Like so many people who have crashed and burned in digital media, Slava Pastuk sees a bright future for himself in the world of podcasting. “The whole podcast industry is so cool,” he said in September, staring out at his mother’s tomato plants in her Brampton, Ontario, backyard. He’d spent most of 2019 living in her basement, listening to the Red Scare podcast, and thinking about his many, many mistakes. He’s “blacklisted” as a writer in Canadian media, he thinks, but maybe there’s room for him in the world of audio storytelling.
Slava—born Yaroslav Pastukhov, but known around town and the internet as “Slava P.”—was, for a few golden years in the early 2010s, an editor at Vice Media’s music vertical, Noisey. Working from the company’s Toronto outpost, he interviewed artists like Daniel Caesar, Rich Homie Quan, and Grimes, making a name for himself as a well-connected and hard-partying young writer just as Toronto was finally getting noticed as a hip-hop destination. He was living a suburban rap nerd’s dream, going to shows for free, churning out blog posts while hungover, and palling around with his heroes as his city was reshaped into “The Six” in the public imagination. With a brawny build and a fondness for flamboyant headwear and Raptors gear, Slava looked more like a rapper’s bodyguard than a writer, and he knew where all the good parties were. He doesn’t have many supporters at Vice anymore, but his splashy bluster bought him a degree of prominence in Canadian music journalism. “He was the Noisey Canada guy,” a former coworker said. “He was a real mover and shaker in the Toronto nightlife scene.”
Nowadays, Slava, 29, doesn’t have a very high opinion of his former employer. “If I only worked with people whose actions I agreed with and who I didn’t find morally reprehensible, I would’ve never taken the opportunity to work for Vice,” he emailed me one afternoon this fall. But he did take the opportunity. After dabbling in humor writing and stand-up comedy, Slava got his first big break writing for Noisey in his early 20s. He saw journalism as a means to an end. “I just wanted to talk to rappers,” Slava reminisced. “Being an editor sucks.” His debut piece for the website, from January 2013, was titled “How To Make Money Off Rap Without Really Rapping.” It starts off: “It’s easy. You just have to be sort of a con artist.”
But Slava was fired from Vice Media in 2016, and has bounced between cannabis marketing, copywriting gigs, and unemployment ever since. According to an Instagram post he made about this time, he “got lucky with some crypto swings and learned how to” trade in the intervening years. He self-released a novella called Finesse, but it made no waves. He is optimistic about standing out during the podcast boom, though: “I’ll just pivot to interviewing criminals,” he said. “There’s a lot of interesting people in jail.”
Slava will have more time to interview criminals than most—he has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import commercial quantities of cocaine, and is on house arrest at his mom’s Brampton home, a half-hour commute from Toronto: He is waiting to hear how long he will spend in prison. The federal prosecutor has requested a 12-year sentence, while Slava’s lawyer has argued for a sentence closer to six to eight years. Whatever happens, Slava suspects this whole incident will be his legacy. “It’s better to live infamously than not, I guess,” he told me in September, sitting on his mother’s patio in sweatpants and sneakers.
One thing to know is that Slava absolutely did what he has been accused of doing. He got dressed in a suit jacket and slacks, went to court, looked at the judge, and pleaded guilty. The evidence was too damning to do anything else—he was caught on tape explaining how to traffic drugs. He’ll also just say it, casually: “Obviously I understand that what I did was wrong, completely guilty, right?”
Slava admits that he helped organize a botched December 2015 drug trafficking attempt, in which four young Canadians and one young American were arrested at the airport in Sydney, Australia, while carrying 39.76 kilograms of cocaine wrapped into bricks and hidden in the lining of their Samsonite luggage. “People in Australia—elected officials, cops, all those people—are dumb as shit. So it’s relatively easy to sneak drugs by them, apparently,” Slava told me. Except it wasn’t so easy. Jordan Gardner, Kutiba Senusi, Robert Wang, Nathaniel Carty, and Porscha Wade were caught almost immediately. The street value of the drugs in all the luggage between them was an estimated 22.67 million Australian dollars (about 15.4 million U.S. dollars).
“This is the most gangsterish thing that you will ever do,” Slava had assured some of them, comparing the trip to something out of a Future song in an attempt to hype them up. Cocaine is considerably more expensive in Australia than it is in the United States, where the same amount would be worth around a few million dollars—but it was still a large, sniffable fortune, and enough product to land all five mules in prison for three to five years.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Slava in January 2019, but his name was first publicly connected to this crime ring in 2017, when the National Post ran a gobsmacking story headlined “How a Former Editor Allegedly Used Vice Canada to Recruit Drug Mules for a Global Smuggling Ring.” The Post had spoken with three Vice sources who described how Slava had tried to convince them to carry drugs to Australia, linking him to the 2015 bust. Journalists Adrian Humphreys and Sean Craig laid out an account of how Slava “used the Canadian headquarters of the youth-focused publishing empire as a recruiting ground to draw young journalists and artists into a transnational cocaine-smuggling ring, according to allegations by current and former Vice employees.” One of the smugglers, a popular local Toronto DJ named Jordan Gardner, had once been Slava’s roommate, and was profiled by Vice’s electronic music vertical. Another, Robert Wang, had been a Vice intern. The Australian judge who sentenced the mules had emphasized their youth as she delivered her ruling, noting that they had been “exploited by people who were ruthless, manipulative and persistent.” (Carty and Wade have since been released, while Wang, Senusi, and Gardner remain incarcerated.)
