- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2017

Federal prosecutors have charged an Illinois man accused of acting as the spokesman for AlphaBay, a dark-web marketplace that facilitated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drug deals and other illegal transactions prior to being seized by authorities earlier this year.

Ronald L. Wheeler III, 24, was arraigned Wednesday in Atlanta on a single count of conspiracy to commit access device fraud in connection with the AlphaBay website and was released on a personal-recognizance bond pending trial after pleading not guilty during his initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Janet F. King.

He waived indictment and opted to proceed by criminal information, the filings said, eliminating the need to convene a grand jury and putting the case on course to advance on evidence already obtained by federal investigators.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Wheeler of Streamwood, Illinois, conspired with AlphaBay’s accused operator, Alexander Cazes, to help run a website where users bought and sold illicit goods including drugs, stolen credit card information, computer hacking tools and other contraband, according to a charging document filed Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Byung J Pak.

Mr. Wheeler was hired as AlphaBay’s “public relations specialist” in May 2016 and received a salary in Bitcoin from Cazes in exchange for moderating the website’s message boards, mediating sales disputes among customers, promoting AlphaBay on the internet and providing non-technical assistance to buyers and sellers before the site shut down this past July, prosecutors allege.

“This defendant was the mouthpiece for AlphaBay on the internet, encouraging others to access the Dark Web and purchase illegal drugs and contraband,” Mr. Pak said in a statement Thursday. “Like other defendants, Wheeler eventually learned that the Dark Web is not impenetrable; your actions will catch up to you, just like they did in this case.”

AlphaBay contained thousands of sales listings for illegal products shortly before the site went offline, including 4,488 sales listings for stolen personally identifying information, 28,800 sales listings for stolen online account information, 6,008 sales listings for stolen credit card information and 3,586 sales listings for computer hacking tools, as well as more than a quarter of a million sales listings touting various drugs including heroin and opioids, according to prosecutors.

“The sales of stolen personally identifying information, online account information and credit card information all provided fertile grounds for access device fraud to flourish on the Dark Web,” the Department of Justice said in a statement Thursday, referring to the unindexed and hard-to-monitor portion of the internet that hosted AlphaBay and similar marketplaces.

“My client and I have no comment at this time,” Mr. Wheeler’s attorney, Phillip A. Turner, told The Washington Times.

AlphaBay catered to at least 200,000 customers prior to be seized as the result of a multinational law enforcement operation conducted by agencies including the Justice Department and Europol, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a July 20 announcement touting “the largest dark net marketplace takedown in history.”

Cazes, a Canadian citizen, was arrested in Thailand in tandem with the site’s seizure but died in a Bangkok jail awaiting extradition. He made about $23 million off of running the site prior to his death, according to recent court filings.

Prosecutors in the Wheeler case have asked him to forfeit $27,562 in U.S. currency and about 14 bitcoins if convicted. A hard-to-trace digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoins were valued at less than $300 apiece when Mr. Wheeler allegedly began working for Cazes in 2015, but are currently worth nearly $8,000 each.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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