What is the dark web?
The key prosecution witness in a bizarre, murder-for-hire murder trial will be allowed to present evidence he claims to have discovered on the “dark web” exposing a man’s play to hire a hitman to kill his stepmother, a San Luis Obispo resident, the judge in the case ruled Wednesday.
The witness, London resident Chris Monteiro, who claims to be a dark web expert and cyber-crime and internet security researcher, said in a pre-trial hearing that he hacked into an illicit site that had several posts related to various murder-for-hire schemes; a murder was carried out by a man in Minnesota after a failed online solicitation related to the site.
It was on the dark web site where Monteiro said he discovered the alleged scheme by Beau Brigham of Riverside, turning that evidence over initially to CBS News, which then forwarded it along to the SLO County District Attorney’s Office. Brigham has since pleaded not guilty to solicitation of murder targeting his stepmother.
The case likely will hinge upon Monteiro’s credibility, which defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu called into question at Wednesday’s hearing, eliciting an admission from the man that he committed illegal acts to obtain his information.
Funke-Bilu also asked Monteiro about his past, which included an admission to taking indecent photos of children.
“I don’t think (Monteiro) is an expert,” Funke-Bile argued.
Judge Jesse Marino ruled Wednesday that much of the information that Monteiro gathered can be entered into the trial, ruling out some documentation collected from messages in copied, not original form.
Monteiro testifies to dark world of cyber-crime
Monteiro testified in the hearing that he works as an information technology system administrator involving internet security by day and investigates dark web sites for illicit activities by night to expose and stop perpetrators from committing crimes.
“I wanted to understand what happens to data after it’s stolen,” said Monteiro, who also noted that he blogs on cybersecurity.
Monteiro described hacking into a dark web site titled Besa Mafia, tracing it to a Romanian administrator of the site who goes by the name Yura.
Monteiro said he reviewed user requests of the website on which people placed orders to rape, kill, injure and perform other illegal acts against intended victims.
Monteiro said people were lured to the dark web site from a standard, mainstream web page that advertised hiring a hitman, with information about how to access the dark website using “Tor,” or software for anonymous communications.
The dark web is a collection of websites on an encrypted network.
Monteiro said he hacked into the Besa Mafia website and observed various narratives behind kill orders. Some requests included photos of the intended targets.
While Monteiro said he believes murder-for-hire websites are often scams intended to bilk money through bitcoin payments, and murders are never carried out, crimes still may be committed.
“My fear is (users) were psychologically and financially committed to going to the end,” Monteiro said.
On the stand, Monteiro mentioned the murder of Minnesota woman Amy Allwine, which involved an online kill order request to Besa Mafia. But the request was never followed through on, according to media reports, with law enforcement officials calling the site a scam.
Allwine’s husband, Stephen Allwine, was convicted and sentenced for Amy Allwine’s shooting death and trying to make it look like a suicide, according to news reports. Prosecutors said Stephen Allwine was having an affair.
Besa Mafia re-branded itself about a dozen times on the dark web, after being hacked into and exposed multiple times, according to Monteiro. Other names included Cosa Nostra, Sicilian Mafia and Cammora Hitmen.
Monteiro said he received hate mail for his efforts to shut the operation down.
The back story
Brigham and his stepmother became estranged following the death of his father, Saratoga bar and nightclub owner Jeff Brigham, in 2011, according to the CBS show “48 Hours,” which has documented the case.
Beau Brigham and his older brother, Brandon, sued their stepmother in 2015, CBS News says, winning a “significant judgment” against her.
In addition, Beau Brigham harbored anger stemming from the belief that his stepmother hadn’t financially supported him as he struggled with serious health problems, CBS News’ Peter Van Sant said.
“She left her own son to f------ die for four years. Who does that?” Brigham told Van Sant in an interview conducted at San Luis Obispo County Jail.
Defense tries to poke holes in case
But Funke-Bilu elicited an admission from Monteiro that he previously took indecent photos or “pseudo photos” of children, to which the witness replied “unfortunately” that he did.
Funke-Bilu also questioned Monteiro about his arrest by British authorities on suspicion of solicitation of mass murder in connection with the Besa Mafia website.
“I was framed for murder,” Monteiro said during the hearing.
Monteiro said the arrest in England took place because the Besa Mafia website administrator hired a search engine optimization expert to link his name to the dark web operation in retaliation for Monteiro trying to thwart it. That led British law enforcement officials to “knock down my door,” Monteiro said.
Monteiro also admitted to illegal acts to obtain his information on the Besa Mafia activities; he has been granted immunity in the case by the prosecution.
Funke-Bilu argued that Monteiro’s allegations are hearsay because it can’t be verified that Brigham was the one behind any of the alleged online statements indicating he wanted his stepmother killed.
Funke-Bilu focused much of Wednesday’s hearing on trying to determine how Monteiro could confirm and identify information such as message correspondences, bitcoin transfers and deletions and correspondences on the site.
Funke-Bilu contended that Monteiro is presenting information as if it should be believed just because of his claimed expertise and research, but argued it wasn’t backed up with additional proof.
Much of what was presented was “just what he tells us,” Funke-Bilu said.
Correction: This story has been changed to clarify the details behind the Amy Allwine case.