The idea of a secret drug trafficking operation headquartered at an edgy media company known for provocative (and frequently drug-fueled) editorial made the National Post piece an irresistible splash. “They picked the worst picture of me,” Slava griped. “The one week I had a mustache!” It was the ideal Vice story, except it was a story about Vice. And Slava was the perfect villain, tall and arrogant, the blogger who joked about getting fucked up and doing coke secretly pushing commercial loads of it around the globe. He even wore bucket hats. It was poetry.
But the National Post investigation raised questions. It laid out the methods used to transport drugs, but not why and how Slava had wound up in the position to move them. And it didn’t mention his alleged co-conspirator, Ali Taki Lalji, who had also worked for Vice Media, and who would later also be arrested on the same day as Slava. Slava is particularly peeved about that aspect of the coverage. “They made it seem like I was the only guy responsible for it!” he said. “Or I was J. Cole in 2014, where it was like I produced it—I didn’t have any features on it.” Lalji and Slava had been business partners in enterprises both legal and (according to prosecutors) illegal, but Lalji avoided media scrutiny after Slava’s involvement became known. (Lalji has not entered a plea, and has given no interviews.) Mapping a complete outline of a criminal enterprise is difficult to do.
“I’m still literally a criminal and literally a felon, but I can at least provide some insight into what happened and why it happened,” Slava told me in September. Still image-obsessed, he has eagerly filled in some details about the criminal enterprise, albeit with a bald agenda to mythologize his misdeeds. “I think that the whole idea of having to import drugs is ridiculous, and it’s ultimately a plant that we were moving into Australia,” he said later that day. It is important to note that this statement echoes the justification given by George Jung (Johnny Depp) in Blow. It is also important to note that Slava is exactly the type of person who would borrow from a monologue in Blow for an on-the-record interview. He doesn’t see himself as a villain, and daydreams about his exploits getting made into a movie, ideally optioned by Donald Glover, who he thinks is “so fucking cool.”
“But at the same time, like, yeah. I mean, I conspired.”
Had Slava shown up at an earlier point in Vice Media’s trajectory, he might’ve risen even higher in the company. Former Noisey writer Kim Kelly remembers him as “a nice, funny, energetic guy, albeit one with some classic Vice Bro tendencies.” The company had been founded by a famously druggy trio of dudes, Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith, and Gavin McInnes, and their gleefully nihilistic hedonism defined Vice’s reputation for most of its existence. Pushing boundaries was cool; breaking rules was cooler. “Vice was built around breaking the rules,” Slava told me.
Like the boisterous founders, Slava fancied himself a man of expansive appetites who wanted to both write about and inhabit the seedier pockets of the art and music worlds. He looked like a Vice Bro, big and brash, and he embraced the cocaine-logic attitude that defined the company’s early years. He had a modest salary—slightly more than 30,000 U.S. dollars per year—so he’d expense ride shares to galleries to guzzle the free drinks, using Vice’s cultural capital to compensate for paltry wages. “I really was living the pinnacle of that type of life for a little bit,” Slava said. “I just made the most of the opportunities given to me by working at Vice.” (Through Vice Canada communications manager Britt Aharoni, Vice declined to comment for this story.)
“There was a time, from around 2010 to 2015 or 2016, where Vice was the coolest place you could work,” former Vice USA writer Kari Paul told me. “Saying you worked there could get you a lot of clout.” Young writers found themselves on exclusive guest lists, courted by publicists and promoter flotsam eager for attention from a buzzy website. Paul experienced this as a writer in Brooklyn, but it was especially true for Vice Canada employees, who worked within a cozier media landscape. These were Slava’s years, and he grabbed them. He got a gorgeous new girlfriend, a creative type famous on Instagram for her Roy Lichtenstein–inspired pop art. It didn’t get much attention in the United States, but for Toronto artists, Noisey Canada was a coveted foothold for local artists. “He definitely had a certain level of respect,” noted Rollie Pemberton, a Toronto-based writer, rapper, and producer who performs as Cadence Weapon. In 2014, Pemberton invited Slava to guest-DJ with him at Parts & Labour, a dancing spot in Toronto’s West End. He agreed, and called himself “DJ Slavalanche.”
Slava wasn’t the most diligent supervisor, but he was rambunctious and game. “He didn’t seem all that committed to actually editing,” writer Michael Rancic, who freelanced for Noisey, remembered. “I liked working with him because he let me pretty much write and cover whatever I wanted. It didn’t seem like he was interested in writing as much as he was interested in, like, a Vice lifestyle.” (By Slava’s own admission, “a lot of the shit that went out, I just read the first paragraph.”) Still, his six-month contracts kept getting renewed.
Slava’s career was taking off during a period of rapid expansion for Vice Media. The multimedia brand had started as a snotty alternative magazine in mid-’90s Montreal and ballooned into an insurgent global player, expanding into documentaries, starting an ad agency, and inking major deals in the aughts with Intel, Rupert Murdoch, the venture-capital firm TCV, and A&E. Disney, which owns A&E, had invested $400 million by 2015. With hundreds of millions in new money, Vice quickly beefed up its staff. In 2014, the Canadian operation received its own huge influx of cash—CA$100 million—from the telecom company Rogers. The small team grew and grew, moving to a posh new office to accommodate its swelling staff.
