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Hitman-for-hire darknet sites are all scams. But some people turn up dead nonetheless...

 

By GIAN VOLPICELLI

 

The unbelievable tale of a fake hitman, a kill list, a darknet vigilante... and a murder

 

Hitman-for-hire darknet sites are all scams. But some people turn up dead nonetheless

 

I did not know Bryan Njoroge. I had never met him, talked to him, or encountered him online. In ordinary circumstances, I would have never heard of his death, more than 6,500 kilometres away. Yet in late June 2018, a message arrived in my inbox. Its subject read: “Suicide (or Murder)?” The email contained a link to a webpage showing unequivocally that someone wanted Bryan dead.

 

On May 29, a person calling themselves Toonbib had exchanged messages with someone they thought was a Mafia capo renting hitmen on the dark web. Toonbib had sent a picture of Njoroge in a suit, lifted from a school yearbook, and an address in Indiana where Njoroge – a soldier, who usually resided at a military base in Kentucky – would stay for a few days. “He will only be in location from june 01 2018- june 11,” Toonbib wrote. They paid about $5,500 in bitcoin for the hit.

 

The day after, Toonbib started chasing the presumed capo for an answer, which took some more time to arrive. “I will assign an operative to your job and it will be done in about a week, is this ok? I will get back to you shortly with an estimated date,” the capo wrote on June 1. Toonbib never answered. On June 9, Bryan Njoroge was found with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, near a baseball field in Clarksville, Indiana. His death was recorded as a suicide.

 

 

There are no hitmen in this story. There are no sharply dressed assassins screwing silencers on to their Glocks, no operatives assigned, nor capos directing them.

 

There is a website, though – a succession of websites, to be precise – where all those things are made out to be true. Some people fall for it. Looking for a hitman, they download Tor, a browser that uses encryption and a complex relaying system to ensure anonymity, and allows them to access the dark web, where the website exists. Under false names, the website’s users complete a form to request a murder. They throw hundreds of bitcoins into the website’s digital purse.

 

 

The website’s admin is scamming them: no assassination is ever executed. The admin would dole out a hail of lies for why hits had been delayed, and keep the bitcoins.

 

But, elsewhere, someone called Chris Monteiro has been disrupting the website’s operations for years, triggering its admin’s wrath.

 

In 2016, two years before sending me the email about Njoroge, Monteiro was just a guy writing wikis. A tall man in his thirties with thick sable hair, a short beard and deep-set, dark eyes, Monteiro is a man of weird pastimes. By day, he worked as a computer system administrator for a London-based firm; by night, he turned on a six-screen desktop computer in his South London flat and spent hours plumbing the depth of the internet. He called himself a “cybercrime and niche topic internet researcher”. He was into transhumanism, the internet-based movement advocating for human enhancement and immortality. He gave talks about the politics of sci-fi, using a slightly slurred patter. He knew a great deal about credit card fraud. But his passion was the dark web.

 

This was the perfect environment for scammers – impenetrable to search engines and rife with illegality. Online forums crawled with references to sentient AIs lurking in the dark web, live-streaming websites showing people being slaughtered in “red rooms”, or dark web pages revealing the secret of the Illuminati. “This weird fringe of the internet, it's one of the toughest areas to seek truth,” Monteiro says.

 

In 2015, Monteiro started running the r/deepweb subreddit, a front row on the day-to-day happenings of the online netherworld. He documented his findings on his blog – pirate.london – and on online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia and anti-pseudoscience website RationalWiki. He made it his mission to kill urban legends – he contributed to Wikipedia’s articles on the dark web and darknet market, and created RationalWiki’s pages about red rooms and runaway AIs.

 

 

He also wrote RationalWiki’s article about internet assassination. The rumour that you could hire a contract killer on the dark web in exchange for bitcoin had been around since the early 2010s. That was because, unlike snuff movies and evil AIs, hitman-for-hire services were ubiquitous on the dark web. Some were structured as “prediction markets”, with users crowdfunding the assassination of VIPs and politicians; or they could be catering to the private grudge-bearer wanting to book a hit via private chat.

 

Monteiro’s research suggested all such websites to be either harmless trolling or scams designed to rob people of their bitcoins. He could find no evidence of anybody ever being killed by a hitman hired online, nor of any hitman working online. He wrote this all on RationalWiki. With footnotes.

 

Then, on February 20, 2016, an anonymous user made an edit to the internet assassination article. The edit, Monteiro says, added something to the effect of “all assassination sites are scams, except for Besa Mafia, which is real”, appending a link to a dark web site. (The edit was permanently deleted by RationalWiki’s admins at Monteiro’s urging; but a subsequent modification by the same user remains in the edit history. “An other site is Besa Mafia, a marketplace where hitmen can sign up to provide their services and where customer can order, [sic]” the edit read. “The site protects the customers with an escrow service that stores the bitcoin until the job is completed. They also accept external escrows.”)

 

Monteiro understood this to be shameless self-promotion. The people running Besa Mafia, whatever that was, had seemingly vandalised his finely crafted piece of wiki-scholarship in order to shill for their assassination website. “I went, ‘What the fuck is this shit?,’” he says. “This is not only nonsense, it's someone promoting a scam on my article.”

 

He fired up Tor and went to the Besa Mafia website. Ostensibly run by Albanian gangsters (“besa” is Albanian for “honour”), it was littered with poor English, stock pictures of armed beefcakes, and a payment system that – far from protecting customers’ bitcoin – allowed whoever ran the website to easily snatch the funds. He wrote a scathing review of Besa Mafia on his blog, calling it a scam.

 

 

A few days later, someone from Besa Mafia got in touch. “Helo, I am one of the admins of the Besa Mafia website on deep web [sic],” the email read. “Would it be possible for us to pay for a true and honest positive review? Let me know if we can prove to you that we are legit.” It was signed “Yura”.

 

A back-and-forth exchange ensued. Monteiro gleefully bombarded Yura with questions, punching holes in the site’s business model, security and technical makeup. For Monteiro, it was obviously a scam. But, while Yura acknowledged the website’s shortcomings, he maintained it was legitimate. He asked Monteiro to give Besa Mafia the benefit of the doubt. “We are open to suggestions, we will do our best to make it the best marketplace focusing on body harm revenge and property destruction,” Yura wrote.

 

As evidence, Yura offered to have someone of Monteiro’s choice beaten up. He then proposed to pay a $50 monthly retainer to feature Besa Mafia banners on Monteiro’s blog. When Monteiro declined both offers, Yura’s tone became menacing. “Be neutral to our website,” he wrote. “Unless you do that, we will pay some cheap freelancers to fill articles and submit posts and comments claiming you are undercover cop.”

 

Monteiro published the exchange in full on his blog, mocking Yura and Besa Mafia. Weeks later, someone left a comment: a link to a video. It started by showing an A4 sheet. ““[G]ang members for besa mafia on deep web,” the sheet read. “[D]edication to pirate london, 10 April 2016.” There followed some 30 seconds of darkness, rustling and metallic sounds. Finally, the camera turned towards a white car, engulfed in orange flames. The sheet was shown again, metres away from the blazing car. The video appeared to be a threat to whoever was running pirate.london.

 

Monteiro was horrified: he thought this was not the behaviour of a scammer. Online con artists ignore people who call them out, he thought; they don’t set cars on fire to defend their reputation. “I started questioning myself: had I pissed off a criminal organisation?” he says. “What the fuck had I got myself into?”

 

The video prompted Monteiro to contact law enforcement. At London’s Charing Cross Police Station, he told the officer behind the desk that he was a cybercrime researcher – specialising in drugs, fraud and murder – and he wanted to report a darknet assassin threatening him with videos of flaming cars. “I just wanted to get this on the record,” Monteiro recalls.

 

The officer was perplexed. Weeks later, the case was passed on to the Metropolitan Police’s cybersecurity unit, Falcon Team. Monteiro maintains that nothing came out of it: he says that the officer said that the car did not seem to have been destroyed in the UK and was therefore out of the Met’s jurisdiction.

 

Monteiro also attempted to contact the UK National Crime Agency (NCA) – but, he would later realise, he mistyped the email address and the message was not delivered. (The NCA doesn’t send bounce-back notifications.)

 

Monteiro resolved to explore the Besa Mafia website himself. He created a customer account, calling himself Boaty McBoatFace and requested a hit on a fictional person he called Bob the Builder. In doing so, he spotted a way to gather intelligence on the website: each message sent on the platform was assigned a unique numeric ID. By combining message IDs with the website’s url, Monteiro discovered that he could read every other user’s messages. Exploiting this vulnerability, he downloaded Besa Mafia’s entire message database and examined its archive.

 

Sure enough, Besa Mafia was a scam. Every conversation followed an identical template. Customers submitted the details of the person they wanted killed and the method they preferred – for instance, a hit that looked like an accident would be more expensive. To prove they had the wherewithal to pay, they were required to make an advance bitcoin transfer to a digital wallet – from which, the website assured, its clients would be able to withdraw their funds any time.

 

Yura would claim to take swift action, before a period of prevarication: the hitman had been stopped for a traffic violation, or for illegal possession of a gun. A more professional assassin could be hired, but that would cost more bitcoin. Some customers kept paying, as Yura led them on for months. Others requested a refund, which never came. Yura kept all the bitcoin.

 

But Besa Mafia was more than just any run-of-the-mill scam: Monteiro realised that it was a fully fledged fake news operation.

 

Yura devoted a lot of energy to defending the website’s credibility. A California-based person going by name Thcjohn2 had written to the website offering his services as an assassin. “[I] am broke (of course), and am looking for quick cash,” Thcjohn2 wrote. “I have military training (US Navy).” Instead of taking him up on his offer, Yura had asked Thcjohn2 to make videos of burning cars to intimidate Monteiro and other critics. He then asked him to enact and video a fake murder, with the help of a friend and a replica gun. In the following months, several videos of balaclava-clad thugs firing guns and talking up Yura’s assassination websites would pop up online.

 

Yura had also set up a galaxy of micro-websites on the regular web, which spread the word about Besa Mafia under the pretence of denunciating it. Yura had hired freelance SEO experts, who had optimised the sites to ensure that they appeared first in search results for “hitman for hire” and similar word combinations. One such freelancer, a Kolkata-based consultant called Santosh Sharma, told me in July 2018 that Yura – who had used the name of Andreeab when dealing with him – had paid him in bitcoin. “He was based in Romania,” he said. Sharma says that he is no longer working for Yura.

 

The marketing strategy seemed to have paid off. After working his way through Besa Mafia’s messages, Monteiro had proof he was right about the site being a scam – but that was little consolation. “It was a fully functioning operation,” he says. “People had been buying it.”

 

And there was a flipside to the scam: the message archive was essentially a kill list – of targets, of conflicts, and instigators. Of people who other people wanted to kill. Yura had no hitmen to deploy, Monteiro thought, but what if some of the website’s customers decided to take matters into their own hands, and kill their target themselves? Could this archive be evidence – or even be used to pre-empt murders?

 

“Most scams aren't dangerous or don't feature dangerous people,” Monteiro says. “If you get ripped off by a ‘Nigerian prince’, you're not dangerous – just stupid. This scam was different, fundamentally different, from any scam I had seen before. The people who are using it are the dangerous people, more than the scammer himself. The clients are the bad guys.”

 

The website attracted customers from every corner of the world. There were some trolls who put in joke requests, but most users were serious. Someone wanted his wife’s lover killed, his organs sold to get a discount on the hit, and the woman herself smuggled into Saudi Arabia; a Dutch user paid 20 bitcoin to have someone flattened in a fake cycling accident; a person in Minnesota had spent four months chatting with Yura about how to get a mother-of-one murdered.

