Vince Ramos, 41, was a salesman with a secret life.
A lifelong resident of suburban Vancouver, he was known to his community as a father of four and the coach of the local Richmond Raiders flag football team for eight-year-olds. He had started at sales in his 20s with Amway, before marketing mobile phones for Rogers Communications. At 30, he struck out on his own with a venture he called Phantom Secure Communications.
But Mr. Ramos’s life unraveled last year following a U.S.-led international police probe that exposed his B.C.-based firm as the communications conduit of choice for global drug dealers. The scale of his syndicate, and the significance of his guilty plea that resulted in nine years in prison, largely escaped the attention of Canadians until now.
Last week, Cameron Ortis, a 47-year-old senior RCMP official, was arrested by his own federal policing colleagues and charged under the Security of Information Act and the Criminal Code. The case against him is now believed to have started with the discovery of Mountie material on Mr. Ramos’s seized laptop last year – a clue which led investigators to Mr. Ortis.
Now the government of Canada is doing damage control, reassuring its allies it can safeguard shared secrets even as federal intelligence agencies try to assess the scale of the breach.
Criminal enterprises dread wiretaps. Police detectives live in fear of going dark. It’s an ever-escalating arms race, but for a time Phantom Secure altered the global playing field.
Court documents filed in California show the B.C.-based company said it sold a more secure form of BlackBerry to business executives. But in time, the documents say, the company’s clients gave themselves telling online monikers like “knee_capper9,” “leadslinger” or, simply, “The.cartel."
Today, U.S. authorities estimate that Phantom Secure put up to 20,000 of its secure BlackBerry mobile devices into circulation. Many of them turned up in Australia in connection with cocaine-importation schemes. Mexican drug cartels are said to have used them, too. And some were found in Canada, in the hands of alleged Thunder Bay mobsters or a wheelchair-bound man who crossed the Canada-U.S. border with 24 kilograms of ecstasy.
Phantom Secure was an invite-only business where existing criminal clients would have to vouch for new ones. A six-month subscription for a device cost between $2,000 and $3,000, according to U.S. detectives. The devices were stripped of GPS chips that disclosed user locations. They were also susceptible to a remote wiping service. If an underling got caught by police, a crime boss could ask Phantom Secure to remotely destroy data before a police data-forensics team had a go at the seized BlackBerry.
In Richmond, B.C., Mr. Ramos always presented himself as an entrepreneur running a legitimate venture. In 2008, he incorporated Phantom Secure with the province. In 2012, he trademarked its brand with the federal government saying the company dealt in “retail store services featuring mobile phones.” That same year, he upgraded his home, buying an $800,000 house with 16-foot ceilings, radiant in-floor heating and a gourmet kitchen.
On the surface, Mr. Ramos’s brushes with Canadian police were limited. He amassed traffic tickets for speeding and having tinted windows. In 2017, Phantom Secure was ordered by a B.C. court to pay $150,000 in back taxes.
And those close to Mr. Ramos viewed him as a hard-working family man, as outlined in character references submitted as part of court proceedings last year.
“Vince, as we call him, is one of the most generous, helpful, kind spirited individuals I have ever met in my life,” wrote Shellaine Vicera, Mr. Ramos’s sister-in-law. “He is truly a family man, is loving, caring and is always supportive of his family and children.”
Patricia Mendoza, another sister-in-law, wrote of his positive energy and exemplary behaviour, and how incongruous she felt the allegations levelled against him seemed.
“The nature of the offences is very surprising and shocking, as I have always known Vincent Ramos to be an intelligent, personable, hard-working and trustworthy individual,” she wrote.
Yet by the mid-2010s, the use of Phantom Secure BlackBerries by criminal enterprises had grown so brazen that Canadian, Australian and U.S. police teamed up to take down the enterprise. Federal police at the RCMP – the very same agency that then employed Mr. Ortis, who himself hailed from suburban B.C. – was part of this effort.
Shortly after Mr. Ramos was arrested in 2018, he pleaded guilty. U.S. authorities are now in the process of seizing $80-million in assets he allegedly controlled.
The list includes scores of international bank accounts, several far-flung BlackBerry servers, and various forms of cryptocurrency.
Authorities are in the process of taking half of the Richmond home Mr. Ramos shared with his wife and children. The house sold early this year for nearly $2-million.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers