A San Luis Obispo judge on Friday ordered a Riverside man to stand trial for allegedly trying to hire a hitman on the “dark web” to murder his stepmother, despite admitting concerns about how the case came to light through a mysterious “crusading hacker” from London.
Last week, CBS News’ “48 Hours” featured the criminal case of Beau Brigham, who is facing a felony charge of solicitation of murder after a reported cybersecurity expert forwarded alleged proof to the TV network, which in turn alerted local authorities.
The alleged victim in the case is a resident of San Luis Obispo.
Brigham, 32, claims to have serious medical problems and told CBS News in the segment aired last Saturday that he didn’t remember accessing the murder-for-hire website, though he told the reporter that “there was only one way to get anyone’s f------ attention and to do something stupid on a f------ site was the only way.”
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According to the CBS segment, Brigham and his stepmother became estranged following the death of his father, a Saratoga bar and nightclub owner, in 2011. Beau Brigham and his older brother, Brandon, sued their stepmother in 2015, CBS News says, winning a “significant judgment” against her.
But according to testimony presented Friday, Beau Brigham was angry at his stepmother for not financially supporting him as he struggled with his health problems.
“She left her own son to f------ die for four years. Who does that?” Brigham told CBS News’ Peter Van Sant in an interview conducted Sept. 24 at San Luis Obispo County Jail.
Brigham was in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Friday for a preliminary hearing in which a judge hears basic testimony and rules whether probable cause exists to further the case toward trial.
Superior Court Judge Jesse Marino first heard testimony from San Luis Obispo police Det. Suzie Walsh, who recounted interviewing Brigham’s biological mother, who said she knew about his “inquiry on the internet.”
Walsh said Brigham’s mother came home to her distraught son, who reportedly admitted to sending “a little bit of money” online related to hiring a hitman.
“She stated her disbelief that anyone could be hired for murder over the internet,” Walsh testified.
Walsh said she also spoke with the alleged victim in May, when she told the detective that she was in debt to the Brigham brothers for more than $1 million and that “she’d be paying the lawsuit and attorneys fees for the rest of her life.” However, if she were dead, Walsh said the woman told her, the brothers would immediately receive dividends from a trust account.
John Lehr, a forensic specialist for the San Luis Obispo Police Department, testified that the “dark web” is different from the “surface” or “light web” most everyone uses, and requires special software, browsers and specific information to access, as content is not indexed in mainstream search engines such as Google.
The point, Lehr said, is for anonymity, and in the case of illicit commerce, two-way anonymity.
Lehr testified that he examined cellphones belonging to Beau Brigham and found a history of saved websites related to hiring “Chechen hitmen.”
Also found on his iPhone’s Notes application, Lehr said, were two story ideas for a Coen Brothers-style movie “of a person who is ill who hires a hitman to get money for treatment.”
Neal Clayton, a District Attorney’s Office investigator, testified that Brigham’s alleged communication with the murder-for-hire site was brought to the attention of CBS by Chris Monteiro, who Clayton described as “an informant for CBS” based in southeast London.
According to Clayton, Monteiro went to the national press because he did not trust law enforcement would take action. Clayton said he spoke with Monteiro, who said he has been trying to prove that the murder-for-hire sites were scams; they reportedly take people’s money but “never actually follow through with services,” Clayton said.
“He did not think it was proper ... that these people would take the money without doing it,” Clayton said. “Second, he thought people who are going to these sites are inherently dangerous.”
According to his conversation with Monteiro, Clayton testified that to obtain the services, a customer would sign up for a form of cyber currency — in Brigham’s case, Bitcoin — and pay an agreed-upon amount to a middleman or broker site, which would hire the assassin based on the customer’s specifications. The crime would then supposedly be carried out.
“If, in theory, this (website) was real, they would then release the funds in a form of cyber currency to that person” who committed the murder or injury, Clayton said.
Monteiro found a “backdoor” to the murder-for-hire site and was able to obtain messages sent by Brigham, Clayton said.
According to Clayton, Brigham sent $5 worth of Bitcoin to a cyber currency platform — what Brigham later allegedly admitted was a “test” — though Clayton admitted under cross-examination by defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu that there is no evidence where the roughly $5 went, or if it was received by the murder-for-hire site.
In his closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye told Marino that soliciting a murder is a crime regardless of whether the solicitation was received.
“To the extent that no one tried to murder the victim in this case is irrelevant,” Frye said.
Funke-Bilu, in his response, told Marino that the prosecution’s case rests solely upon evidence obtained by a hacker whose motives are not known, and that even local investigators don’t understand how the technology involved works.
“Hacking has become the scourge of the internet, and we have an admitted hacker that’s the foundation of the People’s case,” he said.
Marino agreed that he shared concerns about the “genesis of the case” involving a “crusading hacker,” but said the evidence Monteiro supplied met the burden of probable cause.
“I share your concerns,” Marino told Funke-Bilu.
Following his ruling, however, Marino also issued a gag order on the proceedings, barring the attorneys, law enforcement agencies and potential witnesses from discussing the case outside the courtroom.
Marino, who took the bench in December, said he felt compelled to do so because of the possibility of the high publicity the case has received to taint a possible jury pool of San Luis Obispo County residents.