Ronald L. Wheeler III, 24 years, is facing charges for conspiracy to commit access device fraud on the darknet marketplaces. The suspect from Streamwood, Illinois was also accused of being the spokesman for AlphaBay while it was operating.
“Before being seized by international law enforcement efforts in July, AlphaBay was the largest darknet site on the internet. It was trading illegal goods and services including firearms, drugs, counterfeits among other things,” authorities said.
On Wednesday, Wheeler III went before Federal Magistrate Judge Janet King in Atlanta to answer to the charges. According to the New York Times, the suspect denied the charges and pleaded not guilty. The judge allowed Wheeler to go free pending his trial but ordered immediate drug testing.
ALPHABAY Spokesperson Ronald L. Wheeler III, a/k/a Trappy, Arraigned in Federal Court: Ronald L. Wheeler, III, a/… https://t.co/VR0BHeQXdC
— FBI Atlanta (@FBIAtlanta) November 18, 2017
According to prosecutor’s court filing, in May 2015, Wheeler started working as AlphaBay’s public relations specialist under the name Trappy and Trappy_Pandora. The prosecutor further detailed that the suspect had various duties including posting information about AlphaBay as well as moderating the AlphaBay forum on Reddit. In addition, Wheeler also mediated sales disputes among the marketplace users, provided non-technical assistance to users and also promoted AlphaBay online.
“No additional comment,” uttered Philip Turner, Wheeler’s lawyer after the hearing.
The hearing comes barely months after the closure of Alphabay’s shutdown, which was seized by international law enforcement efforts in July 2017. According to New York Times, Wheeler’s salary was paid to his Bitcoin wallet using bitcoin, an online currency by Alexandre Cazes now deceased, following an apparent suicide at the age of 25-years-old while being held in prison.
According to a court filing, Wheeler and Cazes had been working together in a span of three months. The two others used AlphaBay to traffic in personal access information. Later they would use the usernames, passwords, telephone numbers, bank account number and email address, to obtain money, goods and services.
The controversial AlphaBay market is found on the darknet and could only be accessed using the Tor network. Tor is a significant tool on the internet, especially for anonymity. It involves thousands of computers to hide the tracks of users. The network is mostly operated by volunteers.
If convicted, Wheeler could lose all his fortune which he obtained from his illegal activity. The fortune is estimated to be worth $127, 562 or the close equivalent value of his 15+ bitcoins, the court filing says.
In estimate, AlphaBay has done businesses worth $1 billion since its inception in 2014, according to Europol police agency. Also, court documents say that Cazes, AlphaBay’s creator and administrator had fortunes worth $23 million or more. The US government seized all of his assets including properties and luxury cars. The late Cazes had acquired multiple properties in Cyprus, Antigua and Thailand.
Access to the deep web meant access to AlphaBay and Hansa marketplaces. The two were the most notorious marketplaces, which hosted hundreds of thousands of traders and sellers. The website had more than 250,000 listings for illegal substances including stolen credit cards, bitcoin debit cards, weapons, pornography and drugs. The closer of deep web sites opened a window for the police to catch up with its over 200,000 customers and 40,000 vendors.
Cazes wife, believed to have been pregnant at that time was also arrested on charges of money laundering, stated Independent news.
Ever since the fall of Alphabay, the Feds have made multiple arrests. In August a little over a month after seizure of AlphaBay, the FBI crackdown led to the arrest of a father and son, who were dealing Fentanyl. The two aged 58 and 29 years were charged with possession and selling fentanyl, a painkiller, 50 times stronger than heroine and oxycodone.
“Wheeler and other cybercriminals alike present an omnipresent and increasingly critical threat to the countries security,” said David J. LeValley, Special Agent in charge in the Atlanta Field Office.
Authorities from all over the globe are working to ensure that they bring down the impunity that is brought by deep web sites. Although it is evident that the closer of one marketplace paves way for another much bigger one to take its place, such was the example of Silk Road closing and AlphaBay opening, this does not deter authorities from fighting against such darknet marketplaces.