Drugs have always been an essential ingredient in stories about Vice. In the first few pages of The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, Alvi, Smith, and McInnes reminisce about marketing the company by offering drugs to potential business partners. “Sending drugs in the mail was commonplace until we found out it was a felony,” Smith maybe-joked. One of the company’s stunts in the aughts was the “hamster party,” in which artists Dash Snow and Ryan McGinley, frequent photography contributors for the company, ripped up phone books and created a faux hamster cage in a hotel room. Within the cage, they did as many drugs as they could manage; Vice supplied the cocaine, beer, and live parakeets for the event.
The past few years have been rough on Vice—Disney wrote off its entire $400 million investment as worthless in May, and employees have endured rounds of scandals and layoffs. But even in its recent efforts to professionalize and focus on its considerable journalistic strengths, Vice’s drug coverage continues to blur into drug culture. In 2015, Vice México published a story about Mexican narcotics branding that noted how the writer had collected drug baggies after “buying coke from the notorious Los Zetas cartel.” Sometimes the slippery relationship between Vice and vice has resulted in new headaches. This year, for example, New York magazine reported that the company had fired two employees because they bought so much weed for a video featuring the rapper Lil Yachty that it qualified Vice as a drug distributor.
“There’s just a weird culture at Vice of wanting to be really cool and badass and weird about drugs,” a former Vice writer told me. “They all seemed like people who were lame in high school and then got this hashtag-cool job and now think that they’re really cool.” When Vice Canada moved to its new office, the new bar on site was a big hit with the young, cash-poor staff. (The Ringer spoke with more than 20 current or former Vice staffers and freelancers for this story.)
Substance-fueled blunders were a workplace hazard. Shortly after joining the company full time in 2014, Slava helped throw a party for the music festival North by Northeast on Toronto Island, a hippie outpost a ferry ride away from the city in Lake Ontario. “I got shit-faced drunk and I tried to swim back,” he said. A police boat rescued him and brought him to shore. “I got talked to, but ultimately that’s a thing that you do at a company like that.”
Many of the former and current Vice employees and contributors interviewed for this story mentioned a casual attitude toward substance use during the early to mid-2010s. One described weed and cocaine use as “pervasive.” Several of his former coworkers remember that Slava had a side hustle selling cannabis through a dating app. “I sold weed to guys I met on Grindr,” Slava told me. He claims that editors at Vice would also buy from him. (No editor I interviewed corroborated this.)
When the 2017 National Post story broke, reactions were mixed. In the United States, where people hadn’t worked with Slava day-to-day, they were upset. “The news hit the Noisey Slack like an atom bomb; we were completely blindsided, and had no idea what was going on,” Kim Kelly wrote me in an email. A number of people who knew him were taken aback that Slava had the acuity to embark upon this type of project. “It was very surprising when it all came out, because I didn’t really get the idea that he would be capable enough to do something like that,” Rollie Pemberton said. “I felt he was a little ditzy.”
Meanwhile, many people in the Toronto office were considerably less flabbergasted. “Oh my God, nobody was surprised at all,” a former Vice Canada employee said. “Everyone was like, how did it take this long?”
Whether they were shocked or not, everybody read it. The same Vice Canada employee remembered the tense mood at work: “The office was dead silent, and every single screen had the National Post article up.”
Another former employee present that day, researcher and development associate Stef McCarrol: “I remember just being like, oh, this is the most on-brand story that could happen to this office.”
There’s something vast and menacing about the word “conspiracy,” which makes it a bit tough to square with the shaggy cell of drug mules cobbled together in late 2015. If there was a headquarters, it was 90 Tyndall, the Toronto apartment that Slava and Jordan Gardner shared. It wasn’t very nice—the windows rattled in the winter winds—but it was close to work and a frequent crash pad for friends and acquaintances, who would spread out on the “huge-ass couch,” as Slava remembers it. Music writers from New York would come through regularly to party; girlfriends would rotate in and out.
The exact contours of this drug-smuggling ring remain fuzzy, as only some of the people at the bottom have been caught. At one point, Slava provided The Ringer with a pyramid-shaped drawing of his own branch, but he didn’t seem to know exactly how many people were involved outside of his own cell, beyond wildly speculating about ties to El Chapo. Many of the people interviewed for this story had suggestions about who else might be involved, including many local Toronto rappers and artists, but these names rarely came with a whiff of hard evidence. There are several people possibly connected to this web of traffickers and mules whom Slava refuses to name. But Ali Taki Lalji, his co-accused, is not one of them.
In 2017, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police started Project OSockeye, an investigation into the trafficking ring that culminated in Lalji’s and Slava’s arrests. As part of his guilty plea, Slava outlined their shared trafficking project for the court in detail. According to Slava, he and Lalji were fast friends. Lalji worked on Vice’s advertising team, which editorial staffers tended to avoid, and the two came from different backgrounds; Slava had emigrated from Ukraine as a small child with his mom, while Lalji’s much larger family had money and would spend time in places like Dubai. But they vibed. Even though Lalji’s time at Vice was relatively short—he left in 2014, first to work at a few different new media companies and finally at a cannabis startup—Lalji and Slava stayed in close contact, and they were tight enough that they launched an “influencer marketing” startup called Lit together. And, of course, according to Slava and the Canadian federal government, they were tight enough to participate in a criminal conspiracy together. (Through his lawyer, Lalji declined to comment for this story.) They started hanging out even more after Lalji became enamored of the local club scene. “Ali didn’t know a ton of people in Toronto at the time, so he was trying to build a squad,” Slava told me. According to Slava, Lalji met a man Slava calls “Trey” through club promotion, and started inviting him around.
