A tale of paranoia come true.
CORRECTION 05/19: An earlier version of this article, with the headline "How an Alleged Dark Web Drug Dealer Got Busted By a Fake Mailman," stated that the defendant allegedly purchased methylone on the dark web. Further investigation into the court records indicate that this is likely not the case. The headline and the article have been changed to reflect this new information.
A court memorandum from February states:
"Bates admitted ordering and receiving multiple parcels containing 500 grams of 'Molly' from China. Bates stated that he purchased 1,000 grams at a time for $2,200, and that he paid for the drugs via Western Union wire transfer that he or friends, acting at his request, sent from different Stop & Shop Supermarkets in Quincy and Abington, Massachusetts."
We sincerely apologize for this error.
Tales of suspected mail interception by police, controlled deliveries, and seizure letters from customs agents are so prevalent in the dark web drug community that some have written them off as "FUD"—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—planted by law enforcement to dissuade people from buying drugs online. Others merely think they're the delusional ravings of tweaked out users.
The case of The United States of America vs. Harold Bates, who has been charged with drug trafficking, might change those skeptical perceptions. It reads like an internet-savvy drug users' nightmare—although it's unlikely Bates actually got the drugs he allegedly purchased from the dark web, the key evidence against him is his IP address, the number that identifies his computer on the internet, and his email.
According to a court memorandum from April, Bates's case began when US Postal Service investigators opened a suspicious package containing methylone, a synthetic stimulant similar to MDMA, and found that an IP address originating from Bates's home in Massachusetts had been tracking the parcel, and others like it, sent from Hong Kong. Bates also received USPS notifications about the package's status on his personal email account.
According to a USPS representative I spoke to, packages are only opened after a warrant has been issued unless they are ticking, leaking a hazardous substance, or have a strong odour; this suggests that Bates's package either had bad "stealth"—slang for camouflaging a package's illicit contents—or that Bates was already known to investigators.
Stephen Dowd, a USPS investigator, took up the case and organized a "trash pull" at Bates' house (essentially going through his garbage) and found "the familiar trappings of drug trafficking—cutoff [sic] tops of plastic 'baggies,' a box for a digital desktop scale, receipts of Western Union wire transfers to China and Hong Kong, and empty Chinese parcels addressed to Bates."
A few weeks after the "trash pull," Bates began using a friend named Julia Carozzi as an intermediary, whom Bates paid in gas money and gift cards to "avoid arousing suspicion." The packages were addressed to Carlozzi, and she handed them to Bates once she received them. According to the memorandum, Carlozzi was under the impression that Bates was ordering weightlifting supplements not yet approved by the FDA, and had "no further involvement" with respect to the drugs.
"Inspector Dowd drove the packages back to Rockland, donned a letter carrier's uniform, and attempted a controlled delivery to Carlozzi's home"
After Dowd "determined" that the packages addressed to Carlozzi were actually ordered by Bates—it's not clear how, exactly, from the filing—a USPS sniffer dog named Lucky indicated that a package addressed to Carozzi either contained or was in close proximity to drugs. Dowd arranged a controlled delivery.
"After Lucky alerted, Inspector Dowd drove the packages back to Rockland, donned a letter carrier's uniform, and attempted a controlled delivery to Carlozzi's home," the memorandum states. "But there was no answer. Dowd left a package slip and returned the parcels to the Rockland Post Office." After Carlozzi picked up the packages, police witnessed a hand-off to Bates in a Rite Aid parking lot.
When more packages for Carlozzi arrived days later, Dowd intercepted them and asked USPS employees not to enter an arrival scan. Instead, he took them and once again had Lucky sniff them. The dog barked. Dowd then obtained a warrant and organized another controlled delivery to Carlozzi; a fake entry scan for the parcel was made, 24 hours after it was expected. A late delivery.
Ignoring possible red flags thrown up by a delayed delivery, Carlozzi showed up and received the package. Bates was arrested during the hand-off.
During the court proceedings, Bates moved to have the contents of the parcels inspected by USPS officials suppressed. His argument was that his expectation to privacy was violated by inspectors because the packages addressed to Carlozzi were sniffed without a warrant. The motion was denied because Bates effectively relinquished control of the package to Carlozzi, who in turn did not have her own expectation to privacy since she was merely a "bailee" with no control over access to the package.
Even if Bates took some clever actions in the offline world, getting someone else to accept his packages for a fee and all, his decidedly less sophisticated approach to his online activities came back to bite him.