A sophisticated online drug marketplace that sold everything from marijuana to mescaline to some 3,000 people around the world has been cracked with the arrests of 15 people in several countries, U.S. authorities announced Monday.
An indictment unsealed in federal court in Los Angeles claims eight men ran "The Farmer's Market," which allowed suppliers of drugs _ including LSD, Ecstasy and ketamine _ to anonymously sell their wares online. They hooked up with buyers in 34 countries and accepted various forms of payment, including cash, Western Union and PayPal transactions, the indictment claims.
From 2007 to 2009 alone, the marketplace processed more than 5,000 orders for drugs valued at more than $1 million, federal officials contended. It began operations as far back as March 2006, authorities said.
The market "provided a controlled substances storefront, order forms, online forums, customer service, and payment methods for the different sources of supply" and charged the suppliers a commission based upon the value of the order, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
"For customers, the operators screened all sources of supply and guaranteed delivery of the illegal drugs," the statement said.
The alleged ringleader, Dutch citizen Marc Willems, 42, was arrested Monday at his home in Lelystad in the Netherlands, officials said.
Michael Evron, 42, a United States citizen living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was taken into custody on Sunday in Bogota, Colombia, authorities said.
The other six men were arrested at their homes. They are identified as Jonathan Colbeck, 51, of Urbana, Iowa; Brian Colbeck, 47, of Coldwater, Mich.; Ryan Rawls, 31, of Alpharetta, Ga.; Jonathan Dugan, 27, of North Babylon, N.Y.; George Matzek, 20, of Secaucus, N.J.; and Charles Bigras, 37, of Melbourne, Fla.
It was not immediately clear whether the men had obtained lawyers.
The 12-count indictment charges all eight men with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and money laundering conspiracy. Some of the men also are charged with distributing LSD and taking part in a continuing criminal enterprise.
All could face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of conspiracy.
In addition, seven other people were arrested on suspicion of drug crimes Monday in the Netherlands, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and authorities seized hallucinogenic mushrooms, hashish, LSD, marijuana and Ecstasy, the U.S. attorney's office said.
The investigation led to those arrests, but authorities still were trying to determine their connections to the online marketplace, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin S. Rosenberg.
The two-year investigation, dubbed "Operation Adam Bomb, "involved law enforcement agents from several U.S. states and several countries, including Colombia, the Netherlands and Scotland, the U.S. attorney's office said.
The case was filed in Los Angeles because some of the customers and an undercover agent who bought drugs through the marketplace are from the area, Rosenberg said.
"Illegal narcotics trafficking now reaches every corner of our world, including our home computers," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said in the statement. "But the reach of the law is just as long. ... We want to make the Internet a safe and secure marketplace by rooting out and prosecuting those persons who seek to illegally pervert and exploit that market."
The marketplace "was distributing dangerous and addictive drugs to every corner of the world, and trying to hide their activities through the use of advanced anonymizing online technology," said Briane M. Grey, acting special agent in charge of the Los Angeles Field Division for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The marketplace allegedly used the Tor network, which spreads website and email communications through a volunteer network of servers around the world in order to mask Internet address information.
Tor originally was developed at a project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to protect government communications. The free software and open network is used to prevent websites from tracking users, getting access to websites blocked by Internet providers, and providing anonymity for online users and online publishers. It is used by "normal people, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others," according to the Tor Project website.