Although he came from a wealthy family, Trey was a nightlife fixture who had his hand in all manner of shady dealings. Slava repeatedly compared him to Nate in the television show Euphoria—a hulking WASPy monster. Trey’s rap sheet was terrifying and tantalizing, and Slava still speaks about him with a mix of repulsion and reverence. “I like evil people,” he shrugged.
The way Slava tells it, the whole thing began casually. “We were hanging out in my place and Trey explained how some of his friends did these trips,” he said. At 90 Tyndal, Trey walked Slava and Lalji through some of the basics of how a smuggling trip worked. Later, this was also where they’d meet with the mules to explain the same thing. “They take Canadians, and they send them through America. They go through Las Vegas because it’s one of the busiest airports in America, and it’s also pretty close to the border or on the border. They send them to Las Vegas, they have people come up from Mexico and give them a set of luggage. The luggage is lined,” Slava remembered Trey explaining during this first meeting; according to Slava, a girlfriend at the time and Gardner were also present.
Nobody ever said the word “cocaine,” Slava says, but that’s what they inferred. “Ali and I were debating whether it was cocaine or meth,” Slava recalled. “The only time I knew it was cocaine was after they were arrested.” (The drug mules shared this confusion about the contents of the packages. Porscha Wade later told Australian police she thought the luggage contained either gold or cannabis, while Nate Carty told authorities he was aware the luggage was drug-related, but that he didn’t know exactly what it was.)
Nobody ever even explained who “they” meant. “Trey had described it like you get this lavish trip, all expenses paid for, all you have to do is deliver these bags to Australia, and you get $10,000 each,” Slava continued. “Everyone at the time was like, What, that’s crazy. That sounds so rad.”
Slava says he wound up in touch with people who were in touch with people who, somewhere along the line, ran a transnational drug trafficking ring organized enough to move humans who smuggled millions of dollars’ worth of product around the globe because he was sick of writing about Canadian music. “I really exhausted the pipeline of potential content,” he said. He’d noticed other writers in the Canadian office get praised for daring reporting, particularly one coworker who’d managed to get a source within ISIS. Pivoting to crime writing sounded exciting.
“Me, with my little journalist mind frame—How can I make the most of this?—I decided to pursue this further.” The plan, according to Slava, was to interview drug mules and submit the story to Vice. “When I hear this story I’m like, This is my ISIS guy. This is the equivalent of that.”
There is no record of Slava ever telling his editors or anyone at the company about this plan. According to Slava, he was scared that if he told them he was on to a story so good, they’d steal it for themselves. “I know that sounds crazy now,” he admitted. “I never went to J-school.” During his sentencing hearing, Slava’s lawyer doubled down on this excuse. “The company prides itself on pushing the limits of legality in pursuit of a good story,” Daniel Kirby said, arguing that Vice’s “immersionism” had directly inspired Slava’s actions.
Nearly every current or former Vice person I asked about the plausibility of this motive ranged from skeptical to annoyed to outraged. Several emphasized that the ISIS reporting had been the subject of intense, sober discussions among editors. “It’s so obscenely ludicrous,” former Vice Canada reporter Justin Ling said. “I know Vice has this reputation of being fast and loose and all this. But Vice Canada was by far the most boring office, because we had talented, thoughtful journalists who had been at this for a while, and had reputations to protect.”
Whatever their motivations, Slava and Lalji soon started speaking directly to Trey’s immediate superiors, two men who helped run drug smuggling trips. The friends wanted to discuss going on one of these excursions themselves. “Ali and I were talking about how I was plotting on a move to the crime beat because the odd Vice article I wrote would do way bigger numbers than the Noisey stuff,” Slava said. “And that’s when we decided that a meeting with Trey and the Tweedles could be interesting.” (Slava also declined to name these immediate superiors, instead calling them “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” or “the Tweedles.”) Slava had spent years tiptoeing around the underworld, selling weed and adulating rappers who boasted about moving more weight. Now it was his time to pivot to crime.
Coordinating a transnational drug trafficking ring was more bourgie than Slava had anticipated. “All these meetings happened at Soho House.”
“The Tweedles” were “suave as hell” beefcakes who’d met at McGill University, as Slava recalls. “If they walked down the street, you would not think that they were the people,” he said. “Very cut, prim, and proper. They took us out, me and Ali, and they were like, Get whatever you want on the menu, we’re going to pay for it. Very, very nice guys.” According to Slava, the men had stumbled into drug trafficking during far-flung and decadent vacations abroad. “These were not career drug traffickers,” he said. “Kind of like a startup.”
These “good old Canadian boys” told Lalji and Slava how they were taking young people from all over Canada—British Columbia, Calgary, Halifax—and sending them through Australia. They had the logistics down. A point person would give the mules the cocaine-laced luggage during a layover in Vegas, and someone else would collect the luggage from them in Sydney. As a receipt system, the mules were meant to first take an American dollar and text Lalji and Slava the serial number. When they met up with their point person in Vegas—the organizers had given this person the nickname “Bruce Lee”—they’d swap the dollar with “Bruce” in exchange for the luggage, and “Bruce” would text the serial number as well to prove they’d made the handoff. The same process was to be repeated in reverse with an Australian dollar upon handoff in Sydney, and once the crew returned to Canada, they would be paid.