 

Monteiro turned for help to a friend of his – a scammer-baiter who adopted the nom de guerre Judge Judy – and together they created a program to systematically scrape messages from Besa Mafia. Judge Judy was solely interested in disrupting Yura’s business. Monteiro, instead, started compiling a list of the most dangerous users, ranked by how much they paid and how determined to see the murder through they appeared. Sometimes, he used information in the correspondence to find out the website users’ identities; but he decided against getting in touch with the targets mentioned in the messages, or leaking the archive online. “I was hoping to work with the police, and what I didn't want to be was a hacker who destroys evidence,” he says. “What if [the users] realised they were exposed, and had hidden?”

 

He says he tried to get the police involved – again, with little success. He claims that the Met referred him to the NCA, which didn’t answer his calls or messages; the National Counter Terrorism Security Office said that the matter was out of its jurisdiction; the FBI suggested that he talk with the NCA.

 

 

Besa Mafia's website as it appeared after "Operation Vegetable"

 

On July 3, 2016, Monteiro and Judge Judy launched “Operation Vegetable”. It was the third hack Besa Mafia had suffered in four months. It would also be the final – and decisive – one.

 

In late April 2016, a hacker known as bRspd had infected the website by uploading a malicious file instead of the picture of a target. In that way, the hacker seized the website’s message archive, its user IDs, passwords, server passwords and admin emails; then dumped the whole lot on the internet. The hack – together with a second, nearly identical attack bRspd carried out in June – set several events in motion.

 

Yura reassured his customers that the leak was not a big deal. “We are not a scam. There are no bitcoin lost. Our website got hacked, but hackers only got information about some users,” Yura wrote in a message to a customer. “[T]hey did not stoled any bitcoin.” Meanwhile, he set about launching a new, rebranded website.

 

Some media outlets covered the leak and Monteiro gave interviews on the matter – something that, in hindsight, put his name on Yura’s radar.

 

Together with Judge Judy, Monteiro planned to build on bRspd’s work to bring Yura down for good. Using information from bRspd’s dump, the two managed to hack into the website; Monteiro even obtained access to Yura’s Gmail. There, he snooped through the admin’s correspondence. He found emails in which Yura talked about buying a much-needed English course, messages to freelancers about advertising and shill sites, and data on bitcoin payments. Combining this information with the content of the two bRspd leaks, the duo obtained the cryptographic keys controlling access to Besa Mafia’s website domain. “Me and my mate said, ‘Well, we appear to have access,’” Monteiro explains. “Let's take the website down.”

 

There was no long-term plan or complex rationale behind the decision. “I just wanted to disrupt the operation,” Monteiro says. “It was also a personal revenge. I can talk about the greater good... but it's personal. It's many things – my individual focus shifts day to day.”

 

Monteiro describes “Operation Vegetable”, as a carefully planned “Ocean's Eleven-style” mission. They copied all of Besa Mafia’s content – and saved it, Monteiro says, with a view to giving it to the police – and shut the website down, redirecting users to a site they had built. The new page showed the picture of a closed, rusty door. Under the Besa Mafia logo, they left a message:

 

“Besa Mafia has closed for business

 

After 6 months of scamming criminals for their bitcoins and stealing over 100 BTC ($65.000) the site has closed

 

No one was ever beaten up or killed ”

 

In the background, the website played that tune from The Sound of Music, “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.”

 

At Monteiro’s place, he and Judge Judy uncorked a bottle of champagne.

 

As fake news flourishes, the UK's fact-checkers are turning to automation to compete

 

Evidence of the first murder linked to Besa Mafia emerged shortly after Monteiro met up with two police officers and seven months after Besa Mafia’s takedown.

 

In January 2017, Monteiro managed to establish contact with the NCA through a friend who knew someone in the organisation’s intelligence unit. After some email exchanges with an operative – who did not use his real name – Monteiro was invited for a confidential meeting in central London.

 

For more than an hour, Monteiro told the officers about the material he had come across after penetrating the website’s messaging system – wannabe organ harvesters, mutilation requests, people aspiring to commit matricide. He suggested that the targets should be told what was going on and flagged up that Yura, undeterred by the Besa fiasco, was now operating a new assassination market, called Crime Bay. It used the same source code as Besa Mafia, which conveniently allowed Monteiro to continue to read the site’s correspondence.

