WRAL Investigates

Drugs, stolen identities, porn for sale on 'seamy side of internet'

Posted February 15, 2018 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:41 p.m. EDT

— On Nov. 7, 25-year-old Jon Beaulieu's heart stopped. His mother found him collapsed on the bathroom floor of their Raleigh home surrounded by bottles of steroids, and he was pronounced dead at WakeMed.

The Millbrook High School graduate and former Coast Guard member was working out daily at a local gym, where trainers first gave him samples of steroids and later suggested that he buy them online, according to his mother, Gemma Beaulieu. They gave him a special code to access a website, and he had to use bitcoin to pay for his purchase, she said.

"He said they were getting steroids, and they could only get it through this website," Gemma Beaulieu said.

Jon Beaulieu also bought estrogen online to replenish his levels that were depleted by the steroids, his mother said. He assured her everything was fine and dismissed her pleas that he not take any of the hormones he purchased without first consulting a physician.

After he died, Gemma Beaulieu did "desperate research to find out what happened." The official cause of her son's death was cardiac arrest, but the autopsy noted the steroids in his system.

"I was scrolling through his email, and I saw something on bitcoin," she said.

She recalled how her 18-year-old daughter had recently mentioned one of her high school classes had discussed bitcoin and the so-called "dark web," and the connection sent her into the hidden corner of the internet.

"It's a whole other world. It's very scary," Gemma Beaulieu said.

The dark web is a network of encrypted websites that are hidden from standard search engines are require a special browser to find and navigate. The browser and the network are set up to mask the identities of visitors and site operators by bouncing people through a series of random computer connections before reaching the destination.

The anonymity is the chief attraction for criminals, said Kevin West, a cybercrime investigator with the Cary Police Department.

"It's a seamy side of the internet where the majority of what goes on ... is criminal activity," West said. "We have everything on the dark web from guns being sold to drugs. ... You can buy passports. You can buy credit card numbers. ... You can get prostitution online through the dark web. You can get child pornography, any type of sex you want."

A Raleigh man, for example, was recently convicted of making Xanax pills and selling them on the dark web.

Matthew Lee Yensan pleaded guilty to federal drug distribution, money laundering and bank fraud charges and is awaiting sentencing. A member of West's cybercrime unit discovered that Yensan sold the pills, which he made inside a Gorman Street storage unit, for $4 each on the AlphaBay website in exchange for bitcoin, an untraceable virtual currency. Yensan's bitcoin account had the equivalent of $715,150 in it, according to federal court records.

Law enforcement in the U.S. and several other countries shut down AlphaBay last July. At that time, the site had more than 250,000 listings for and more than 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms and fraudulent services, according to U.S. Department of Justice.

Researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King's College in London classified the contents of 2,723 dark web sites in 2016 and found that almost three-fifths host illicit material.

"It's where all the bad guys are meeting," West said of the dark web.

Gemma Beaulieu said some of those bad guys got their hooks in her son

"I then later discovered the emails to the dark web and then, on Facebook, the codes from the personal trainer to go get the steroids through the dark web," she said.

Raleigh police initially classified Jon Beaulieu's death as an overdose, but after hearing from his mother about the background on the case, they are now investigating to see if criminal charges are warranted.

"There's got to be something that can block the dark web. It's just got to stop," Gemma Beaulieu said. "I don't ever want to see anyone go through this kind of pain."

West said that's unlikely, noting illegal marketplace sites have already popped up to replace AlphaBay, which itself succeeded the Silk Road site authorities shut down in 2013.

"It is the next frontier," he said. "The dark web, I don't think it will ever be shut down. It will grow."