From inmate to entrepreneur: How crypto and business ambitions inspired Martin Shkreli’s former cellmate to get his life back on trackView transcript
Brooklyn-born, Queens-raised Dan Egipciaco — known as “D-Block” to his friends — is a classic American comeback story. Although he excelled in school, sports, and his part-time jobs while growing up in New York, he took a wrong turn into drugs and crime, and ended up in a federal prison with a harsh sentence.
After a decade and a half of fighting his case in court, researching business ideas, including crypto, and getting involved in youth mentorship programs to help other kids avoid his mistakes, he eventually secured his release — and put what he learned about business to use as a free man.
The hard-working middle child of three sons in a loving, supportive single-parent family, Egipciaco grew up in different parts of Brooklyn and Queens. He earned good grades in high school and later studied at Baruch College for several semesters, though he never completed a degree program. But he made some missteps along the way, dabbling in drugs, which put one possession offense and five years of probation on his record.
Then, at age 25, Egipciaco let an acquaintance talk him into helping to steal 10 kilograms of cocaine from a drug dealer. The whole thing turned out to be a setup — a controversial law enforcement tactic known as a “stash-house sting.” It’s when police arrange fake criminal transactions such as robberies to entice people into illegal activity, then promptly arrest them.
These stings, which are often used to target the drug trade in particular, have been widely criticized for disproportionately afflicting people of color and for being open to abuse. Egipciaco’s associate turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration informant who got him arrested upon arrival at the scene.
Egipciaco’s entrapment-based defense at trial didn’t save him from conviction — or from a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. But he didn’t languish in prison. While fighting his conviction, Egipciaco expanded his interest in cryptocurrency and learned more about the business world through his activities in confinement, from volunteer work with his fellow inmates to conversations with his sometime cellmate, the controversial former pharma CEO Martin Shkreli, better known as the “pharma bro.”
At the time, the current editor-in-chief of The Business of Business, Christie Smythe, had a close personal relationship with Shkreli. Through him, she got to know Egipciaco and was impressed by his positive attitude and drive to succeed in legitimate enterprises. She helped to advocate for his release (and later hooked us up for this interview).
Prosecutors eventually agreed to drop Egipciaco’s previous conviction from their calculations, and he was re-sentenced to time served in early September 2019. Since then, he’s continued volunteering with convicts and at-risk youth in New York City. He’s also plunged into business ventures in music and fashion and become a passionate advocate for cryptocurrency as a way for communities of color to build wealth and financial independence. We spoke with him about his journey from inmate to entrepreneur.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Getting caught in a controversial "stash house sting"; fighting for release; getting into crypto; befriending Martin Shkreli; mentoring at-risk youth00:00:00
Business of Business: So, in a nutshell, do you think you could give us a bit of an overview of what you do now professionally but also a bird's eye view of how you got there?
Dan Egipciaco: All right. Professionally, I'm actually a man of many hats. A little background on me, I was incarcerated for over 15 years. I recently transitioned back home. About two years ago, I was released early, I actually had a 25 year sentence. My crime was a non-violent crime. It was actually categorized as a fictitious crime, something that's very controversial, called a stash house reverse-sting. It made the papers. It’s still making headlines.
There are a lot of podcasts about it, speaking on how between the years of 2009 to 2019, there were over 400-and-something individuals that were caught up in the same type of thing that I got caught up in, and not one of them was Caucasian. Everyone was a person of color. So it’s very controversial. There was a lot of fighting that I had to do to get released, and get some play in the courts, and a lot of appeals. But you know, in time, I was able to reflect on what I wanted to do in the future, and take that time to study, educate myself and prepare myself for my inevitable release, rather than just being mad at the fact that I was set up for some fake crime and doing time for something I really didn’t do.
One of the things that I studied while in [prison] were things pertaining to self help and mentoring and things of that nature within the nonprofit sector. So one of the things that I currently do is I work for a nonprofit organization called Lead by Example Reverse the Trend. We are tracked by the Department of Probation. We do Zoom conference meetings with [at-risk] children. So I do the curriculum-writing. I do a lot of the facilitation. I also do a lot of administrative stuff. I'm the key person and the go-to contact with the Department of Probation.
So those are just a few of the hats that I wear within the nonprofit sector. I also work with my brother who has a consulting company called the Vandal Group, and I do a lot with marketing and branding and strategic partnerships with different brands such as Puma and a few other big names.
