What is the dark web?
The vendor was known as “CokeWave” on a hidden corner of the internet, and the packages would arrive in the mail with return addresses like “Amazon Logistics,” “Hobby Lobby” or “Marvel Hobbies.”
But tucked inside the priority mail flat rate boxes were vacuum-sealed Mylar bags containing cocaine and marijuana that federal agents had ordered online from the “Dream Marketplace.”
The orders were part of federal agents’ latest efforts to target dark web networks that offer black market sales of drugs, guns, poisons and virtually anything else imaginable in return for payment by Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies and the promise that the encrypted transactions are untraceable.
This week, agents in Sacramento operating as part of the newly formed Northern California Illicit Digital Economy Task Force targeted two suspects in the group’s first case to thwart online drug sales.
Eddy Steven Sandoval Lopez and Deshari Saivohn Frederick are charged in a criminal complaint with distribution of a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, charges that could net them each 20 years in prison.
“This case involved the use of the dark web to sell drugs throughout the country,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Rabenn said during a brief appearance for the two men on Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison Claire.
Court documents say the two were arrested following an investigation that began in June with the online order of 14 grams of cocaine from the CokeWave site.
The package, bearing a return address of Newera Sports that actually belongs to an Arden Way department store, showed up in a week and a half with white powder packed inside two vacuum-sealed bags, court documents say.
Over the next few months, agents placed a total of four orders for cocaine and marijuana, and used surveillance footage from area post offices to capture a license plate of a suspect vehicle and footage of a man dropping off suspect packages into the mail, court documents say.
They watched at a West Sacramento post office as the two suspects dropped off “several handfuls of USPS parcels into the blue collection bins, making numerous trips from the vehicle to the bins,” court documents say, and agents placed tracking devices on their vehicles.
Details of the investigation are contained in court documents that were unsealed this week just before the two men made their first court appearance.
Both were granted release pending trial after Sandoval’s girlfriend and her mother agreed to sign a $50,000 surety bond, and Frederick’s mother agreed to do the same.
Neither man has a criminal history, and Claire warned them both not to use computers or go on the internet without prior permission from pretrial services officials.
Rabenn, the prosecutor, noted that he was concerned about the possibility of Sandoval having access to cryptocurrency that would not show up on a routine financial background check.
Assistant Federal Defender Tim Zindel said there was no evidence to support such concerns.
“I can tell you there’s no prior history, he’s very scared right now,” Zindel said.
Outside of court, Zindel scoffed at the effort made against the two men.
“The dispensary at Safeway over in Midtown probably sells more in an hour than these guys did in months, if you take these allegations to be true,” he said.
But federal agents have made the dark web a priority in recent years, disrupting several huge operations such as Silk Road, whose founder was sentenced to life in prison in 2015.
And, with California voters having legalized recreational marijuana in the state, officials say they are seeing an uptick in drugs being shipped to states where marijuana remains illegal at the state level.
The task force operating out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento includes agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Postal Inspection Services. The group is designed to capitalize on knowledge agents have gleaned from past investigations, including last year’s announcement that investigators had dismantled Alpha Bay, an international dark web operation that officials said dealt in hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal drugs and other contraband.
“The criminals have moved to a new place, and we want to make it very clear that we’re coming,” U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said in an interview this week.