The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin

AlphaBay was the largest online drug bazaar in history, run by a technological mastermind who seemed untouchable—until his tech was turned against him.

By October 2015, AlphaBay had more than 200,000 users and more than 21,000 product listings for drugs, compared to just 12,000 listings on Silk Road at its peak. Sometime around the middle of 2016, AlphaBay surpassed Agora’s peak sales rate of $350,000 a day, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon. It had become not only the biggest black market on the dark web, but the biggest cryptocurrency black market of all time. And it was still growing wildly.

For Grant Rabenn, the Fresno-based prosecutor, it was clear that Alpha02 was now the most wanted man on the dark web; Rabenn compared his notoriety among digital crime investigators to that of Osama bin Laden. AlphaBay and Alpha02 were invoked at every law enforcement conference on cybercrime, every interagency meeting, every training event, Rabenn says. And as the target on Alpha02’s back loomed larger, so too did the unspoken fear that this mastermind might stay a step ahead of them indefinitely.

“Is this person just a pure genius who’s figured out all of the possible mistakes?” Rabenn remembers asking himself. “Has this individual found the perfect country with the right IT infrastructure to run a marketplace, and he’s able to bribe the officials there so we’ll never touch him?

“As every day passed there was, more and more, a sense that this might be the special one,” Rabenn says. “You begin to wonder: Is this the Michael Jordan of the dark web?”

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