NEWARK, N.J. — A Florida man was arrested Saturday in LaBelle, Fla., on charges that he sold the potentially deadly toxin abrin through an underground, Internet-based marketplace. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the FBI in Newark and Tampa.
Jesse William Korff, 19, of LaBelle, was arrested by HSI special agents on a federal criminal complaint charging him with two counts: the possession and transfer of a toxin for use as a weapon; and smuggling goods from the United States. Korff, who had posted a listing for the sale of the toxin on a website known as "Black Market Reloaded" (BMR), was unaware the respondent was an undercover HSI special agent.
Korff had his initial court appearance Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas N. Frazier in Fort Myers, Fla., federal court. He will be brought to New Jersey to appear in Newark federal court on a date to be determined.
"HSI has worked tirelessly with the FBI and other law enforcement partners to combat underground websites such as BMR," said Andrew McLees, special agent in charge of HSI Newark. "Anyone who can sell abrin, a potential agent for chemical terrorism, must be stopped. The arrest of Korff shows HSI's commitment to protecting the public from individuals who show a callous disregard for their safety in the interest of making a buck."
"The criminal complaint alleges Jesse Korff was willing to sell a potentially deadly toxin to a stranger over the Internet," said U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman. "He allegedly peddled the poison on a virtual black market of illegal and dangerous goods, hidden in the shadow of a secretive computer network favored by cybercriminals. Had this been an actual sale to a real customer, the consequences could have been tragic. Fortunately, an undercover law enforcement officer posing as a buyer was able to get a dangerous chemical weapon and its alleged seller off our streets."
According to court documents, beginning in April 2013, HSI special agents conducted an investigation of illicit sales activity on BMR. The website provides a platform for vendors and buyers to conduct anonymous online transactions involving the sale of a variety of illegal goods, including biological agents, toxins, firearms, ammunition, explosives, narcotics and counterfeit items. Unlike mainstream e-commerce websites, BMR is only accessible via the Tor network – a special computer network designed to enable users to conceal their identities and locations. Transactions on BMR are conducted using Bitcoin, a decentralized form of electronic currency that only exists online.
Korff maintained a seller's profile on BMR, through which he negotiated the sale of two liquid doses of abrin to the undercover agent. During their online conversations, Korff told the buyer about his delivery methods – concealing vials in a carved-out and re-melted candle – and discussed how much abrin was needed to kill a person of a particular weight and how best to administer the toxin. Korff also assured the buyer that a victim's death would appear to be a bad case of the flu.
Korff and the buyer agreed on a total purchase price of $2,500 for two doses of the poison. The undercover special agent transferred a deposit – the equivalent of $1,500 in Bitcoin – from a bank account in New Jersey to Korff on Jan. 6. The pair agreed the buyer would travel from Canada Jan. 15, to retrieve the abrin from a prearranged location. Korff sent the special agent pictures of a specific spot at a rest stop approximately 10 miles outside Fort Myers where he planned to leave the package.
On the arranged day, Korff dropped off a fast food bag containing two wax candles at the location. An undercover special agent collected the bag and left behind an additional deposit toward the remaining payment. Korff was under surveillance throughout the transaction.
The candles contained vials of liquid containing a detectable amount of abrin. Even small doses of abrin are potentially lethal to humans if ingested, inhaled or injected – causing death within 36 to 72 hours from the time of exposure.
Assisting in the ongoing investigation was HSI in Ft. Myers; the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; the Glades County, Henry County and Lee County Sheriff's Offices; and the Justice Department's National Security Division Counterterrorism Section in Washington; and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida.
A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.