This article originally appeared on Broadly.
In mid-July, a 20-year-old British model named Chloe Ayling was kidnapped in Italy and held for six days by a group who allegedly planned to sell her in an auction as a sex slave. Ayling originally traveled to Milan for a photoshoot, according to police. When she entered the apartment where the shoot was to take place, she was reportedly attacked by two men, drugged, put in a duffle bag, thrown in a trunk, and driven to an isolated hut in a remote part of Italy, where she was chained to a dresser for several days.
A 30-year-old man named Lukasz Pawel Herba was arrested for his role in the kidnapping after taking Ayling to the British consulate in Milan on July 17. He has claimed to be associated with an enigmatic cyber-based criminal organization known as the Black Death group, which operates on the dark web. According to a letter obtained by Italian police after Ayling's release, she was set free because her kidnappers realized she had a young child at home.
"You are being released as a huge generosity from Black Death Group," the letter reads. "A mistake was made by capturing you, especially considering you are a young mother that should have in no circumstances be lured into kidnapping." It also claims, very dubiously, that Ayling was "treated fairly" and "with respect," and commands her not to speak poorly of the Black Death group under threat of "elimination."
"We will not tolerate lying about anything that has happened," it states.
According to an interview that Ayling gave to The Sun, there were five kidnappers in all, though she only encountered two of them. At one point, she recounted, one of them entered her room and told her that their boss had called, furious that they'd taken the wrong person, because he saw her Instagram profile, "which clearly showed that I was a mum with a young boy, and this went against the rules of the organization."
But her imprisonment could not stop, she was told, "because in the meantime the organization had published in the deep web two photos taken shortly after the aggression while I was unconscious, showing the publication on a… site called Black Death. The photos confirmed the fact that I was in the hands of the organization, and some users had expressed interest in my sale."
Reports have since come out that, two days into Ayling's imprisonment, Herba emailed the British tabloid The Daily Mirror under the heading "British model kidnapped by Russian mafia." In addition, "police have described Herba, who is in custody, as a "mythomaniac" and a 'pathological liar,'" according to the Telegraph.
The Black Death group has been haunting the darkest recesses of the internet for years—but its legitimacy and authenticity have been unclear. The organization purports to provide a variety of illegal services, involving "weapons, drugs, bombings, assassinations, new identities, and trafficking," according to a 2015 report by Motherboard. Motherboard conducted an investigative inquiry into the auction of a woman referred to as "Nicole," who was listed for sale at $150,000.
However, the Black Death group evaded the journalist's attempts to obtain evidence that the sale was real, and following the publication of their article, commenters revealed that images of "Nicole" shown on the Black Death group's auction page appeared to be screenshots of a woman in a bondage porn film, suggesting that the listing was fake.
Now the case of Chloe Ayling provides terrifying evidence that Black Death is an operating organization. However, because Ayling was released, it remains unclear exactly how active Black Death is, and whether or not other women have been—or are currently being—held captive or sold by this specific group.
The mystery surrounding Black Death group remains, but with one of their alleged members in police custody, we may soon learn more about the reality of this online nightmare. "We went together to inspect the site with the police, to that white cottage in Lemie," investigator Francesco Pesce told The Sun. He described Ayling's place of imprisonment as 'an isolated abandoned ghost town. It was disquieting."