What is the dark web?
The defense in an upcoming murder-for-hire trial accuses local prosecutors of being “partners to illegal conduct” by using ill-gotten evidence allegedly obtained from the dark web from a shadowy London-based hacker.
Court filings late last month also reveal details about the prosecution’s main piece of evidence, as well as that the hacker — whose visa troubles were preventing him from getting into the country — is seeking full immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Beau Brigham of Riverside is accused of posting a communication on the so-called dark web seeking an assassin to murder his stepmother, a San Luis Obispo resident, from whom he allegedly sought money from a legal settlement.
The case was featured on an episode of CBS’ “48 Hours” in September 2018. The hacker who allegedly discovered the plot, Chris Monteiro, provided Brigham’s alleged communication to the TV network, which then turned it over to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
“This is an overzealous prosecution where the District Attorney’s Office has become ‘partners to illegal conduct’ with Chris Monteiro,” reads the motion filed by defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu. “Our state and federal constitutions and statutes find this partnership to be abhorrent and our courts should never become even limited partner to this illegal union.”
Brigham has pleaded not guilty to a single felony county of solicitation of murder, which carries up to nine years in state prison, according to the complaint.
Given that Superior Court Judge Jesse Marino ordered the evidence sealed and imposed a gag order preventing the prosecution and defense from making any public statements about the case, court filings by the defense last week provide the most information to date about the prosecution’s case against Brigham.
‘Cosa Nostra cyberteam’
Funke-Bilu argued in a seven-page motion to suppress evidence filed May 21 that it’s illegal for a person to intercept any wire, oral or electronic communication without consent of the parties, and that “no evidence derived from its violation may be received in evidence in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.”
The filing states that on May 3, 2018, District Attorney Dan Dow received an email with several pages of attachments from Peter Van Sant, anchor of the eventual CBS segment on Brigham, including “Exhibit A,” which appears to be the prosecution’s main piece of evidence in the case.
Funke-Bilu describes “Exhibit A” as a wire or electronic communication between a “Del” and “Barbosa admin Cosa Nostra cyberteam.”
“The prosecution’s theory is that ‘Del’ is the defendant and ‘Barbosa admin Cosa Nostra cyberteam’ is either a professional assassin or his agent or, at least, purporting to be one or the other,” the motion states.
The document claims that the “hot potato” — the supposed proof of the plot — was provided to “48 Hours,” which supplied it to Dow, who assigned it to one of his investigators, who in turn handed it over to the San Luis Obspo Police Department, which investigated the case.
The defense infers that CBS and local law enforcement were duped by the hacker on a complex subject they didn’t understand, the dark web.
‘Hot potato’ of ‘incendiary evidence’
“This hot potato was first provided by Chris Monteiro, aka Chris Topher, aka Pirate.Lond0n, aka Deku Shrub, a London-based hacker,” Funke-Bilu wrote. “Mr. Monteiro claimed that he provided said information to English law enforcement and to the F.B.I. but, unlike ‘48 Hours,’ they declined his invitation to initiate criminal investigation.”
The filing states that “Exhibit A” is “the foundation of the case,” and it allegedly targets the victim to be killed with a name, address and photograph.
“Whether the defendant was communicating to an assassin or his/her agent, there can be no denying that these communication streams were ‘confidential’ within the meaning of (invasion of privacy),” the motion reads. “Is it any wonder that Monteiro has insisted on full immunity as condition of his testimony in this case?”
The District Attorney’s Office has not yet filed a response to the motion.
In a supplemental document supporting the sealing of the evidence, Funke-Bilu said Exhibit A, if revealed to the public outside of trial, would be “incendiary and likely to inflame a jury pool.”
Marino approved the sealing May 21, according to court records.
Beyond the gag order, Marino has taken unusual precautions to ensure the jury pool is not swayed by pre-trial publicity. Last month, Marino denied normally routine requests by CBS and The Tribune to take still photographs during the trial.
Marino wrote that media coverage of the case has been “extensive” and will require heavy questioning at jury selection to make sure they have not been exposed to coverage of the case, which could prejudice their deliberations after CBS filed a motion asking Marino to reconsider.
The Tribune — which was similarly denied by Marino the ability to photograph a low-publicity case in October — sent the judge a letter asking for clarification on why courtroom photography was being prohibited. A court employee later said the judge would not reconsider and is not inclined to respond to the newspaper.
The last time media was restricted in visually documenting a criminal trial in San Luis Obispo Superior Court was the cases against Rhonda Whisto and four others for the kidnapping and murder of Santa Maria teenager Dystiny Myers.
CBS sent another request to document the case May 30, which Marino again denied. The case is scheduled to go to trial July 18.