The UK’s National Crime Agency announced that a so-called “career criminal” was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to purchase three grenades on the dark web and for an assortment of drug crimes.
Paul Christian Stellato, 47, used Alphabay under the pseudonym “cocaineking247” to purchase three fragmentation grenades from an Alphabay vendor. The NCA’s press releases made it difficult to determine whether or not Stellato had dealt with a real weapons vendor on Alphabay. Dark web cases involving firearm or weapon purchases have almost exclusively featured an undercover law enforcement officer posing as a dark web vendor. In some cases, such as USA v. Budi (3:18-cr-00214), the defendant had the misfortune of dealing with two undercover law enforcement officers. (Budi attempted to hire a hitman from an undercover Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent and simultaneously attempted to purchase a radioactive substance from an undercover FBI agent.)
In one of the first press releases from the NCA, the phrasing suggested that the Alphabay grenade dealer had—at one point in time—been a legitimate weapon dealer on the darkweb. However, after the recent sentencing, NCA branch commander David Norris said, “we worked tirelessly with our partners – including the FBI – to keep these weapons away from him.” Although the mention of the FBI far from proved the point in either direction, the involvement of the FBI in an NCA investigation would have been limited in scope. And one of the ways the FBI aids international law enforcement agencies conduct cases against darkweb buyers is by posing as vendors on dark web markets and forums. A recent case in Ireland showed all the markings of FBI involvement: an Alphabay grenade purchase, international law enforcement support, and a controlled delivery.
Information from a recent hearing in the Ireland case revealed that the FBI had, in fact, posed as an undercover grenade vendor on Alphabay. A suspected IRA member purchased multiple grenades, explosives, and ammunition from the Alphabay vendor account, fully unaware of the fact that a FBI special agent had been running the account. The FBI passed the information on to the Gardai who, in turn, conducted a controlled delivery of fake grenades and later arrested the man for the attempted purchase of explosives and other illegal items.
Stellato’s case shared many elements with the case in Ireland, such as: an Alphabay vendor who advertised explosives and ammunition; controlled deliveries; and packages filled with replicas that matched the vendor’s (or FBI agent’s) description of the item and the decoy within the package. In Stellato’s case, the legitimacy of the vendor proved immaterial to the case. He had still purchased three grenades for £277 in Bitcoin. Stellato believed he had purchased legitimate grenades from a legitimate grenade dealers. He also had his doubts, too. In his messages with the vendor, Stellato said, “I begged someone to get it delivered as they don’t know what it is.” He also added that the explosives were intended only for domestic protection.
However, Stellato’s prior crimes negated any attempted plausible deniability or even “legitimate” intentions. In 1998, Stellato went to prison for 10 years for arson in attempt to endanger a life. In court, the prosecutors said that Stellato had sent a screenshot of the grenades to an “associate” and asked, “if I add shrapnel will it do a hole in a house?” The question remains unanswered as the police arrested Stellato in late 2016 after he had received the package of fake fragmentation grenades. He never had the opportunity to test the grenades’ ability to put a hole in the house of someone who had likely wronged him in the drug trade. During the arrest and subsequent search of the man’s house, Northamptonshire Police discovered thousands of dollars worth of drugs and charged Stellato with eight counts of possession of Class A and Class B substances and one count of supplying Class B drugs.
Officials believe that keeping Stellato off the streets will help keep the community safer. Detective Inspector Adam Pendlebury of the Northamptonshire Police said, “clearly Stellato was involved in supplying drugs in the Brackley area and it’s concerning that he was also attempting to buy grenades.” Considering Stellato’s life sentence with a minimum seven-year term, Pendlebury said, “hopefully today’s sentence will offer some reassurance to the local community.”