Slava, Lalji, and their friend the Toronto-based party promoter Isa “Pope” Cargill went to Australia together in November 2015, flying from Toronto through Vegas and into Sydney. (Slava maintains he got out of smuggling drugs on the trip—“my official stance on this is that I took the trip, but I didn’t traffic any cocaine,” was how he put it. During his October sentencing hearing, however, his lawyer noted that Slava had gone on a trip during which he had smuggled drugs, emphasizing that he’d done so only because he felt threatened. Slava had never said anything to me about feeling coerced during his own trip. His main complaint was that Australia sucked.) Whatever the trio did or didn’t do and brought or didn’t bring Down Under, when they got back Slava and Lalji started telling people they knew about an exciting new moneymaking opportunity.
Slava didn’t name Pope when he spoke with me, instead referring to him as “my drug dealer.” But Pope’s name is in the court documents, and Porscha Wade talked about him in the courtroom in Australia as well. She said they had started dating after meeting on Instagram, and that Pope had brought her into the ring. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Wade told the judge that Pope had described the modeling trip he’d taken. “He asked me if I wanted to go on the same trip that he went on, and I said yes,” the SMH reported Wade saying. Pope also had a Vice connection—he had appeared in an episode of the company’s TV series Payday, about young people struggling economically. He declined to comment, but he maintains an active and entrepreneurial Instagram presence.
When Slava, Lalji, and Pope returned from whatever they were doing in Australia, Slava quickly told Robert Wang about the trip. Wang had left his internship at Vice, but stayed in contact with Slava because he was trying to build a career in the music industry. As Wang later admitted to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when officers interviewed him in an Australian prison in August 2018, he volunteered to go on the next round. “He wanted to ingratiate himself to Slava,” Australian crown prosecutor Dimitrios Kapeleris told the court during Wang’s sentencing in 2017. Wang told the Australian Federal Police that Slava had promised him $5,000, which was a motivating factor because his family was in debt.
Wang also made a fateful decision during a meeting at Slava’s house—he recorded Slava and Lalji on his phone as they coached him on how to take a drug-trafficking trip. He would later provide this audio to the RCMP during that 2018 interview, giving law enforcement ample evidence to charge the pair with conspiracy. But Slava and Lalji wouldn’t find out about the recording for years.
Blissfully unaware that Wang had made the recording, Slava then flew to New York to hang out with friends. He couldn’t resist telling some of the people he’d gone out drinking with at Tropical 128, a Lower East Side tiki bar popular with media kids, about the trip to Australia. Two pals, the model Nate Carty and Kyle Nelson, an up-and-coming rapper who goes by “K$ace,” were intrigued—at least, according to Slava. Carty, who declined to participate in this story, told Australian authorities that Slava had said he could “make it happen” when Carty expressed a general interest in visiting the country, but Carty didn’t realize the strings that came attached until later. Slava’s version of events is slightly different: “I’m telling them about my experiences and these people that I had met,” Slava said. “Nate and K$ace were like, That sounds badass, we want to do that. I’m like, Wait, if you want to do it, I’ll put you in contact with the guys.”
Nelson denies that he said this. “I don’t even say badass,” he told The Ringer over the phone. He wants to distance himself from the incident. “There’s nothing cool about it. It just makes me look lame,” he said. “This is a negative thing that happened to us five years ago.”
Initially, Carty wanted to find a female travel partner, but texted Slava that he couldn’t find anyone. “I can’t find any girl that wanna go,” Carty wrote. “Try harder bro,” Slava wrote back. Carty suggested Nelson as an alternative. “Too young,” Slava responded. Ten minutes later, he followed up: “But send me his passport anyway.”
As the day drew closer, Nelson decided not to go. Carty, meanwhile, told the court that he had tried to back out after a man who called himself “Phil” instructed him to pick up luggage in Vegas before traveling to Australia. “I didn’t get a threat until when I was trying to back me and Kyle out, like four days before leaving,” Carty told the Australian Federal Police in an interview after he was arrested. “Basically, they weren’t specific on it. They were like, ‘This is not good. This guy’s really mad and, like, this doesn’t look good for you’–type stuff.” (Throughout our conversations, Slava insisted he never threatened anyone; it isn’t clear whether Carty was referring to Slava, Lalji, “Phil,” Trey, or another party.) At the time, Carty’s career was on an upswing; he told the court he was making up to $20,000 a month, and had landed gigs with Adidas and Coca-Cola. He told Australian law enforcement that the sole motivating factor for going through with the trip was that he was scared.
Even though Carty was reluctantly onboard, Slava was still scrambling; he was responsible for finding someone to accompany Carty. He began hitting up people in his immediate vicinity, including coworkers. Many of his approaches were unsuccessful.
“I mean, yeah,” Slava shrugged when I asked whether he’d talked to people about the trip through Slack, the app the company used for internal messaging. “I told people about what had happened.” He denies the notion that he was running a recruiting effort out of the Vice office. “These are just people I had in my orbit.”
According to Slava, this was when Jordan Gardner agreed to go as a last-minute substitute, accompanying Nate Carty in return for part of Carty’s payment in addition to his own. Gardner told the Australian court that he had overheard Slava and Lalji discussing how people who were caught on these trips and who assisted authorities might be tortured and killed, as would their families. (Slava denies that he ever threatened or coerced Gardner.) The plan was for three pairs of two people—Wade and Wang, Justin and Nate, and Senusi and a traveling partner—to go separately to Las Vegas, where they would meet with the drug supplier and hang out for a few days, then carry on to Australia with the cocaine-laced luggage. Wade and Wang planned to pose as a couple, and the others pretended to be buds. With the crew finally assembled, they set a date. They would land in Sydney on the morning of December 22, 2015.