My next hat is cryptocurrency — another thing that I learned on the inside, in 2017, just by learning what that arena is about. And now I'm working together with my brother and consulting with his agency on cryptocurrency and NFTs and the digital space as a whole. So I do a little bit of everything.
Ok, that is truly an impressive resume. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up, where you came from, and how you came to get in trouble with the law, as well as your educational background?
Well, I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, and I went to school in Queens. So I was in a single-parent home, two brothers. One brother is seven years older and I have a younger brother who is seven years younger.
I’m sorry to interrupt but which parts of Brooklyn and Queens out of curiosity. Because I used to have family in Brooklyn, and I went to law school in New York, too. So I’m always curious.
Okay, so Brooklyn, I was everywhere from Bushwick to Williamsburg and East New York, and surrounding areas. And then in Queens I was in the surrounding area immediately over the border, which is the city line area of Ozone Park, all the way down to Jamaica Avenue because I went to school at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Jamaica, Queens.
Academically, I’ve always kind of shined in a sense. I always had high grades. I went to Baruch College for a few semesters. I never finished college, but I did some semesters and started working at the age of 12 with a paper route to help my mother because, like I said, we grew up in a single-parent home. So after a while, just growing up in the neighborhoods that I grew up with, and being a product of my environment, I just started veering more and more away from the route that was going on.
I was a track star in school. You know, I was supposed to be on a scholarship but I got into a bad car accident so that went left, and, you know, little things started getting in the way of the trajectory that I was going in educational-wise, pushing me back.
And so how exactly did you come to come into contact with drugs and some of the folks who got you into trouble with the law?
I mean, well, growing up in the neighborhoods that we grew up in, I mean, that's all around us, basically. I mean, I'm sure we all have family members that have fallen victim to substance abuse. Or criminality and things of that nature. So, it's ever present in our lives basically. I couldn't say it was all because my father wasn't home. I couldn't put my finger on one specific thing that said, “All right, this is what made me turn to the streets.”
“I couldn't put my finger on one specific thing that said, 'All right, this is what made me turn to the streets.'"
The household I had was a very structured household, you know, so I couldn't say that. Even though there wasn't a father figure there, I had an older brother who played the role of a father figure, and my mother worked all day every day to maintain and make sure that we had what we needed. You know, the bare minimum is the house over our head, the food, and the clothes to go to school in and or whatever. My family upbringing was very structured, very loving, very supportive.
You know, as a young teenager growing up in New York City, you tend to venture off for a time. You know, like I said, I take responsibility for the fact of ever being engaged in a lifestyle that put me in the presence of the type of offer that came about for me to catch the case that I did. Because like I told you, the case that I caught, it was designed to utilize this strategy.
Somebody who had already caught a cause with them [been caught through a drug sting] came back to the neighborhood saying, “Hey, there’s this opportunity, this warehouse down the block that’s empty and full of kilos. I think we could go in there and steal it and split the process.” I’m young, broke, hungry and you know, desperate, and I said, “All right, that sounds kind of easy.” When we get there, there is no warehouse. There are no drugs. It was a setup and they charged me for drugs that never existed. And I got 25 years for that afternoon.
So, yes, I grew up in a neighborhood where there was drug dealing and there were things going on. It wasn't like that was the focal point of my upbringing. You know, it's just that at the end of the day I was around, I was surrounded by these types of things. And I got approached by an individual from the neighborhood for this grand scheme.
And that ended up locking me up for 15 years. I would have still been there had it not been for some of the legal battles that we were able to win along the way.
Is there anything you can tell us about how those legal battles proceeded? I mean, what kinds of difficulties did you encounter along the way and what kind of sentence did you end up getting? When you know, they ended up I guess, convicting you regardless? Or did it end up being a plea?
Yeah, no, I went to trial. I got convicted. I refused to plead because they wanted me to plead guilty to every charge and take 15 years, which is what I ended up doing. I refused because for me, it was entrapment, for lack of better words. They say the feds can indict a ham sandwich, but that was the route that I was trying to take. My lawyer didn't want to go that route, and didn't want to put me on the stand to testify. He was very timid, to say the least, when it came to the approach and fighting this case with the government.
There were a lot of battles that I faced within the legal system, when it came to that, because like I said, there was that whole gray area to entice individuals, young men of color from these poor neighborhoods into doing this with promises of easy money. It's almost like going into the stock market right? And grabbing a bunch of guys off the floor and saying, “Hey, I got this inside trade for you, man. It's guaranteed.”
“I refused to plead because they wanted me to plead guilty to every charge and take 15 years, which is what I ended up doing. I refused because for me, it was entrapment, for lack of better words."
