Baruch Feldheim, 43, of Brooklyn New York, has had a bit of bad luck recently.
Just as things were looking up for him.
He had managed to get hold of tens of thousands of respirator masks and other hospital supplies and demand was high.
On March 18, 2020, a doctor in New Jersey contacted Feldheim via a WhatsApp chat group labeled “Virus2020!”
Feldheim, who, for his efforts, might be called Respirator-Bro, agreed to sell the doctor 1,000 N95 respirator masks and other assorted materials for $12,000, a 700 percent markup from the normal price charged for those materials.
The masks themselves used to cost about $1 before the pandemic-fueled shortage.
For health care workers, the N95 mask is an invaluable line of defense against the novel coronavirus. These highly protective respirators can keep doctors and nurses from getting infected by patients, but the world is quickly running out of them.
While countries around the world scramble to find stockpiles of N95s and manufacture more of the much-coveted masks, it’s unclear how this shortage will resolve itself.
But Feldheim had it covered. He directed the doctor to an auto repair shop in Irvington, New Jersey, to pick up his order, which he did.
According to the doctor, the repair shop contained enough materials, including hand sanitizers, Clorox wipes, chemical cleaning supply agents, and surgical supplies, to outfit an entire hospital.
On March 23, 2020, the clever Feldheim offered to sell a nurse a number of surgical gowns and directed the nurse to his residence in Brooklyn.
Feldheim also received, on March 25, 2020, a shipment from Canada containing approximately eight pallets of respirator masks.
Feldheim was buying low and selling high – just when demand was peaking.
Where he was getting the items is not known, but one thing is certain, he had what doctors needed and could not get – and the entrepreneurial Feldheim was not opposed to making them available for the right price.
But with success can come misfortune and in these pandemic times, he attracted the attention of the FBI.
On March 25, 2020, the US Department of Health and Human Services issued an executive order designating certain scarce health and medical resources necessary to respond to the spread of the Coronavirus. Those designated materials included N95 filtering face-piece respirators, personal protection equipment (PPE) face masks, surgical masks, sterilization services, and disinfecting devices, among other things.
On March 27, 2020, FBI agents staked out the intrepid Feldheim’s house and observed an empty box that once contained N95 masks outside.
On March 29, 2020, FBI agents witnessed multiple individuals approaching Feldheim’s residence and walking away with boxes or bags that appeared to contain medical supplies.
The agents approached Feldheim when he came outside.
After identifying themselves as FBI agents, they told Feldheim that they wanted to stay a distance away from him given concerns over the spread of Coronavirus. When the agents were within four to five feet of him, Feldheim allegedly coughed in their direction without covering his mouth.
The agents told him they were looking for certain personal protection equipment materials and they had information that Feldheim was in possession of large quantities of them.
Feldheim told the agents he had Coronavirus.
The FBI agents pressed him further about his possession and sale of personal protective equipment and other materials.
He told the agents that he worked for a company that bought and sold personal protective equipment and other materials and that he never took physical custody of the materials.
He also said he did not possess large quantities of personal protective equipment and never sold them directly to individuals.
This is where he made a slight mistake, for it struck the agents as being untruthful since there was an empty box of face respirator masks outside his home and they had seen people coming and going from his house.
While FBI agents are at liberty to lie to anyone and often do so, it is a federal crime to lie to an FBI agent – and the crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Feldheim was charged with making false statements to the FBI.
Feldheim was also accused of price-gouging for allegedly selling designated materials, including N95 respirators, to doctors and nurses at inflated prices.
He was also charged with assault because he coughed in the direction of FBI agents. It is not clear if he intended to thwart the agents from arresting him or searching his home or whether he simply coughed as people sometimes do rather unexpectedly and failed to cover his mouth in time.
He probably should not have told them he had coronavirus.
The assault charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
It is not known if Feldheim was lying or telling the truth about having coronavirus.
Following Feldheim’s arrest, the FBI raided a warehouse on Pennsylvania Avenue in an industrial section of Linden, NJ, that housed Feldhim’s suspected stash of 80,000 masks.
Mask-wearing agents and other workers placed the eight pallets of medical supplies into a box truck.
Where the masks will go next is hard to say. They may have to be held in evidence and since Feldheim is not convicted, the items might still technically belong to him, thus making them unavailable to the public at any price.
Feldheim’s appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael A. Hammer in Newark federal court was scheduled for yesterday.
The US Attorney asks people to please report COVID-19 fraud, hoarding, or price-gouging to the National Center for Disaster Fraud’s National Hotline at (866) 720-5721 or e-mail email@example.com.
It’s likely that Feldheim, who sought to profit big from the pandemic might be joining the notorious Pharma-Bro, Martin Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager, and convicted felon, in federal prison.
Shkreli gained infamy for raising the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent while running a company then known as Turing Pharmaceuticals.
They may even wind up as cellmates.
Pharma-Bro and Respirator-Bro are part of a breed of people who see profit where others see compassion, who see opportunity where others see making our best-united efforts to help avoid calamity.
Feldheim got a hold of a stash of respirator masks that doctors and nurses desperately need, and he had but one thought: How to get the absolute most money out of it – even if people had to get sick or die in the process.