Brooklyn bad boy Martin Shkreli has never been far from controversy and that’s just the way he likes it, normally.
The 32-year-old became a Wall Street gambler at 17, received his first lawsuit at 24, was worth an estimated $100m shortly after turning 30 – and at this year achieved the title of “the most hated man in America”.
When the banker-turned-pharmaceutical-entrepreneur acquired his latest title, felony suspect, and felt the cold steel of federal handcuffs on Thursday, he may have been the only one who was surprised.
Known as much for his insolent grin, flame-thrower interviews and bizarre publicity antics as his business activities, Shkreli looked unusually subdued after being arrested, his gray hoodie matching his pallor outside a courthouse in Brooklyn on a damp day.
The charges against him relate to insider trading, not the more recent tactic by his company of alleged price-gouging of life-saving drugs that earned him the “hated” label, and opprobrium from Congress.
And a quick look back shows that notoriety has followed Shkreli like his own shadow from the start of his tumultuous career.
He recently proudly described himself as “hot tempered” and ascribed it to his background as a scrappy kid of immigrant Albanian and Croatian forebears, growing up in a tough street scene in the gritty working class Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Shkreli studied at the utilitarian Baruch College in New York and, while a 17-year-old student in 2000, he began working as a clerk at a hedge fund, Cramer, Berkowitz & Co.
One of his earliest known moves was to recommend shorting the stock of a biotech company (bet against the shares by selling them, anticipating and perhaps precipitating a fall in the price, then buying them back after the dive). The hedge fund made money but the suspicious trade earned Shkreli his first investigation by regulators, who ruled there was no wrongdoing.
In 2006 the 23-year-old entrepreneur struck out with his own hedge fund, Elea Capital Management.
But in July 2007, at the age of 24, Shkreli and his firm were sued by the not-long-for-this-world US investment bank, Lehman Brothers, for failing to pay up after placing a bet that the stock market (a put option) would fall when it, in fact, rose. A judge ordered Elea to pay $2.3 million.
Shkreli then created a new hedge fund, MSMB Capital Management, and focused mainly on shorting healthcare stocks.
Even in the brash casino world of hedge funds and speculative trading, Shkreli was gaining a reputation as a ruthless upstart.
But in 2011 he made what has come to be known as his “disastrous trade” when a misjudged deal with Merrill Lynch cost MSMB $7m and left it virtually bankrupt.
This was the deal that would come back to haunt Shkreli a few years later.
But at the time he thrust onwards, seeking out the new path that would eventually bring him to the attention of the mainstream – and not in a good way.
He started a pharmaceutical company in 2011 called Retrophin, operating in an arcane but growing financial niche.
Relatively small companies buy up the rights to long-established but obscure drugs that treat rare illnesses, with little or no competition in the drugs market – ie a virtual monopoly – and then increase the prices.
With a mix of fresh marketing and pricing of unchanged drugs and efforts to develop improved versions of older drugs, Shkreli recast himself as both a Wall Street wizard and a medical pioneer.
Retrophin was quickly making multimillion-dollar sales with a handful of niche drugs and went public on the NASDAQ exchange in New York in January 2014.
But Shkreli was ousted from his own company just a few months later, forced out in the fall of 2014 amid allegations that he floated Retrophin in order to provide stock to reimburse MSMB investors who lost out when the hedge fund became insolvent. And he was accused in court documents of harassing a former Retrophin portfolio manager over a debt by allegedly threatening the man’s wife and son via Facebook, pledging to make the family homeless.
Shkreli claimed Retrophin owed him $50 million in severance.
Retrophin has since sued him in federal court in New York and filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing the company’s founder of using its funds to pay legal settlements with former investors and passing off the payments as consultancy agreements.
Shkreli was not on the sidelines or out of the floodlights for long. In February 2015 he started another pharmaceutical company that was to become his most notorious yet, Turing Pharmaceuticals.
As chief executive he shot to infamy in September when it emerged that he had bought the drug Daraprim, which treats the rare but fatal infection toxoplasmosis, and increased the price 50-fold overnight.
He has lived in a febrile atmosphere of controversy from that point until earlier this month, when he was simultaneously excoriated for price-gouging by a congressional committee in Washington and revealed as the $2 million buyer of the one-off copy of a new Wu-Tang Clan album.
Throughout, Shkreli has answered his critics in a multitude of media interviews, social media posts and YouTube appearances with a mix of unabashed aggression, lewdness and verve.
Some believe he is a genius, some that he is spoiled and twisted, many that he is both. In one of his most recent, expletive-peppered interviews, he offered to bail a rapper out of jail in Brooklyn and pay for his legal defense – if he would make music especially for him, and offered to play his exclusive Wu-Tang Clan album for Taylor Swift – if she would give him a blow job.
This article was written by Joanna Walters in New York, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th December 2015 20.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010