On June 15, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Arizona Special Agent in Charge Scott Brown, U.S. Attorney Gary M. Restaino, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Al Childress, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Cheri Oz, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service acting Inspector in Charge Greg Torbenson signed a memorandum of understanding memorializing the Darknet Marketplace and Digital Currency Crimes Task Force.
Since 2017, these federal partners have focused on darknet drug vendors and cryptocurrency-enabled crimes. Ever-evolving technology has allowed drug traffickers and other criminal actors to expand into the digital world and use the darknet to engage in their illegal activity. Criminals have long sought to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity through various means, and technology has facilitated this on a grand scale. As these criminal activities and enterprises have become more sophisticated, law enforcement tools, resources and intelligence have had to adapt.
“HSI and our partners have been working at the forefront of combating criminal activities facilitated through the use of cryptocurrency on dark web marketplaces and other anonymous platforms,” said Brown. “This task force will have impactful repercussions on those criminal operators who attempt to grow their businesses and launder the illicit proceeds through advancing technology. HSI looks forward to growing in this investigative space alongside our law enforcement partners.”
Federal partners in Arizona have collectively investigated and prosecuted many of these cases in recent years. Some significant prosecutions include:
- United States v. Ruelas, et. al. Silvester Ruelas, Kevin Dean McCoy, Amber Nicole Worrell and Peggy V. Gomez conspired together to traffic heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine on the darknet. During the investigation, law enforcement officers seized from Ruelas’ residence and subsequently forfeited nine firearms; various bars of silver, gold and platinum; assorted jewelry, including three high-end watches; and a Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl ring. The court sentenced Ruelas to 240 months in prison, McCoy to 180 months in prison, Worrell to 120 months in prison, and Gomez to 60 months in prison. Liliana Sibirian Gomez was also charged with the others, pleaded to possession with intent to distribute, and was sentenced to 24 months in prison. The last defendant in the case was sentenced in 2021. This prosecution is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation.
- United States v. McCoy, et. al. Charles McCoy, Lauren Rempel and John Barnhill conspired together to distribute fentanyl through the dark web. Customers paid in cryptocurrency, and McCoy and Rempel laundered the proceeds of the offense through a cryptocurrency exchange. The court sentenced McCoy to 180 months in prison, Barnhill to 72 months in prison, and Rempel to 87 months in prison. The last defendant in the case was sentenced in 2023. This prosecution is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation.
- United States v. Cummings. Michael Brian Cummings sold blue M-30 pills containing fentanyl on the dark web under the vendor name “PillPlugPaul.” He pleaded guilty to possession with the intent to distribute and agreed to forfeit all the computers and cell phones used in the offense. His sentencing is scheduled for July 31, 2023, before U.S. District Judge Dominic W. Lanza.
“We’ve done great work with our federal partners in the dark web and crypto space,” said Restaino. “This task force will enable us to continue the great collaboration with USPIS, DEA, IRS-CI and HSI, and I look forward to robust interdiction and prosecution efforts to deter digital crimes.”
“IRS-CI is increasingly dedicating more investigative time and agent expertise to tackle darknet and cryptocurrency crimes,” said Childress. “Our agents excel in addressing sophisticated cyber-related schemes and are up to the challenge of locating and apprehending criminals who try to hide in the digital world.”
“DEA is committed to saving lives,” said Oz. “Drug traffickers who are hiding in the darknet will be aggressively targeted and unmasked by this task force.”
Over the last several years, federal partners have seen an increase in the use of the internet to facilitate the illegal sale and distribution of narcotics, firearms and parts, technologies, personally identifying information and other contraband. Additionally, the use of digital currency to facilitate these activities has risen. The parties to the memorandum of understanding agreed that the unique investigative capability of a Darknet Marketplace and Digital Currency Crimes Task Force will serve the needs of all the communities within the district of Arizona.
“The U.S Postal Inspection Service’s participation in this task force with our law enforcement partners and the Department of Justice underscores our commitment to keeping the U.S. Mail safe for all who handle and receive it,” said Phoenix Division acting Inspector in Charge Glen Henderson. “Dark web vendors and their operatives believe they can hide anonymously while perpetrating their crimes. The collaborative effort of this task force proves criminals operating on the web are never truly anonymous and they will be uncovered and prosecuted.”
The Darknet Marketplace and Digital Currency Crimes Task Force’s mission is to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations that exploit the appearance of anonymity on the darknet or use digital currency to facilitate criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, theft of personal information, and child exploitation. The Darknet Marketplace and Digital Currency Crimes Task Force’s goal is to provide increased collaboration, enhance resources, and disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations that use these new and emerging technologies.
The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force identifies, disrupts and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multiagency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks.
HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.