ROME—There is a place out there on the penumbral perimeter of the World Wide Web where Google doesn’t work and where passwords are replaced by encrypted invitations.
It can only be accessed through anonymizer browsers like Tor Project, which hide IP addresses so web surfers with malicious intent cannot be traced. It is known as the deep web or darknet: a place where college students buy hard drugs to be delivered to their dorms, where arms are sold to terrorists, and where street children are sold for snuff films.
This is where Lukasz Pawel Herba, a 30-year-old Polish man, allegedly planned to sell 20-year-old British model Chloe Ayling.
Herba was arrested July 18 after his auction plan went awry, as he was taking Ayling to the British consulate in Milan. He appeared in court last Friday, when detectives sought to keep him incarcerated as they continue to investigate his claimed affiliation with a notorious trafficking ring called the Black Death Group that Interpol investigated in 2015.
Italian media reported that investigators who initially interrogated Ayling after her release said she told them that she woke up inside a suitcase in the trunk of a car wearing a pink bodysuit and socks. She said she was tied to a wooden dresser for six days, during which Herba said she would “be sold to Arabs” who would “feed you to tigers when they get bored with you.
Herba also reportedly told Ayling that he had made €15 million ($17.7 million) sex-trafficking kidnapped women and selling them via the deep web on the Black Death Group website, which its developers move frequently and which can only be found and accessed through a special encrypted invitation with a URL, said Europol director Robert Wainwright, who led a sting operation in early July that shut down several deep-web sites known collectively as the Alphabay.
Interpol, working with the U.S. Justice Department and Europol, managed to shutter AlphaBay, which was the world’s largest dark web bazaar. Investigators say it had generated more than $1 billion in the the sale of drugs, arms, and people over a three-year period.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal cases of the year,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a press conference July 20 announcing U.S. involvement in the Alphabay operation. “Make no mistake: The forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity by ‘going dark.’… You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network. And we will prosecute you.”
Before shutting down AlphaBay, Dutch authorities had infiltrated Hansa, the second biggest illicit marketplace, and set up a sting operation so that, predictably, when buyers who were looking for guns, girls, or drugs found AlphaBay closed, they went immediately to Hansa. “They flocked to Hansa in their droves,” said Europol Director Wainwright. “We recorded an eight-times increase in the number of new users on Hansa immediately following the takedown of AlphaBay.”
The identities of many of the buyers are now in the hands of authorities in multiple countries, who might be able to prosecute them, though an Interpol agent reached by The Daily Beast, who asked not to be quoted by name because he is an undercover operative, said that most people use false identities when buying illicit goods that are paid for with Bitcoins. The only hope might be to chase delivery addresses and work from that direction.
Herba claimed to be part of the Black Death Group—a smaller scale model of the larger marketplaces, according to the 2015 Interpol investigation cited by Italian police in a press conference last Friday. Nonetheless, a simple Reddit search on the group brings up several posts about experiences—many quite unbelievable—from those who say they have been on the Black Death site.
The Daily Beast took a look around the dark web using the Tor Project browser after finding several links on Reddit that advertised sex slaves and featured other humans for sale, including young children and older women. It wasn’t pretty. Pictures, hopefully doctored up, of women missing limbs and being sexually assaulted were the norm.
Herba talked to investigators about his success in the deep-web sex-trafficking business. “The Polish citizen told detectives he organized several online auctions for the sale of abducted girls through advertisements describing prey and setting a starting figure, although it has not been established whether the man really kidnapped women in previous episodes or if he invented everything,” Paolo Storari, an anti-mafia prosecutor working on the case in Milan, said during a weekend press conference.
Herba had in his possession disturbing materials that he claimed were related to the group, including one that appeared to be an advertisement for an 18-year-old blonde complete with her measurements, 36-22-32.
“All our girls are set for auctions only and being held in Europe. If you wish, we can kidnap a specific target for your needs. The service will be rather expensive, especially for targets outside Europe,” according to the advertisement, which also stated that they had a “doctor contractor” who would check the girls for STDs. “Girl is only pure if the profile says so.”
Italian detectives don’t necessarily believe that Herba was as involved as he claims to be, but they are sure that such a market exists, and while Ayling was lucky to escape it, many others likely were not.