 

Monteiro claims that the officers said they would be in touch again for an information handover, but did not ask him to show them the data he had brought to the meeting, which was on his laptop. The only document they consulted was an A3 printout on which Monteiro had summarised the intricacies of Besa Mafia’s operation.

 

Part timeline, part list, part flow chart, the document included a breakdown of the various hacks and dumps the website had suffered, and even a top 10 of the website’s most dangerous users – in a fully wikified format. Always the wikipedian, Monteiro had begun to structure his trove of Besa Mafia-related information in a password-protected BesaWiki. One of the “most wanted” users on Monteiro’s A3 was someone who went by the name of Dogdaygod.

 

Dogdaygod first messaged Yura in February 2016. He was eager to kill a woman living in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He was open-minded about the method – initially pushing for a hit-and-run, or a deliberate traffic collision, but later suggesting rasher systems, such as shooting the target and burning her house down.

 

Dogdaygod displayed a virulent animosity towards his target. “I need this bitch dead, so please help me,” he wrote. Yura had egged him on: “Yes she is really a bitch and she deserve to die.” The conversation went on for months, coming to an abrupt conclusion when Dogdaygod – tired of Yura’s increasingly implausible pretexts for why the hit had not been carried out – requested a refund.

 

“Unfortunately, this site has been hacked,” the admin had responded. He pretended to be the hacker, hoping to stop Dogdaygod from badgering him, and make some money on the side. “We got all customer and target information and we will send it to law enforcement unless you send 10 bitcoin,” he wrote. That happened on May 20, 2016.

 

On May 31, 2016, about a month after the bRspd leak, the FBI contacted Amy Allwine, a woman living at the Minnesota address Dogdaygod had submitted to Besa Mafia. Amy and her husband Stephen Allwine – an IT specialist and a deacon at a local church – met with officers who informed them that someone had paid at least $6,000 on the dark web to murder Amy. The Allwines said they had no idea of who could be hiding behind the Dogdaygod persona.

 

Six months later, Amy Allwine was dead. On November 13, her husband called 911 and said he had found her body in her bedroom. “I think my wife shot herself,” he told the operator.

 

However, the police found evidence that linked Stephen Allwine to the murder: traces of bitcoin transactions on his devices, cookies for dark web-related websites, the fact that Dogdaygod had tried to buy the anaesthetic scopolamine on the darknet – and that high doses of the substance had been found in Amy’s system.

 

In January 2017 Allwine – aka Dogdaygod – was charged with his wife’s murder. In court, prosecutors pointed to a series of affairs – and the fact that Stephen was the only beneficiary of Amy’s $700,000 life insurance policy – as probable motives. Allwine was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in February 2018.

 

Monteiro says that he was devastated when Allwine was arrested. Up to that point, the idea that he could have saved lives – that the kill list he had been frantically trying to hand to law enforcement had a portentous power – had essentially been a thought experiment.

 

“I had been thinking: ‘Well, these are horrible, terrible people, who, if you don't arrest them, maybe will take the matters into their own hands,’” he says. “I thought that was hypothetical. But then it really happened.” He texted his NCA contact about the development; the officer reassured him that they would look into the matter urgently.

 

Weeks went by. One Friday night in early February, Monteiro was at home sipping pumpkin soup in front of his computer’s six glowing screens. His desk was strewn with tokens of geekery: a self-destruction-style red button; a stuffed Bulbasaur; a parody “Maybot user’s guide”. Monteiro walked across his beige-carpeted living room, towards the front door: he had heard a strange noise. Seconds later, a red battering ram smashed through the white door and armed police officers rushed in. They pushed Monteiro against the wall and handcuffed him. Seizing his computer, they took pictures of the room and asked him for his devices’ passwords. After about 15 minutes, they put Monteiro into the back of a van and drove him to the nearest police station.

 

At the station, an NCA officer told him he had been arrested for incitement to murder, in connection with Besa Mafia.

