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Feds Arrest 'The Mask Man,' New York Pharmacist Accused Of Profiteering On N95 Masks

A licensed pharmacist in New York bought up thousands of rare N95 masks and sold them at much higher prices during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal authorities said Tuesday, announcing the arrest of Richard Schirripa, aka "the Mask Man," on charges that include violating the Defense Production Act. Schirripa is accused of charging up to $25 per mask – often selling them out of his car.

Schirripa is accused of buying about $200,000 worth of N95 masks between February and April and selling thousands of them "at severely inflated prices during both late March and April 2020," according to a criminal complaint that was recently unsealed. The time frame coincides with the wave of coronavirus cases that came crashing into New York as the pandemic arrived in the U.S. in full force.

"I feel like a drug dealer standing out here," Schirripa, 66, allegedly said in early April as he was recorded selling 16 boxes of N95 masks to a customer on a Manhattan street, according to the complaint.

The sale took place near Madison Avenue Pharmacy, just east of Central Park – a business Schirripa had recently shut down. But rather than arriving through official channels, the masks had come from "the black market," Schirripa allegedly said. He is accused of selling most of the protective gear out of the trunk of his Audi.

Schirripa "said that he normally buys the surgical grade masks for $20 per box and sells them for $40, but he said he had purchased these for $400 per box," the criminal complaint said.

"We're in a time of emergency and shortage," Schirripa allegedly told an undercover agent during a phone call that was recorded. The scarcity and vital need for N95 masks – which have been in such short supply that some medical professionals have been forced to improvise devices to protect themselves – justified their high price, Schirripa allegedly said.

"As alleged, Richard Schirripa exploited an unprecedented crisis to engage in profiteering," Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement Tuesday. Several agencies, from Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to the Drug Enforcement Administration, played roles in the case against Schirripa.

Agents recovered some 6,660 masks from Schirripa's house in Long Island, his apartment in New York City and his car, according to the complaint.

The complaint said Schirripa told investigators who interviewed him at his house that "others had nicknamed him 'the Mask Man.' "

Schirripa allegedly began hoarding N95 masks in February — and the authorities said he continued to do so after President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in late March, making it illegal to engage in hoarding or price gouging of personal protective equipment such as N95 masks.

His customers spanned eight states and included several doctors, a nursing home, a funeral home and a drugstore, according to court documents. Authorities were able to learn details about Schirripa's sales because he kept invoices for each transaction — paperwork that apparently used the name of his recently closed pharmacy, the complaint said.

Schirripa faces other serious but unrelated charges stemming from an earlier investigation into his pharmacy – especially the disposition of thousands of doses of strong opiates, including fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine sulfate, when he closed his business and sold its assets.

Early this year, Schirripa sent a letter to the DEA in which he said that as part of his pharmacy's closure he had transferred, sold or destroyed all controlled substances that the business had held.

"In fact, he had thousands of pills/patches in his downstairs safe," the complaint said, describing the results of a search of Schirripa's home in early April.

When Schirripa spoke to federal agents last month, he acknowledged he should have destroyed the drugs in his home, according to the complaint. On Tuesday, he turned himself over to federal custody and was to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ona T. Wang in Manhattan federal court.

The complaint accuses Schirripa of causing Medicare and Medicaid to be billed for controlled substances when he allegedly used customers' personal data to fabricate prescriptions for the drugs. During the search of his home, the complaint said, investigators found prescription bottles with more than two dozen different names on the labels.

Based on that inquiry, the pharmacist is accused of health care fraud and identity theft.

If Schirripa is convicted of all the charges against him, he could face a prison sentence of more than 30 years. That includes a count of health care fraud, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.