You know that’s what happens in our area, in the streets of New York City and in the areas where, it's Black and brown individuals being enticed by the promises of riches. So that in itself was a hard pill to swallow along with having to go to trial with a lawyer telling you, “Listen, if you lose trial, you're going to have the mandatory minimum.” The thing is, not only did they make up the whole situation, the levels of charges they charged with would mean there was no way for me to do any less than 25 years, and a jury found me guilty. So that alone, you know, put me in a space where I’m fighting for my life, literally. Like they really just caught me in a whole trap.
At the time, I was the first case out of New York, but the tactic wasn't a new tactic per se. They started down in Florida. But what happened was I found it difficult to find case law that pertains to this exact strategy. So it was harder for me to find the ammunition to fight with. Even the judge was like, “Wow, this is incredible.” But it was a difficult battle to say the least.
Yeah, I know what you mean, because I think I mentioned I went to law school in New York, about 10 years ago. And a lot of the stuff that I studied pertained to the questionable practices, shall we say, in the criminal justice system. So I know exactly what you mean, in terms of trying to find precedent that's relevant to your case, from your jurisdiction, and from your state. And if there isn't any yet, then you're right, you're going to have a much harder time because your case is actually cutting edge for your jurisdiction. How long ago was the trial and your conviction and how much time did you end up serving?
I caught my case in 2005, February of 2005. And by October 2005, I had already gone to trial and was convicted and was on my way to getting sentenced to 25 years. And at the time I was 25 years old. And yeah, I mean, it was a rigorous process. On myself, on my family from the day that I was locked up and I was denied bail. It was like I got kidnapped. When I pulled up to the parking lot of where, you know, I was supposed to meet these people. I got thrown into a van. And that's it. Never saw home again until I was released two years ago.
So after losing one or two appeals, as the years progressed, they started utilizing these things [DEA agents using these sting tactics] more often. And because they're utilizing these things more often now there was more case law. There were things happening in other jurisdictions, specifically down in Chicago. There was a big case study that happened that they ended up getting this professor, at the time she was working together with, I believe, Cardozo School of Law up in New York City.
That’s where I went to law school.
So this professor, she writes a lot of articles pertaining to these cases, and they had commissioned her to come down to the University of Chicago, and they did a big case study and they pretty much put all those cases. I'm not sure how many cases it was, but I think it was about 48 defendants down there all together, and they kind of brought all those cases together and kind of started fighting them as a whole rather than separately and individually. There were a lot of news articles that came out.
I had a link in a petition that's actually still live on Change.org. Through my movement, through reverse-sting awareness that I had created on the inside and through the help of my brother, my family, they had a website and they had the petition and things like that. And we had like over 8,000 signatures at the time. So they started utilizing a lot of these things and a lot of articles that started coming out in the Chicago Tribune and things of that nature. We started making progress with these cases, and that started making it a little easier for us to argue things.
I continued dealing with reporters you know, certain reporters that did two or three articles on me. I did a podcast as well, to just keep an awareness out there. And within that time also, um, President Trump at the time had ended up signing a bill into law that helped with certain mandatory minimums, obtaining crack and things of that nature.
Well, inside of that big bill that he passed, there was a certain clause in there that helped get me back into the court system, and to be able to because once you lose your first appeal, they only give you one appeal in defense.
So the crime that I was accused of the robbery was said to be a crime of violence, though it was a conspiracy and the robbery never happened. It could never happen or whatever, but they still classified it as a robbery and a crime of violence, even though it was just a conspiracy. So where I got a 20 year mandatory minimum for the 10 kilos that never existed, I also got a five year mandatory minimum on top of that, for an inoperable pistol which was basically just in the car. They said, “Oh, he was possessing it in furtherance of this crime of violence that never took place.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ended up ruling that this type of robbery conspiracy is not considered a crime of violence because there's only a conspiracy and no steps were taken to actually commit the violence or whatever. So with that being said I had to go back into court to get those five years taken off to drop me from 25 to 20. Because of that law and the clause inside of that law that I stated earlier that Donald Trump signed I was able to fight another charge that I had.
So I was convicted of a drug crime after previously being convicted of an earlier drug crime. When I was younger, I was caught in attempted criminal possession. I was trying to go buy some drugs, and ended up on probation. I took a plea, not knowing any better, not knowing the repercussions that it could potentially have in the future for me. And because of that prior charge, they [enhanced penalties against him] because I chose to go to trial [in the robbery case].
