2013's #6 Most-Read: The careful path to Bellevue's Silk Road drug bust

How attentive postal workers and old-school police work brought down one of Puget Sound’s top online drug dealers.

Editor's note: As we look ahead to the New Year, we thought you would like to see the 10 Most-Read Stories from Crosscut in 2013. This story is presented as it was originally published on Oct. 9.

Hidden inside scented magic markers and a birthday card, U.S. Postal inspectors found heroin in the first package they opened. Later in the day, drug-sniffing dogs called out another parcel for suspicion. It didn’t contain narcotics, however — only $3,200 in cash.

The two packages featured similar handwriting, the same type of stamps, and return addresses in King County -- one bogus, the other a PO Box. The connection wasn’t rock-solid, but it was enough for inspectors to dig deeper. The hunch proved correct. Starting in September 2012, it led agents from Homeland Security and the U.S. Postal Service down a road littered with packages from Pakistan, a meth-filled Sports Illustrated DVD case and a high-tech black market named Silk Road.

Last week, when the investigation ended nearly a year later, Steven Sadler and Jenna White of Bellevue were in handcuffs, accused of being some of the most flagrant drug dealers in the history of Puget Sound.

According to a criminal complaint unsealed by the U.S. District Court for Western Washington, Sadler is accused of selling heroin, meth and cocaine to customers all over the country and possibly the world, operating under the online pseudonym Nod. Allegedly, at least 38 USPS offices throughout Seattle and King County served as his distribution centers. For incoming orders, Sadler allegedly relied on what some call the “Amazon.com of drugs.”

That online black market, known as Silk Road, started in 2011 and met its end last week with the arrest of alleged founder, Ross Ulbricht. Silk Road operated on a segment of the Internet sometimes called the “Dark Net.” Sites on the “Dark Net” are not accessible via normal browsers, relying instead on the Tor Network, an online system that uses encryption and traffic re-routing to hide user communications and locations.

“Anarchy capitalism” services like Silk Road — which offer everything from tar heroin to medical equipment for sale — are a big part of Tor’s reason for being. In its three years of existence, Silk Road attracted nearly 1 million registered users from all over the planet, and clocked roughly $1.2 billion in illegal drug sales, according to federal documents.

Ulbricht's arrest last week goes unmentioned in Sadler and White’s criminal complaint. In a statement to Mashable, the FBI would only admit to involvement in Silk Road arrests in the UK. The connection between the near-simultaneous arrests of Ulbricht, Sadler, and White is an unanswered question, despite the fact that the criminal complaint claims Silk Road ranked Nod in the top 1 percent of drug dealers on the site. A request for comment on the case from the U.S. Attorney’s office went unanswered by press time.

The timing of the arrests suggests they may have been postponed to coincide with the conclusion of the larger Silk Road investigation. However, the arrests of Sadler and White do not appear to have been a part of the larger investigation. According to Homeland Security Special Agent Christopher Armstrong, who authored the criminal complaint against the pair, the Nod arrests simply came down to brass tacks investigative work, following one lead to the next.

Shortly after the heroin and $3,200 were discovered in September 2012, investigators began pulling similar packages, with comparable handwriting and Puget Sound return addresses. Heroin was discovered in one, but there was still no indication of who was behind the shipments. The packages were released back into the system, to avoid giving the game away too early. Inspectors would bide their time before going after the packages’ recipients.

Postal inspectors decided to follow the money, tracing the $3,200 they’d found back to its return address. It was a P.O. box at a UPS store, registered to “Edward Harlow.” Someone named “Aaron Thompson” was also associated with the account. Inspectors found several post office boxes in Tukwila, Kent, and Renton connected with the two names, with fake Illinois drivers licenses used to open all of them.

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