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 "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.
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.