The mandatory minimum for the drug sting was supposed to be 10 years. But because of that prior probation I had, they doubled the mandatory minimum to 20. [Citing the revised law], I went back to court, and the judge and the government agreed, and they took that charge off as well. So all my charges didn’t come off, and we’re still battling over stash house stings. They’re still utilizing it in certain areas in this city, and you know, I’m a vocal opponent. This is like stop and frisk on steroids because this is country-wide.
This is not just in New York, you know, I mean, so these cases are country-wide. And there's thousands of individuals still locked up right now in these cases that do not have strong enough precedent to get their cases overturned.
What would you say really kept you going while you were incarcerated, you know, how were you able to get through that experience?
I mean, that's definitely a good question. And I touched on it briefly on a report that I did with [now The Business of Business editor-in-chief] Christie Smythe. I know you’re familiar with her. And yeah, I mean, family support, that’s No. 1. I’ve always been a person that stands strong on morals and principles, and just always been a driven individual. So I had to dig deep inside and tell myself, “Listen.” I had to find some spiritual grounding. I had to find some mental stability. I had to really dig deep and tell myself, “Listen, this isn’t a life sentence.”
"If you get 25 years, you’re going to do 21 and a half. I told myself, 'This isn’t a life sentence. I will get through this.'"
For many people, it’s essentially a life sentence because I was 25 and I got sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. So you know in essence I was sentenced to death because you do 80% of your time [in federal prison there is no parole]. If you get 25 years, you’re going to do 21 and a half. I told myself, “This isn’t a life sentence. I will get through this.”
I was far from an angel, growing up in New York City. I smoked weed, I did what I did, but at the end of the day, nothing I ever did was deserving of that amount of time. So I use that as my ammunition. I said, “I'm not deserving of this and you can't tell me that I am. I'm gonna fight every single day. I'm gonna fight every appeal. I'm gonna reach out to reporters and magazines.”
And I actually learned a lot of legal terminology. I learned a lot of different strategies and, and legal techniques in order to fight my case, because nobody knows your case better than you at the end of the day. I'm also going to give props to my final lawyer Peggy Cross-Goldenberg. She's the one that fought my battle at the end with me tooth and nail when she came across my case. She was the CJA lawyer, they call it but basically, you know, she was a pro bono lawyer.
So all the lawyers that my family spent all this money on all the years prior from my trial lawyer to my appeals lawyer. None of them was able to do nothing. The lawyer that got assigned to my case, God bless her soul, who wanted to fight hard and said “we'll do everything,” [was a public defender].
So when you were finally released, how were you able to get back on your feet?
Okay, so first and foremost, it was family support. I got to give all the props to my mother. That's my rock. She's there every step of the way, every day of the battle and still is right there by my side. You know, my brothers as well as the rest of my family. They're very supportive, but you know, that's what has helped me now transition after the bid.
I had a music studio, in the music industry. I actually have an artist that I now still deal with as well. That's yet another hat that I deal with. I deal with a lot of producers and engineers and I have an artist that I deal with directly that I was doing this music thing prior to my incarceration and you know. So I did music. I also had a clothing store in East New York, Brooklyn. So I was already into, you know, the fabrics and into clothing. I was an entrepreneur always, like I said, I had my people around since I was 12. So I always had that entrepreneurial spirit, while also always working a nine to five with kids who are in special ed at a middle school in downtown Brooklyn.
I worked one-on-one with what they call the worst kid in the school, who used to be throwing chairs at teachers and cursing them out. Couldn't read or write or none of that. And by the time I was done with him, he read, he passed all his state exams and he got accepted into a pretty decent high school and they actually wanted me to go to that high school with him to continue pushing him forward or whatever. So because of my background and education, I got into programming on the inside. I came across a program called Young Men Incorporated. It was focused on basically troubled youth, at-risk youth, youth that were caught up in the street life, or gang members and things of that nature. So I got involved with that organization. And I actually have worked my way all the way up to being the president of that organization.
I was incarcerated at FCI Fort Dix [in New Jersey]. I was teaching the Young Men Incorporated programming there, and I had a big show in the gym of over 300 plus individuals that came to listen to these men speak in our program and get introduced to the program. They also wrote letters for me to come home, and when it was time for me to get resentenced my judge was like, “I hope you go home and really continue the work that you're doing with the youth and the programs” and stuff like that.
I went in as just a facilitator, but I quickly showed them you know, how resourceful I was. And I ended up getting my curriculum to be the focal point of the organization and of the work that we do with the Department of Probation. I started training other facilitators, so I not only facilitate, I also train, and I also do administrative work and things of that nature. So that's kind of how I transitioned into the nonprofit sector and the work within there as far as marketing and branding and strategic partnerships and things like that.