 

 

In early 2018 Stephen Allwine, who had tried to hire a killer under the false name "Dogdaygod", was sentenced to life for murdering his wife

 

 

It appeared that Monteiro had been arrested on the basis of a misinformation campaign.

 

There had been warning signs for a while, at least since the point at which Yura had threatened to expose him as a cop. In June 2016, when Monteiro hacked into Yura’s Gmail account, he had noticed that the scammer had created email addresses under the name of Chris Monteiro and Eileen Ormsby, an Australian journalist who had also written about Besa Mafia.

 

Over the following months, Yura had instructed his detail of freelancers to create websites peddling fake news about Ormsby’s and Monteiro’s involvement in the assassination marketplace. They were WordPress blogs, not excessively sophisticated, but strong on SEO. Some had seemingly caught the NCA’s eye: the application for the warrant to search Monteiro’s flat referenced one of these blogs as evidence.

 

“Open source reporting shows that Chris MONTEIRO and two other subjects created the Hit Man for Hire website ‘Besa Mafia’ on the Dark Web https://hackeddatabaseofbesamafia.wordpress.com/,” the document read.

 

It was imperative to search Monteiro’s place, the application for the warrant continued, because, as the presumed site’s admin, he might be in possession of more victim data and criminal evidence.

 

Monteiro spent almost two days in a custody suite, working himself up, pacing the cell and paging through the only book he could get his hands on – a golfer’s autobiography.

 

Over the course of several interviews with the officers who had arrested him, Monteiro understood that the NCA agents he had spoken with some weeks earlier had not told their colleagues that he was collaborating with them – and that, far from being Yura’s accomplice, he claimed to be his self-appointed nemesis. Monteiro says that, as he didn’t know his NCA contact’s full name and he didn’t have access to his devices while in custody, he could not immediately prove his dealings with the agency.

 

For Monteiro, the interrogations were a mix of blundering and black comedy. He had to explain the story of Boaty McBoatFace’s taking a hit on Bob the Builder. At some point, the person questioning him asked Monteiro about a copy of stealth videogame Hitman found in his flat, implying that it could have been an inspiration for Besa Mafia.

 

Eventually, Monteiro succeeded in explaining to the agents that they should look at the BesaWiki on his computer. There, they would find everything they needed: target names, messages, data on bitcoin payments, server IPs and information on how to backdoor the Crime Bay website. At midnight, on Sunday February 5, Monteiro was released on bail.

 

He went back to his flat and guessed he’d have to change the door’s frame. Monteiro stayed at Judge Judy’s place that night. They played N.W.A’s song “Fuck tha Police”.

 

In June 2017, the police informed Monteiro’s lawyer that no further action would be taken.

 

Shortly after, the NCA launched an international operation. They tracked down several Besa Mafia users and charged them with conspiracy to commit a crime.

 

In March 2017, they arrested David Crichton, a British doctor who had ordered a hit on his former financial advisor. Crichton did not pay the website, though, and later said he had put in the order just out of frustration; Crichton was cleared of any wrongdoing in July 2018. Another Crime Bay user in Denmark, an Italian-born woman called Emanuela Consortini, was arrested thanks to an NCA tip-off and then sentenced to six years in jail for commissioning the murder of an ex-boyfriend. The Crime Bay website was eventually shut down by the NCA and the Bulgarian police in May 2017 and Monteiro assumed that Yura had been found and jailed. Monteiro stopped researching the matter.

 

Then, in December 2017, he received an email from Yura. The scammer accused Monteiro of being immoral: his exposing of Besa Mafia as a scam could have caused users to stop wasting time and resources on the website and kill their targets themselves. He called Monteiro Amy Allwine’s real killer. “How is Yura sending me emails?,” Monteiro thought. “How is he not in jail?”

 

The full extent of the situation emerged in early 2018 when CBS’s 48 Hours approached Monteiro regarding the Allwine case. They wanted to interview him about his run-in with Yura.

 

While preparing for the interview, Monteiro discovered that Yura had launched a new website, Cosa Nostra, and adopted a new persona – Italian capo “Barbosa”. Monteiro’s exploit still worked and he could read all the messages between Yura/Barbosa and his customers, just as he did back in 2016.

