father mentioned that the country’s largest investment fund, a sprawling government-run enterprise handling the country’s real estate and pension investments, was hiring seasonal interns, Amadou jumped—it was a foot in the door, something that could be built upon. His new office looked out on one of The Gambia’s largest investment banks, and was just across the street from the country’s central bank. “Gambian Wall Street,” he called it, and though it wasn’t the shimmering skyline of New York, or even Chicago, he said it felt like things were moving in the right direction, finally.
To supplement his income, Amadou performs DJ sets around town. Over time, he built up some connections who agreed to pay, and put up fliers around Banjul advertising his services, an investment that paid off almost immediately. “Music, and performing, are ways for me to stay connected to my previous life,” Amadou said, though he adds that it is impossible to recapture those moments that have already passed. The popular music in West Africa, for one, is more reggaeton than the hip-hop that’s come to dominate American charts, or the house music Amadou learned to mix during college. But music has also been an invaluable social lubricant for the transplant, whose American accent and demeanor instantly demarcate him as an outsider. As a result of those things, many of Amadou’s friends in The Gambia are American and European deportees themselves.
Just a few months after starting his internship, the fund’s managing director promoted Amadou to a job as acting investment manager, and put him in charge of unraveling and cleaning up the country’s mortgage investments. Two decades of autocratic rule had left The Gambia’s pension fund in rough shape, no longer covering its costs. A number of the country’s elite had for years used the fund as a piggy bank, Amadou said, and left a surprisingly easy-to-track trail of their corruption that he was now in charge of parsing. For example, he discovered a popular scheme to sell the same plot of government land to two or three different owners, after which someone, often low-level bureaucrats, would pocket the difference. Development permits for these duplicate owners were conveniently misplaced until they agreed to sell. “It was preposterous, really,” Amadou said. “These weren’t even sophisticated crimes, there was a paper trail for everything. It was ridiculous.” Under its new leader, The Gambia appears poised to rid itself of this sort of self-dealing, and Amadou says he plans to see how far his skills can take him within the country’s new finance ministry.
He does, occasionally, look back. “It’s easy to see my story as a tragedy,” Amadou said, pausing for a moment. “You hear about people hitting rock bottom, I definitely hit that bottom, but what nobody ever mentions is that life continues after that moment.
“So I’m just trying to have some professional success, and prove to everyone that second chances do exist. I think being able to help The Gambia is all a part of that.”
He says he’s working hard to keep the details of his drug smuggling past a secret in The Gambia, and that only a few people really know how and why he ended up in the country after so many years away. He admits to some regrets, but not so much for what he did. “I think it was an incredibly revealing experience to reach as high as I did for as long as I did, and I wouldn’t want to change that for anything. But I guess I really needed humbling. I was too high up and never looked down,” he said. “I won’t make that mistake twice.
“I think at the end of the day it’s not any of the actions I regret, it’s the broken relationships, all of the friends and family members who got hurt by the way things turned out.”
Amadou helped his older cousin, for example, get involved in drug sales—leading him down a path toward his own deportation to The Gambia, around the same time as Amadou. The two are close now, and delight in sharing their American slang, as well as their Western tastes in music, movies, food, and clothing with a number of newfound Gambian friends. But it’s a constant reminder of the country, and the family, that Amadou has left behind.
Perhaps most of all, throughout my many conversations with Amadou over the past few years, I’ve noticed that leaving the United States has left him with a profound sense of loss over the control of his own narrative. For as long as I’ve known him, Amadou was always a person who reveled in telling others he was on his way somewhere, caught between who he was and who he wanted to be. Everyone who I spoke to for this project agreed that he would reach some measure of success in his new home—and indeed, as I sat down to write this ending I got a text from Amadou telling me he’s been offered a new job as the deputy managing director for one of the country’s largest investment networks.
But the most challenging part of Amadou’s new life in Africa, I’ve surmised, is figuring out exactly what identity to assume. People have long asked me what Amadou was really like behind the veneer of success he so painstakingly created, beyond the bar stories and carefully curated campus legends they’ve heard. I’m never quite sure how to answer. Without his own cloak of hyperbole and mystique, the Amadou I know wouldn’t be himself at all. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that he’ll find a new story to tell.