Things went sideways almost immediately.
Senusi’s traveling partner was denied entry into the United States on the Canadian side, leaving him alone. So now it was a group of five people meant to ferry six persons’ worth of laced luggage, which added an extra complication. Slava insists that the reason the mules were caught is because they divided up the luggage while on Las Vegas airport property, making them look suspicious. But there’s no way of knowing.
What is clear is that the mules were dismayed by how obviously foolish the supposedly foolproof plan was. The luggage looked like it had been hastily glued together. “They were told certain things about the packaging and how it’s tamper-proof and this and that. So then Jordan gets the bags and the first thing, he tells me, is you can literally smell the glue from the bag,” Gardner’s lawyer, Eidan Havas, told the National Post in 2017. “It’s like a five-year-old’s arts-and-crafts project. … And he’s just like, ‘You guys are a bunch of liars, this isn’t what I was told. I don’t want to do this any more.’ At that stage, one of the men pulled out a gun, held it to his head and said words to the effect of, ‘If you don’t do this, we’re gonna get your girlfriend and your parents, we know where they live.’” At first, Gardner told Australian Federal Police that this man, whom he believed to be a member of a Mexican cartel, had pushed him against a car. Later, Gardner clarified that the man had not pushed him but had grabbed him by the shoulder while in possession of a gun after he tried to back out. (Havas did not respond to requests for comment on this story; he was arrested this summer on a witness tampering charge in an unrelated case.)
During their courthouse ordeals in Australia, the five mules emphasized how scared they had been, and how badgered they had felt. Carty told the AFP that he’d panicked, telling himself: “I just want to get out of this. I just want to hurry up. Once I get to Australia, get past Customs, I can live my normal life again.” While waiting in Vegas, Carty played it cool publicly, posting a snapshot on Instagram with the caption “See you tomorrow Australia.”
Senusi also described how he’d been scared into continuing on after his original travel companion had been stopped at the border. He told Australian authorities that other people involved in the conspiracy had discussed how someone who tried to pull out of an earlier trip had been tortured by having razor blades placed under their fingernails. He also said that he’d been told that his brother’s safety could not be guaranteed if he backed out.
The five mules continued unhappily to Sydney, where they were apprehended at the airport. Customs officers dismantled their suitcases to uncover 81 packages of cocaine in the lining. It was all stamped with the same logo: Z-8. Each person had millions of Australian dollars’ worth of product in their individual bags. Shortly after being caught, Senusi asked the Australian Federal Police officer at the border how much time he was facing. “It depends on a range of factors. Do you know how much drugs were in your bag?” the officer asked. “No. I have no idea,” Senusi responded. The maximum sentence was life in prison.
Back in Toronto, news trickled in about the arrests. Unsure of what the Australian police knew or what the mules might say, there was nothing for the trip organizers to do but wait and see. The holidays passed uneventfully in Canada; in Australia, the five mules waited in jail as their friends and family back in North America panicked.
Slava says that one of the trafficking point men did meet up with them to review what had happened—and to make a strange offer. “After everything was said and done and Tweedledum came to debrief me and Ali about what happened, he asked me to go again.” This time, though, he wanted Slava to stop in China on his way to Australia. “It sounded like he was trying to get me to go so that I could be put away and not a problem for them going forward.” Slava demurred. The traffickers didn’t force the matter.
In Australia, Porscha Wade was the last mule to be sentenced, in June 2018. She told the judge that she’d accepted the trip to Australia because it had been described to her as a modeling opportunity, and realized something was “dodgy” only when Slava started explaining the details. The judge called Wade a “young, immature and naïve young woman” and accepted her explanation.
For their efforts, the mules had been promised payment between CA$1,000 and CA$10,000, plus additional spending money for some of them. Drug trafficking and organized crime scholar Cecilia Farfán-Méndez categorizes the mule payment as “pretty low” considering the volume and risk.
But many of these people involved were precariously employed. Wade, for example, had told Australian authorities that her financial situation was “really bad” and she had been under the impression she’d still be able to model for additional income once she reached Sydney. “Ten thousand dollars is a lot, especially to someone like me,” Slava said. “Now, knowing how much lawyers cost—drop in the bucket.”
By the time the public learned that Slava had helped organize the smuggling effort, he had already been fired from Vice Media, as the company had been alerted to his potential involvement in the Australian drug mule bust in early 2016. The company hired third-party investigators to look into the complaint. “As soon as we became aware that Slava was possibly involved in something illicit the police were informed and he was let go,” former Vice Canada president Ryan Archibald, who is now the president of a cannabis marketing company, told me by email. “I didn’t put up a fight or anything, I just got my shit and left,” Slava said. So he was out of the media game, but still a free man. It wasn’t clear that anything would ever happen to him or Lalji, legally speaking, and for several years it didn’t. Even Wade’s sentencing, which once again brought Slava’s name into the news as a sort of drug trafficking Svengali, didn’t seem to have any repercussions.
The apparent lack of consequences for him provoked a lot of anger. Why was Slava bopping around the city while the people he’d sent to Australia were watching their 20s pass by in jail? The racial optics—none of the people arrested in Australia were white, but Slava is—pissed people off even more. None of the people arrested had rap sheets or bad reputations. “I was a bit surprised to hear of the serious nature of what Kutiba was involved with,” said Johanna Nikoletos, who briefly worked with Senusi in Montreal throwing parties.
