Journalists Investigating Murder-for-Hire Sites Help Prevent a Bitcoin-Paid Murder

Journalists uncovered a Columbus, Wisconsin, woman's alleged plot to hire someone over the internet to commit a murder.

Members of the Sun Prairie Police Department were called to a home on January 12 and spoke with the intended victim and three journalists, one of whom told the officials that while investigating a murder-for-hire site on the dark web they found "information showing someone wanted to kill" the victim, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Madison.

Dark Web
A Columbus, Wisconsin woman has been arrested for allegedly trying to hire a hit man to commit a murder. Bill Hinton / Contributor

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District of Wisconsin, the person later identified as Kelly Harper, 37, allegedly used the murder-for-hire site from October 19 to December 10 to employ someone to kill a man. The journalists reportedly uncovered online communications between Harper and the site administrator in which she gave a description of the intended victim's name, description, vehicle type, work place address, cellphone number and where he lived.

"The target needs to be killed, he is a white 5 foot 5 male, dark brown short hair, blue eyes, weighs 165 pounds," Harper allegedly wrote. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the administrator then asked for proof of payment and Harper provided a screenshot of a bitcoin wallet containing $5,633.87.

Then, the three journalists reportedly met with FBI Special Agent Bryan Baker and verified the information they'd previously shared with the intended victim, according to the Journal. The FBI says it was able to connect Harper to the bitcoin wallet after it identified an October bitcoin transaction from her on a different dark web murder-for-hire site.

The "dark web" is an encrypted part of the internet reportedly, where so-called hit men reportedly scam users. The New York Times reported last year that no known murder has ever been attributed to murder-for-hire sites on the dark web.

The proliferation of sites such as the one Harper used is attributed to the fact that users and administrators can hide their identities and locations, creating a "fantastic opportunity" for fraud, Emily Wilson, the head of research at Terbium Labs told the Times.

According to early research conducted at Michigan State University obtained by the Times, bitcoin is the preferred payment method on murder-for-hire sites because if its relative anonymity to a credit card. The researchers also found that pages of the sites typically show links to murders they claim to have committed but usually haven't. In the case of Harper, the journalists were able to verify the murder-for-hire site was not even located in Wisconsin.

Harper was arrested Friday and is custody in the Dane County Jail. According to the complaint, she could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison. The court documents do not include a motive for the plot.

U.S. Attorney Office of the Western District of Wisconsin spokesperson Myra Longfield confirmed to Newsweek that the time of Harper's court appearance will be announced on Tuesday.