 

For some time, Monteiro entertained the hypothesis that the new website may be a police decoy. But it seemed unlikely: when Monteiro started providing CBS with details about conversations from Cosa Nostra, it would always be CBS’s subsequent tip to the local police force that triggered investigations and arrests. “I started realising that people were getting arrested directly as a result of the information I supplied,” he says. CBS’s tips led to arrests in Singapore, Illinois and Texas. When Monteiro passed me some documents about customers in the UK, I forwarded the details to police stations in Edinburgh and Oxfordshire.

 

Monteiro tried again to pass the matter to the police. He had his lawyer email the NCA, telling them about murderous plots hatched on Yura’s website, which was continuously rebranded – Cosa Nostra, Sicilian Hitmen, Camorra Hitmen, Ndrangheta Hitmen, Yakuza Mafia, Bratva Mafia. Through his lawyer, the NCA advised Monteiro to call their hotline to report possible offences; they warned him about using illicit means to access the assassination markets’ correspondence.

 

“The threat posed by so-called assassination markets is going to be pretty small in comparison to other things we deal with,” an NCA spokesperson told me. “We aren’t monitoring the website [and] there have been no arrests. However, we work closely with our international law enforcement partners to share information and intelligence,” a second spokesperson later added.

 

That leaves Monteiro stuck with the list and an apparent strong urge to act, by sending the most plausible cases to the media. “I want to create a bit of a splash about this thing,” Monteiro says. “Selfishly, I want to give talks [about assassination markets], and use it as a platform to put further pressure on the police.” But he also feels that he has a duty to try and act on the information he retrieves. “I can't stop because there are people's lives at risk. Imagine you'd looked into a box and the act of looking into that box changed you. You can choose not to look into that box. But you knew that something would still be going on: the box is full of horrors. Should you look? Should you not look?”

 

Monteiro keeps looking. He set up Google alerts for every target’s name – in case something happens to them, even if the authorities have been alerted. That’s how he spotted the news about Bryan Njoroge in a local Indiana outlet, the News and Tribune.

 

According to Clarksville PD’s case reports, on June 8, Njoroge, a 21-year-old Texan on leave from the Fort Knox base, stole a gun from a shooting range, American Shooters, in the town’s north-west. Njoroge was found dead in the early hours of June 9, face down under the stairs of an announcer’s box on a baseball field. The coroner quickly established that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The case was closed within days.

 

Whoever ordered the hit on Yura’s scam website knew that Bryan would be in Indiana on those days; more specifically, they knew he would stay at a specific Airbnb, the address of which was included in the order instructions. Njoroge’s father, Samwel, confirmed to me that his son had booked that Airbnb.

 

“We’re done with the case,” the officer in charge of the investigation at Clarksville PD, detective Ray Hall, told me in August. He said that he had already received a tip about the Toonbib conversation and that nevertheless had found “no factual evidence” of anything other than a suicide taking place.

 

Samwel Njoroge told me that the police had never mentioned the assassination market when talking with him about the case. He was not happy with how his son death’s had been investigated, pointing to what he thought were inconsistencies between the case report detailing the discovery of the body and the autopsy, and underlining that the fatal bullet has never been found. (A forensic pathologist told me that bullets often go unretrieved in suicide cases.)

 

Samwel added that Bryan’s computer, camera and two phones had vanished, which is strange, as Bryan – a small-time Instagram and YouTube celebrity – was inseparable from his devices. He also mentioned that his son had a $400,000 life insurance policy; Njoroge had changed the beneficiary – designating a female friend instead of his parents – just a month before dying.

 

Samwel said he did not know whether someone else could have been travelling with Bryan, or known about his trip to Indiana.

 

 

Bratva Mafia is the latest iteration of the Besa Mafia killer-for-hire scam

 

Bratva Mafia

We know little about Yura: he (everyone I spoke to who had interacted with Yura believed him to be a man) boasts to have made a lot of money – which is possible, especially in light of last year’s spike in bitcoin price; he claims to be Albanian, but Santosh Sharma’s recollection and Monteiro's IP analysis of Yura’s comments on wikis link him to Romania; Eileen Ormsby, who has had multiple email conversations with him, believes that Yura is likely to be in his twenties.

