"Anyways, this might sound blunt but do you sell ricin? I was just searching for it and several of your custom listings popped up."
With those words, Cheng Le fell right into a law enforcement trap. In mid 2014, an FBI agent had taken on an alias that had previously been used by a toxin trafficker, and in December, the 21-year-old Le logged onto the dark web—that bizarre place where you can buy drugs, guns, fake IDs, and anything else the heart desires—and hit him up looking for the deadly poison.
Now Le is facing a potential sentence of life in prison.
In their initial conversations, Le and the FBI's online covert employee (OCE) hashed out the details of how ricin works and how it should be administered. There are different lethal doses for injection and consumption, and Le wanted to make sure that clients—he said he was going to sell the stuff—wouldn't have to stab anyone who could potentially fight back after being dosed.
"If you could make them into simple and easy death pills, they'd become best sellers," Le wrote to the FBI agent, according to a federal criminal complaint . He offered to pay $200 per pill, hinted at having at least one secondary buyer, and also requested a little extra ricin to experiment with on rats. "After all, it's death itself we're selling here, and the more risk-free, the most efficient we can make it, the better," the alleged ricin buyer explained.
On December 18, Le told the FBI agent to mail the ricin to a postal box in Manhattan. Agents spoke to the manager at the shipping store, who told them the box belonged to Le. NYPD records revealed a photograph of the alleged buyer and his address, which was two blocks away from the store. On December 23, at approximately 7:15 PM, Cheng Le retrieved his package (which contained fake poison) with blue latex gloves. He was arrested that day in his apartment.
Ricin naturally occurs in the castor oil plant, and the US government briefly considered coating bullets with it during World War I. More recently, it became famous for its appearance in Breaking Bad—much of the drama in the show's final seasons revolves around a baggie of ricin and how it will ultimately be deployed.
Le's indictment comes as the alleged founder of another drug marketplace—the Silk Road—stands trial in New York. A big problem with prosecuting the case is that average jurors won't be able to understand the intricacies of Tor (a dark web platform), which the FBI defines as "a special network of computers, distributed around the world, that is designed to conceal the true Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of the computers accessing the network, and, thereby, the locations and identities of the network's users."
But the facts were pretty cut and dry in Le's case. On Tuesday, a grand jury indicted him with attempted acquisition of a biological toxin and use of a false name in furtherance of unlawful business. Now the US Attorney's Office's Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit is investigating the case. Le, who is being held in Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center, is expected to enter a plea on Friday.
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