NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Manhattan man tried to buy the biological toxin ricin from an undercover agent posing as a drug vendor on an online black marketplace, U.S. authorities said in criminal charges unsealed on Tuesday.
The man, Cheng Le, has been in federal custody since he was arrested on Dec. 23, and is set to appear in federal court on Friday, according to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office.
His lawyer Patrick Brackley said Le intends to plead not guilty. “It’s a complex case and we’re working through the facts,” he said.
A grand jury indicted Le on one count of attempting to obtain a biological toxin and one count of using a false name in the furtherance of unlawful business, according to the court filings.
The criminal complaint against Le said he used an unidentified black marketplace located within the “dark web,” a space on the Internet in which users’ true identities remain hidden while they communicate. Le allegedly contacted an agent who had taken over an online identity that had been previously used by a trafficker in illicit materials and asked to buy several lethal doses of ricin, a highly potent toxin derived from castor oil plant seeds.
“Do you have any recommendation for administering the dose?” Le wrote to the agent, according to the complaint. “Injection can be difficult to pull off. Ricin doesn’t work immediately. You wouldn’t expect the target not to fight back after being jabbed.”
The complaint said Le wanted the agent to send the ricin to a shipping store near his apartment where he maintained a postal box. He appeared to have plans to resell the ricin to buyers looking for ways to commit murder without being detected, and later asked the agent to put the ricin into pill form: “If you can make them into simple and easy death pills, they’d become bestsellers,” he wrote, according to the complaint.
U.S. authorities have been working to crack down on online marketplaces for drugs and other illegal materials. Over the past two years they have seized and shut down several such sites, including the black market bazaar Silk Road, whose alleged founder Ross Ulbricht is currently on trial in New York for related offenses. Authorities last year shut down a successor site, Silk Road 2.0, but other sites, including one called Evolution Marketplace, are still operation, according to the cyber watchdog group Digital Citizens Alliance.
Reporting By Emily Flitter; Editing by Tom Brown