On Friday, a Wisconsin federal court charged a woman with trying to hire a hitman online and paying with Bitcoin. Court records suggest that from October to December 2020, Kelly Harper scoured murder-for-hire websites on the dark web to murder an unidentified Wisconsin man, referred to in the complaint as Known Victim or KV.
The story is very bizarre, not least because murder-for-hire sites on the dark web are known to largely be scams that fleece malicious marks. The complaint contains very few details about the alleged murder-for-hire site other than noting it was supposedly “located outside of Wisconsin.” Regardless, Harper is being charged with using interstate commerce facilities (in this case, the internet) in the commission of a murder-for-hire; an offense for which a murder does not actually need to take place for the defendant to be found guilty.
The saga began in January, when a Sun Prairie police officer responded to a suspicious person call. What they found was a local journalist sitting with KV at the kitchen table, both of whom were in a video call with two other journalists. According to the complaint, the journalists explained that they were working on an investigative report into a murder-for-hire site on the dark web and had uncovered a plot to murder KV. The complaint states that KV then handed police a document “included chat communications that took place from December 3 through December 10, 2020 between an unknown subject (UNSUB) and an individual purporting to be a murder-for-hire site administration on the dark web.”
In one chat, the UNSUB named KV, provided their address, and added, "The target needs to be killed, he is a white 5 foot 5 male, dark brown short hair, blue eyes, weighs 165 pounds." They also provided details about the target's vehicle, workplace, cell phone number, as well as pictures of KV and their vehicle. After the site administrator asked for proof of payment, UNSUB shared a screenshot of a bitcoin wallet containing $5,633.87.
KV's girlfriend filed a complaint with the FBI the next day and provided the bureau with the document the journalists had given to KV. An FBI agent interviewed the journalists, who corroborated KV’s girlfriend’s story.
According to the complaint, the document contained information on an October 9, 2020 transfer of bitcoins from the UNSUB to a second murder-for-hire site administrator. A review of that transfer by the FBI’s Money Laundering, Forfeiture, and Bank Fraud Unit identified an IP address, email account, and telephone number associated with the Bitcoin wallet. A grand jury subpoena revealed that the IP, email, and phone number were connected to Harper.
A search warrant executed at Harper's residence in Columbus, Wisconsin found photos of KV, a murder-for-hire site, and Harper confessed to an FBI agent that she tried to hire someone to kill KV.
Even if Harper paid someone with the expressed purpose of killing KV, it's worth noting again that it is entirely unclear whether you can actually hire a hitman through the dark web. In an academic paper shared with The New York Times, twenty-four murder-for-hire sites were reviewed by researchers who came to the conclusion that they were largely scams.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to defraud people because you give them just enough sense of danger,” Emily Wilson, the head of a cybersecurity dark web firm, told The Times. “What are you going to do if they don’t go through with it?”
Before that study, one of the best examinations of murder-for-hire on the dark web was offered by Chris Monteiro, a systems administrator who pursued his own investigation and broke into some of the more well-known murder for hire sites. After hacking these sites, he found messages suggesting that "the markets may have been scams, but the desire for violence was real". Monteiro also spoke with The Times, and shared that he found messages "suggesting that the operators had little intention of going through with the killings."
There have been killings connected to various activities on the dark web, as an investigation by the BBC found, but so far there seem to have been none that happened as a result of the murder-for-hire websites. Regardless, paying someone to kill someone else is a terrible, bad, no good idea.