Four university students have been convicted at Manchester Crown Court of conspiracy to import, export and supply controlled drugs through the dark web trafficking site Silk Road, before it was shut down in 2013. Basil Assaf and Elliott Hyams, both 26-years-old, 25-year-old James Roden, and 26-year-old Jaikishen Patel, all originally from London, began taking drugs during their first year at university. According to the Manchester Evening News, the group claimed the TV series Breaking Bad inspired them into selling drugs online.

Award-winning American crime drama Breaking Bad filmed in Mexico and aired on TV in 2008, running successfully through to 2013. It featured high school chemistry teacher Walter White producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine after being diagnosed with lung cancer and being desperate to safeguard his family’s future after his death.

In 2014, USA Today reported that the Silk Road website had almost one million customers and turned over $1.2 billion in illegal drug sales. The FBI had called it ‘the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet today.’ While best known for selling drugs, the site was also used for trading illegal passports and security documents and as a place to hire hitmen. Using background servers located around the world to hide operator and user activity, the website operated between 2011 and 2013 before it was infiltrated by the FBI and closed down.

The four men who were studying pharmacology, geology, and computer science at Manchester University, were selling drugs through the website and sending large quantities in both liquid and tablet form through the post to customers in the UK, Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand. With their profits they afforded foreign holidays and enjoyed a lifestyle well beyond the means of the average student. Their operation was uncovered during the FBI sting on Silk Road and they passed the information onto the UK’s National Crime Agency. The flat lived in by Assaf and Roden was raided by agents who described it as a ‘drug factory’.

Jaikishen Patel (top left), Joshua Morgan (bottom left), James Roden (centre) and Basil Assaf (right)

Jaikishen Patel (top left), Joshua Morgan (bottom left), James Roden (centre) and Basil Assaf (right)

The four students are believed to have earned over £800,000 from drug dealing between 2011 and 2013 using the dark web, reported BBC News, and sold up to 240,000 ecstasy tablets alongside LSD and ketamine. They all pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to importing, exporting, and supplying controlled drugs, as well as possession with intent to supply. “To all intents and purposes, you operated a one-stop shop, cutting out the middle man. The use of the dark web is an aggravating feature, not a mitigating one. That should be made clear,” the judge told them during sentencing.

Assaf was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Hyams to 11 years, Roden to 12 years, and Patel to 11 years. Another man, 28-year-old Joshua Morgan who helped the group package up the drugs for transport through the mail, was convicted of assisting the offenders and sentenced to 7 years in jail.

 “Drugs are a blight on our society. Misery and degradation is the typical result. As intelligent young men you will all each appreciate that that misery is caused and certainly contributed to by people like you.”

In January 2015, Swansea University in Wales published a policy brief on the ‘Rise and Challenge of Dark New Drug Markets’. They highlighted the increasing availability of the internet, developing technology, and expansion of social media as leading factors in the growth of online drug markets such as Silk Road.

“Hidden markets present a safer environment for drug transactions and they reduce the multiple risks (coercion, violence, arrest, exposure to other drugs) associated with ‘street’ sales,” they wrote. In order to keep up with ever-changing sophisticated technology and the methods used to operate hidden dark websites, law enforcement agencies have challenging times ahead. The internet and dark web allow criminals to carry out illegal drug dealing without ever meeting their buyers in person, placing themselves at a crime scene, or even revealing their own identities.

For the Manchester University students, Judge Michael Leeming imposed harsh sentences on all those involved, wanting to send a firm message that those who engage in these activities will receive long prison sentences when caught. As part of his summary statement, he told them, “My duty is threefold: firstly, to protect the public from people like you. Second, to punish you, and third, to deter those who may be similarly minded to act this way in the future.”