Jordan Gardner’s friends and family, in particular, rallied around their friend. Many believe that he had been bullied into carrying the drugs. They started a Change.org petition to free him. “This was an extremely unfortunate mistake in which Jordan was a victim,” one of Gardner’s friends, Zakiyya Thurston, wrote on the petition. “The person responsible manipulated and used young naive writers. Please please have mercy and understanding.”
Gardner told Australian authorities that Slava had pressured him into taking the trip and that he had been scared for his life. Though they are the same age, Gardner is widely seen as a gentle soul who was intimidated by Slava.
Slava admits to shepherding the drug trafficking trip to fruition, but he insists that he did it nicely. “I was friendly with everybody. There was no malicious intent.” Still, he does remember telling Gardner that backing out might have consequences. “Trey communicated to me and I later communicated this to Jordan—that people who have backed out in the past, things did not go well for them.” During Slava’s sentencing hearing in October, crown prosecutor Faiyaz Alibhai pointed out that Slava had encouraged the mules to participate despite feeling threatened himself and being aware of the violence in the illicit drug trade. “He’s perfectly callous,” Alibhai said. Alibhai read the judge texts Slava had sent to encourage the mules to continue on with the plan, including one hyping up Porscha Wade’s looks to Robert Wang. “She’s so fine, I’m jealous,” Slava had texted Wang.
Even though he leans into his notoriety—his current Twitter bio is “worked at Vice then went to jail”—Slava insists that he was never the scheming kingpin he was made out to be. “They really made a mountain out … it’s not a molehill, but they really made a big mountain out of a smaller mountain.” After he pleaded guilty, he tweeted a diatribe to this end. “This a nonviolent crime and ultimately a victimless crime because the people that went, even though they tried to position themselves as victims, were not victims.”
While Slava is notorious among Vice Canada staffers because of his chaotic tenure there, Lalji—his closest work friend and co-conspirator—made no such impression. The men are accused of the same crime, but Slava’s higher visibility has left him as the public face of that crime. He’d built a personal brand as a nightlife writer whose vespertine lifestyle rivaled his subjects’, so when the news broke that he had, in fact, been operating on a level that far exceeded the drug dealing that artists often rap about, it was comically apt. “Slava P was tweeting about how bad Drake is while really living the life Rick Ross raps about lmaooooooooo,” graphic designer Kenneth Nunlist joked on Twitter. Meanwhile, even most of the Vice sources interviewed for this piece had no idea who Lalji is, even though his arrest was publicly reported and his behavior appeared felonious enough to warrant the same charge that Slava received. And those who did know who he was had very little to say about him. “From what I recall, Ali did his job and conducted himself accordingly,” said Archibald, the former Vice Canada president. “He was not at Vice all that long.”
Lalji’s role wouldn’t stay private for much longer. In August 2018, Canadian officers finally traveled to Australia, where Robert Wang and Nate Carty had agreed to speak. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police soon obtained what Slava saw as a smoking gun—Wang’s surreptitious recording of the drug mule coaching session, featuring both Slava and Lalji.
On January 31, 2019, Slava and Lalji were both arrested on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine. After obtaining Wang’s recording, the RCMP presented a case against them three years and two months after the initial arrests.
Slava was in Montreal, walking home from a few after-work beers and listening to Chapo Trap House when law enforcement showed up. (“What happened to the cocaine?” Chapo cohost Virgil Texas emailed The Ringer when asked for comment.) Slava seems to have moderately fond memories of his arrest experience. He described the RCMP officials as “very nice.” “They got me McDonald’s while they held me in the holding cell,” he noted. They flew him back to Toronto in a private jet, a detail he found thrilling.
“Not how I envisioned my first private jet, being in handcuffs,” Slava added.
After Slava landed back in Ontario, he and Lalji saw each other for the first time in several years, in the same jail cell. It was a pleasant reunion, according to Slava. “We were like, Oh! What’s up!” The two chatted amicably, in Slava’s recollection, speculating on whether or not Trey or Pope or any of the other people involved had been charged. (Lalji’s lawyer did not respond to a question about how Lalji remembered the meeting.) Lalji filled Slava in on his life, how he’d begun working for a small business called the Supreme Cannabis Company. He’d found a love of botany. “He was talking about how he’s going to write a book about the magical properties of plants,” Slava said. They were then removed from their holding cell and sent to separate jail cells until they made bail.
Slava spent a week in jail until he qualified for bail. He took an anthropological approach to the social scene. “Ultimately, it’s Canadian prison,” he said. “No Oz shit that happens.” (He did note that it was considered rude to “take your drawers off,” even in the shower. “You’re pretty much never nude.”) He’s optimistic that prison will resemble his jail stint.
Lalji, meanwhile, has not admitted guilt. On the same afternoon when Slava pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import cocaine, Lalji’s legal team announced that their client had decided to seek new counsel. He had originally hired a white-shoe Toronto law firm, Greenspan Humphrey Weinstein, whose partners have represented high-profile clients like Justin Bieber, Naomi Campbell, and, most recently, Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary. The gruff reality television judge retained the firm’s services after his boat crashed into a smaller vessel, killing two people aboard, this summer.
Dumping such prestigious representation was an odd move. But Lalji’s new lawyer, Deepak Paradkar, looked confident when he stepped up to explain that he’d be taking over.
