Sunday, January 21, 2018
News Roundup

LaBelle man accused of selling deadly toxin

A man left a McDonald's bag in the weeds at an Interstate 75 rest stop outside Fort Myers last week.

For this, he collected $1,500.

Inside, buried in two candles, were two vials of the deadly toxin abrin, federal authorities allege.

The man, identified as 19-year-old Jesse William Korff of LaBelle, appeared in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers on Tuesday to face charges of possession and transfer of a toxin for use as a weapon and smuggling goods from the United States. He was held without bail, with a detention hearing set for Friday.

He negotiated the sale of abrin — a natural substance lethal to humans if ingested, inhaled or injected — over an Internet-based black market shielded by a secret network and by using anonymous electronic currency called bitcoin, according to the criminal complaint.

One dose of the toxin, similar to ricin, would be "enough to kill a 440-pound human," he reportedly wrote to a buyer two days after Christmas, adding, "it is as simple as pouring it in a drink or a sandwich bun."

The buyer turned out to be an undercover federal agent.

But the government says the toxin was really abrin, a substance extracted from the seeds of the rosary pea plant. It causes difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and may lead to death within 72 hours.

"Had this been an actual sale to a real customer, the consequences could have been tragic," New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. The Homeland Security Investigations inquiry began in his district.

Korff had been arrested once before in Florida, at 16, when the Lee County Sheriff's Office charged him as a juvenile with illegally having a firearm.

A week later, he got on Facebook and said that his family could all go to hell. His mother, a housekeeper, had died when he was 15. He accused relatives of trying to sell his land. He said he should have "shot all the cops." A relative accused him of taking his late mother's prescription drugs, and Korff posted, "my mom wanted me to have those pills."

He also wrote, in 2011, "i need to get the f- - - out this place b4 i kill somebody." His town of LaBelle, about 30 miles east of Fort Myers, had fewer than 5,000 residents and was known for its annual Swamp Cabbage Festival.

On his 18th birthday, in 2012, he said he was glad he could finally do what he wanted. He posted in 2013 that he had graduated from Florida Virtual School.

Next thing his uncle knew, the 19-year-old was on television.

"Kids get into things," said Steve Korff of Lehigh Acres, adding that he didn't know his nephew very well.

Jesse Korff's attorney declined to comment.

Groundwork for Saturday's arrest was laid in November, when a New Jersey-based HSI agent answered an ad from a seller now alleged to be Korff.

It was on the underground website, Black Market Reloaded, which has an interface similar to eBay or Amazon.com, the complaint notes. The website was accessible through a special network, called Tor, that masks IP addresses, allowing users to hide their locations.

Korff agreed to sell two doses for $2,500, the complaint states.

The buyer asked for a sample. The seller declined, but noted that he had received "positive feedback" on past sales.

On Christmas, the seller disclosed the sale site: Fort Myers.

The buyer, who claimed to live in Canada, would have to travel.

Two days later, the seller explained that he would insert the glass vial of liquid into the carved hollow of a candle and then cover it with melted wax. He told the buyer to wear gloves.

Serve it in a dark drink, the seller said. Alcohol would be best, he wrote, because "you know they will drink all of it."

On New Year's Eve, the buyer agreed to pay a $1,500 deposit.

He sought assurance that the death would not appear suspicious. It "will look like a really bad case of the flu," the seller replied.

"They will start to show symptoms within 48 hours and be hospitalized by 72 and be dead shortly thereafter, and no doctor will suspect foul play."

On Jan. 5, the seller picked a rendezvous place. It was a rest stop on Interstate 75 at exit 139, Luckett Road, near Fort Myers.

He provided a bitcoin address where the buyer could have the money sent through an online exchange company. In digital currency — increasingly favored by cybercriminals — the $1,500 deposit equaled 1.608 bitcoins.

Some of the payment was to be left in cash at the rest stop. The buyer would know where to go because the seller planned to take a photo of the drop spot.

When he did, on Jan. 14, the rest stop was under surveillance. Agents watched him get out of a 1991 Buick Park Avenue, inspect a patch of landscape and then leave. They noted his license tag.

That night, he told the buyer he would leave the candles in a McDonald's bag near a no-trespassing sign.

By then, Korff's home was also being watched. So was his car. Likewise for at least one McDonald's and the drop spot.

The buyer arrived, claimed the candles and left behind cash. Korff returned for the cash.

Hazmat trucks and federal agents came to Korff's community of Muse, north of LaBelle.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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