This week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles announced eight arrests spanning three continents stemming from a large-scale online drug trafficking conspiracy. According to the Department of Justice, the eight men used anonymizing software to disguise their identities and involvement in an online marketplace selling and distributing various types of illegal drugs to thousands of customers in every U.S. state and 34 foreign countries. The Drug Enforcement Agency, in partnership with other U.S. and foreign law enforcement organizations, investigated the organization for over two years before making these arrests.
The defendants charged in the conspiracy were arrested over the past few days in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. A number of separate but related arrests and drug seizures were made in the Netherlands, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The alleged ringleader, Marc Willems, was arrested in Lelystad, Netherlands and another in key player, Michael Evron, was apprehended in Bogota, Columbia. The recently unsealed indictment includes 66 counts including charges of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to launder money against each of the defendants. Five of the men are separately charged with distribution of LSD. Willems and Evron are additionally charged with participation in a continuing criminal enterprise. Each faces charges carrying potential life sentences and the two alleged leaders face mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years imprisonment if found guilty of participating in a continuing criminal enterprise.
According to the indictment, the Willems and Evron ran an online storefront called “The Farmer’s Market” on the TOR anonymizing network—originally developed by the U.S. military for secure communications—from which they hosted advertisements from drug suppliers, took orders from purchasers, and processed orders for LSD, ecstasy, marijuana, psychotropic mushrooms, fentanyl, mescaline, ketamine, DMT, and other drugs. From 2007 to 2009, those two alone are alleged to have processed 5,256 orders valued at approximately $1,041,244. The TOR network where the purchases were placed and processed consists of a “circuit of encrypted connections through relays” that allow users to hide information identifying themselves and their computers. Sellers were even able to receive payment via Western Union and PayPal, among other means.
It is not clear from the indictment exactly how federal agents were able to break through the organization’s technology. Email communications referenced in the indictment to show, however, that the defendant’s believed that the advanced software systems they used to hide their identities could not be penetrated.
Because all the defendants—not just the two leaders charged separately under the continuing criminal enterprise or “kingpin” statute—are charged with conspiracy, the sentences they face may potentially be far larger than they would face if convicted only of distributing the drugs they personally helped process. Under federal conspiracy law, the acts of all members of a conspiracy are attributed to all the members individually. This gives prosecutors an enormous advantage in pressuring defendants charged with conspiracy to plead guilty. If the conspiracy is very large and a single defendant had reason to know that others members of the conspiracy were committing other criminal acts, the fact that his own role was minor will not prevent him from being convicted based on the aggregate criminal acts of all the members.
Drug conspiracy charges are extremely serious and anyone facing criminal drug conspiracy charges should immediately seek out a federal criminal attorney to ensure that his rights are protected and that he receives the strongest defense possible. Skilled representation in serious cases such as these can mean the difference between incarceration for decades and acquittal or dismissal of charges.