Paradkar is mildly notorious, as far as Ontario-based criminal defense lawyers go. He represented the serial killer Dellen Millard, and he was linked to the illegal smuggling of jailhouse letters to Millard. For several years, he operated an Instagram account called “Cocaine_lawyer,” which he used to boast about his success representing cocaine-related defendants. One of his missives to clients: “Best advice for all my clients and those who are gangstas trust no one including your right hand. In every drug case I’ve done there is always a rat responsible for taking you down and you won’t see it coming.” (He hashtagged that post #watchyour6, #notoriousBIG, and #beatthecase.)
Reached by phone in October, Paradkar confirmed that Lalji did not want to take a plea bargain. “He’s fighting the charge and he’s pleading not guilty,” Paradkar said. “I’m not really in a position to add anything else.” The trial date has not been set, but he expects fall of next year.
Perhaps Lalji will try to avoid jail time by pointing his finger upward, at the men who Slava calls Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Perhaps he knows who they reported to, or other information that’d make him bold enough to take this case to trial. Maybe he’ll point it sideways. Trey is still in the air. Pope is still party-promoting his way through the city.
The operation is “kind of bust now,” according to Slava, but its exact nature has always been murky. Farfán-Méndez has doubts that this trafficking ring had any ties to a cartel beyond purchasing cocaine wholesale, based on the logistics of the case and how clumsy the operational security was. “I don’t think that this is linked to a very big transnational operation,” she said, hypothesizing that it might be a case of “copycat gone wrong.”
As Slava waits to find out how much time he will spend in prison, the crew originally arrested in Australia are either near the end of theirs or already out. Nate Carty has resumed his modeling career, and is also releasing music on SoundCloud under the name “Fuego.” Porscha Wade is also out; her whereabouts are unknown. Robert Wang will be eligible for release this month, while Jordan Gardner and Kutiba Senusi will be eligible in April. They may roll their eyes at Slava’s insistence that they were not his victims, and roll them even harder at Lalji’s choice of lawyer. Or they may just ignore everything. “My client will eventually return to his family and they all wish to put this unfortunate chapter of his life behind him,” Chris Watson, who represents Wang, told me over email.
Even though this particular operation and smuggling cell may be finished, it was just a tiny sliver of a large and thriving industry. Overwhelmed, terrified, and often coerced individuals continue to board planes, boats, and buses with illicit products every day.
Vice Media, meanwhile, is in another period of precarious reinvention. After years of cascading layoffs and a sexual harassment scandal, the company recently bought popular women’s media company Refinery29 and started staffing up again heavily. James Murdoch bought a small stake in the company this fall, bringing its valuation to an estimated $4 billion. In its push to refurbish its image, the company consolidated most of its topic-based websites under the Vice umbrella—so Noisey still exists, but not in a form Slava would recognize. In November, former Noisey editor-in-chief Eric Sundermann was fired from The Fader after reports of sexual misconduct at Vice and elsewhere. The company is not outpacing the darker chapters of its past as quickly as it would like.
Yaroslav Pastukhov has changed his name to something else already in anticipation of his life beyond this whole thing, a return to obscurity. His days of trying to mash his online persona into his actual life are over. “If I never see Soho House again in my life, I will be happy,” he said. “My number one concern is just getting a normal job.”
After everything, Slava still hopes that he can tell some version of the story about drug trafficking he was originally interested in hearing about five years ago, even if it is a memoir instead of a Vice article. The week of his sentencing hearing, Slava emailed to say he was heartened that the men he called Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Trey had all “apologized that it’s gotten to this point and offered to buy me a beer when it’s all over,” even while his Vice Canada friends had iced him out. Earlier this fall, Slava had described being “worried about violence” from all three men. But now he sees them as rare allies. “It really puts things into perspective of who is actually there for me,” he wrote, “and reinforces my idea that the eventual story I tell of how these goofy Canadians got involved with this cartel shit to begin with can be told through their first hand accounts.”
And, of course, he might still use “Slava P.” for the whole crime podcasting sideline gambit. “I’m not trying to lean into it too much, but it’s just going to be a potential avenue that I could go down,” he said earlier this fall. “Should I choose to.”
At his sentencing hearing on October 31, Slava teared up as he told Justice Heather F. Pringle that he was remorseful, that he did “greatly regret” his decisions after all. “It’s not a victimless crime,” Pringle had pointed out earlier in the hearing, noting that the way Slava had described his role in the conspiracy had failed to account for the larger impact of the global drug trade and his role within it. “I found that concerning,” the judge said. She will announce Slava’s sentence on December 3.
After the hearing, Slava waited outside the courtroom with his mother to tell me and another reporter how sorry he really was. He pressed a copy of his note to the judge into my hands. “I ruined my chance to turn into the man I’d like to have become,” it reads in part. It was an about-face from our other conversations, during which he had rejected the idea that he had victimized anybody and portrayed himself as a guy who simply got carried away dreaming of a swaggy life.
His social media dispatches have revealed a more familiar mind-set. While contrite in court, he is defiant online. In an Instagram Story this November, he declared that he intended to be a “reactive bully” until his final court date, and has started angrily tweeting at various nemeses on his second Twitter account. “I’ve reached some levels some will never taste, all largely by accident,” Slava wrote on Instagram the day before the hearing. “I became the most prolific and ‘notorious’ music journalist Toronto will ever see.”