 

Maybe the most interesting question, though, is whether Yura, aka Barbosa, is a police informer. He certainly tries to style himself as one of the good guys. When we exchanged emails he implored me not to say that his website was a scam.

 

“If you intend to report hitmen scams, you are basically siding up with those would be murderers, helping them to avoid scams and traps and helping them to find other means to do their kill,” Yura/Barbosa wrote. “[It] is a moral right to scam criminals and would be murderers if this helps saving victims.”

 

He signed off his messages “Barbosa, Lifesaver”.

 

His defence is that he is a hindrance to potential murderers’ plans, robbing them of precious time and money. More significantly, he said that he was giving all target information to the police, and maintained that he has been working with the FBI.

 

“After Besa Mafia was hacked, FBI agent talked with me on chat on site. He told me they don't want to arrest me, they are not after me, they want to arrest the murderers,” Yura/Barbosa, wrote. “They don't care about a scammer. They care about murderers.”

 

Yura refused to provide evidence of his communications with the FBI, as that would prove that his website is a scam. Pleading with me not to report that, he offered to hand over the names of all the targets. He finally said he would deny ever speaking to me if I wrote that his business was a scam.

 

What Yura said was a blend of facts, factoids and lies. It is true that Yura has passed information to journalists who approach him in order to establish his credentials as a good-hearted scammer: he handed two cases to CBS, which then turned them over to the police, triggering investigations and arrests.

 

And some conversations in the bRspd dump do show that Yura had contacts with someone claiming to work for the FBI’s Dallas office as early as 2016. The FBI declined to confirm or deny whether it had ever worked with Yura.

 

Other things Yura says are untrue. He maintains to have never condoned violence, but there is evidence of his trying to pressgang Thcjohn2, the wannabe hitman, into committing an assault – which apparently never materialised.

 

His overall narrative of being a killer-baiter in shining armour doesn’t hold water. bRspd, the hacker who in 2016 twice broke into Besa Mafia’s website, told me over private chat that he had approached Yura about turning Besa Mafia into an actual honeypot for criminals. “I was trying to work with him by making the website better and more secured [sic] and instead of scamming we could really help people to identify these criminals and etc by collecting more data & NOT stealing people money,” bRspd wrote in September.

 

According to bRspd, Yura refused. “He was just thirsty for money,” bRspd told me. “He's a big liar, he doesn't care about anything but money. Almost all the conversations I had with him included the word ‘money’ or [bitcoin].” According to Monteiro’s analysis of Besa Mafia’s bitcoin wallets, Yura might have amassed nearly £5m.

 

bRspd added that the notion that Yura was working with the police was – at least as of 2016 – “totally false”.

 

In general, though, does Yura have a point? Without his scamming, some lives would have been at risk and some people plotting murders would still be around. Without Yura, neither Monteiro nor law enforcement nor journalists would have ever heard of Stephen “Dogdaydog” Allwine in Minnesota, the man in Singapore, or the woman in Denmark. Yura’s greed, tenacity and SEO strategy had unwittingly created a tool to perceive the intentions of would-be criminals.

 

I posited the question to Monteiro over a beer in a London pub. Was Yura providing a service to the community?

 

The matter, Monteiro argued, boiled down to a philosophical debate between virtue and consequentialism. Yura could make the case that his website was being used to jail criminals. But he was doing that by inciting murder, by egging criminals on and by spreading lies – about hitmen, about other people and about the dark web.

 

The whole Besa Mafia sorry saga, Monteiro says, started because he wanted to cleanse the public sphere of lies. “I set out to bump off fake news. I wanted to explain the dark web, establish facts and fiction, explain what's real and what's not,” he says. “That’s my higher purpose – you know?”

 

Updated 05.12.2018, 10.13 GMT: This article has been amended to correct a date in the Toonbib correspondence: Barbosa replied on June 1, not June 6.

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