I also started teaching my younger brother about cryptocurrency. He had seen the opportunities there. And now we have started to bring the opportunity than the strategies of the digital space to the same brands that we're dealing with. And now we're in talks with plans to get them into the digital space within NFTs and cryptocurrency and things of that nature. So out here grinding and connecting the dots.
Speaking of cryptocurrency, I was hoping you could tell me just a bit about what role cryptocurrency plays in what you do now?
Okay, yes, so, the way I got into cryptocurrency I will say this the individual who got me into cryptocurrency was actually the late [rap artist] Nipsey Hussle. When I was incarcerated, I came across an interview that he did speaking on cryptocurrency. Now we all know that Nipsey Hussle was, as you know, ahead of his time, and a person who always spoke on, upliftment, and us being forward thinking. So in listening to that interview, he spoke on cryptocurrency, and he spoke about how he went all the way into Europe. I believe it was Amsterdam, and he went to link up with a company out there, they were called Follow Coin. They had this entity and he did a brand partnership with them, and the whole concept behind Follow Coin was they had an app and investors, green investors, people who are new to the space, could get into this app and follow the trades of more experienced traders.
I found that interesting. So I got in contact with my family. I told them, “Hey, look into this cryptocurrency Follow Coin.” In order to buy the Follow Coin token, you had to first buy Ethereum. So with my family telling me this whole thing I'm like, “What about Ethereum?” So then I did more research on Ethereum, and this is back in 2017, and I”m like well, it’s the No. 2 coin, next to Bitcoin. In 2017, Bitcoin was just starting to head toward its peak. I convinced my mother and my brothers to do a slight investment and then trust me as a researcher, and they were like, “Okay.”
"I've always been ambitious. I've always been a bit of a risk-taker, even when it came to entrepreneurship because as an entrepreneur, especially being a man of color, it’s not easy to get into that space."
I've always been ambitious. I've always been a bit of a risk-taker, even when it came to entrepreneurship because as an entrepreneur, especially being a man of color, it’s not easy to get into that space. So you have to be a bit of a risk taker. So that was kind of my entry point into cryptocurrency. From there, I kept on doing research. My brother actually got into it with me. He would say, “I’m doing my own research. I like what I see. I see this definitely has a lot of potential.”
I was sending out these little tips to my little brother, “Hey, research this coin, hey, look at this platform.” It was a learning experience. And through that learning experience, I kept on educating myself while in there. And one of the individuals that I ended up being very close to because he ended up actually being my cellmate, you might be familiar with him, was Martin Shkreli.
Oh, right. Yeah, yeah. Christie mentioned this to me, right.
Yeah. So, when he became my cellmate, I personally didn't know who he was at the time. I mean, I had already been incarcerated for quite some time. I'm not a big TV person. But when other people mentioned who he was to me, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that's the guy [who jacked up the price of drugs among other things]…” But I had no clue who he was. He had seen a Bitcoin book on top of my bed. We got to interacting and speaking on some things, and he just said, “Wow, I never thought I would meet a person like you in a place like this.”
And you know, we befriended each other. He was my cellmate. I mean, my bunkie. He was on the top bunk sleeping right above me or whatever. So of course, you know I got to learning who this individual was. Forget about what the media portrays him as and all that stuff. Like, I got to learn Martin for who Martin is. You know, he’s a very humble person. Surprisingly so, because the media does not paint him out to be humble at all. You know, he has his little cockiness and stuff like that, but deep down inside he’s very humble.
Whatever the media portrays him out to be and whatever he had going on prior to his incarceration, you're not going to get away with that in there. I'm sure that toned things down a little bit or put things in perspective for him. But in that experience, us being so close together, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from him within that space as well. I knew more about crypto than him, but he was familiar, and him using his stock knowledge and me my crypto knowledge we kind of saw where the two intertwined as a strategy.
But yeah, so that's where my whole introduction into crypto took place. So when I came home, after situating myself, I wished I would have gotten into crypto a lot sooner. I'll tell you that much. I started telling everybody who would listen to me, I preach to all my family members, and all my friends about how cryptocurrency is the future. Blockchain is the future. You know, our people need to learn about that. So the next curriculum that I'm working on is a financial literacy curriculum dealing in cryptocurrency for us, for people that come from where we come from. You know, that is not in traditional books and education in that manner. No, it's more self-taught stuff.