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.
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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.

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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.

Postal employees in the county were told to keep an eye out for packages similar to those already flagged, or addressed to Mr. Harlow or Thompson. It didn’t take long to turn up an example. In December, employees in a SeaTac post office informed investigators that a “blonde female” had been dropping off packages matching the description. They even managed to get the license plate of the Audi she was driving. 

In one of the oldest clichés of drug investigations, a luxury car’s registration began the racket’s unraveling. The license plate was registered to Steven Sadler of Bellevue, and by showing his picture to Post Office employees throughout the area, inspectors quickly determined he was both “Aaron Thompson” and “Edward Harlow.” Surveillance on Sadler’s Bellevue house found him, the Audi, an additional BMW and the “blonde female” he lived with – Jenna White.

But there was still the matter of figuring out what Sadler and White were really up to. The shipments they appeared to have sent were consistently minor league — a gram of heroin here and a few grams of cocaine there. The biggest shipment connected with the investigation wasn’t even one they sent — it was a package to Aaron Thompson from Pakistan, containing 900 tablets of the anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam. After opening it, inspectors repackaged the box and delivered it, but no one came to pick it up from its PO box. 

Another package sent to Thompson the following month – containing nine grams of meth in a Sports Illustrated DVD case – didn’t lead to any busts either. But it finally pushed inspectors to look closer at recipients of the suspicious packages Sadler and White were sending, if only to discover whether they were a player in the drug market, or mainly a customer. In March 2013, a package featuring the familiar handwriting was intercepted on its way to Alaska, containing roughly 1.5 grams of heroin and cocaine. Agents confronted the recipient and bargained them into cooperation, trading it for reduced felony charges. In return, inspectors were introduced to Silk Road.

“Nod's black tar is something I think any tar afficianado should try,” reads one review on Reddit, referring to a potent form of heroin. “Nod is the definition of customer service,” another crows. And these reviews are on the public Internet. In Silk Road’s closed garden, the reviews are even more effusive, describing Nod’s cocaine as “cut directly off the brick” and as a “1980s time machine.”

Reading the criminal complaint against Sadler, it’s clear inspectors were stunned by how upfront Silk Road was. “Nod’s Silk Road profile states that he has conducted numerous sales of illegal narcotics using the website,” Homeland Security agent Armstrong wrote. “Indeed, his profile states that he is in the top one percent of sellers on the website. The profile states that Nod uses the United States Postal Service to transport the drugs.”

Inspectors bugged Sadler and White’s cars with tracking devices and began placing orders with Nod through Silk Road. Inspectors tailed White as she delivered packages to post offices, tracking her from the Bainbridge Island ferries to downtown Bellevue and Seattle. The undercover orders they placed were fulfilled, with Nod punctually delivering vacuum-sealed bags of drugs via the daily mail.

In that respect, Nod lived up to his online reputation. Roughly 1400 reviews were left of his services on Silk Road, most rating it a “5 of 5.” The reviews had an added benefit to inspectors, because each specificied the exact product Nod had sold. For example, reviews would list that a user had received 3.5 grams of meth, which they described as “really tasty looking.” Another person’s review noted they’d received 2 grams of “extreme” heroin.

Though Nod had been operating on Silk Road for a year, the reviews only stretched back four months. Nonetheless, they revealed quite the operation. Selling only a few grams at a time, Nod had sold 2629.5 grams of cocaine, 593 grams of heroin and 105 grams of meth – a total of over seven pounds of hard drugs. Given average customer purchases, this could represent over 1000 orders of drugs delivered by unsuspecting mail carriers, with roughly eight additional months of suspected sales unaccounted for.

The arrest of Silk Road’s founder has been well documented over the past week, as have his libertarian views and motives for creating the marketplace. Less has been released about Nod and other major dealers on the site. British authorities arrested four men in connection with Silk Road at roughly the same time as Nod. It remains unclear whether inspectors held off on all of these arrests until Silk Road itself could be shuttered. Some have suggested this could be the start of a wave of busts, and the end of the “Dark Net” in the face of increasingly sophisticated government surveillance.

More arrests may be on the way, but so far investigations seem not to have relied on any NSA-level probing. Instead, with the arrest of Silk Road’s founder and many top dealers, the world’s most modern black market may have been brought down by old-school police work.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.