NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York man was found guilty on Thursday of trying to buy the deadly toxin ricin on a secretive black market website, with plans to sell it in the form of “simple and easy death pills.”
A Manhattan federal jury convicted Cheng Le, 22, of three counts, including attempting to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon. Prosecutors said Le tried to buy ricin from an undercover FBI employee posing as a vendor on a website called Evolution.
Le faces up to life in prison. His lawyer, Patrick Brackley, said Le planned to appeal. He had argued no proof existed Le was the website user who sought the ricin.
Law enforcement has been cracking down on illegal activity involving online black markets operating on a hidden network of websites that can only be accessed using specialized browsers.
The four-day trial spotlighted how law enforcement has become increasingly concerned about how these marketplaces could facilitate sales of not just drugs, a focus in past cases, but of items posing threats to national security.
The marketplaces included Evolution, which became the largest after the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2013 seizure of Silk Road, where drugs and other items could be bought with the digital currency bitcoin.
Evolution, unlike Silk Road, carried not just drugs but also toxins and weapons. It abruptly closed in March, but similar websites remain.
Prosecutors said that in December 2014, Le, going by “WhenInDoubt,” contacted an Evolution vendor called “Dark_Mart” about buying ricin.
In messages to the vendor, who was actually an FBI employee, Le discussed plans to sell the ricin as “simple and easy death pills” to customers for their own use.
Prosecutors said Le discussed wanting the ricin pills included in a bottle with ordinary vitamins, saying “as the target takes the medicine every day, sooner or later he’d ingest that poisonous pill and die.”
Le wrote, “After all, it is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free, the more efficient we can make it, the better,” according to prosecutors,
The FBI that month shipped fake ricin to Le, who, wearing latex gloves, retrieved the shipment and took its contents to his apartment, prosecutors said.
Le was arrested at his apartment, where authorities found the fake ricin, castor oil bean seeds (the source of ricin) and Le’s computer, which was logged onto the website.
The case is U.S. v. Le, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-cr-00038.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Steve Orlofsky