MIAMI — He’s not Pablo Escobar, not by a long shot.
But authorities say Gal Vallerius is a modern version of a cartel kingpin, operating anonymously as a lord of the internet’s “dark web” bazaar where buyers and sellers conduct cocaine, fentanyl, meth, LSD and oxycodone deals in the virtual currency bitcoin.
Vallerius, 38, recently made the mistake of traveling from his base in France to Texas to compete in a world beard-growing championship in Austin. After arriving on Aug. 31 in Atlanta, the brown-bearded Vallerius was arrested by U.S. authorities on a distribution complaint filed in Miami federal court.
“A border search of his laptop upon his arrival at Atlanta International Airport confirmed his identity as ‘OxyMonster,’” according to a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit. Vallerius’ laptop also contained the Tor browser, which allows users to conceal their true internet protocol addresses on that network; his log-in credential for Dream Market, an eBay-type marketplace for illegal narcotics and drug paraphernalia; and $500,000 worth of bitcoin.
Vallerius chose not to contest his identity and detention at a court hearing in Atlanta. His defense attorney there could not be reached for comment. Vallerius is soon expected to be transferred to Miami to face a new conspiracy indictment that carries up to life in prison.
Tracking down Vallerius — the biggest of a half-dozen dark web targets charged over the past year in South Florida — was not easy. It involved the DEA, FBI, IRS, Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Vallerius played the secret role of an “administrator” and “moderator” on Dream Market, a dark web site that allows illicit drug sellers and buyers to make deals in Europe and the United States without revealing their true identities, according to federal prosecutor Francisco Maderal. The underground web site is not only a marketplace, it provides technical assistance, resolves disputes and posts reviews of vendors. And, like eBay, Dream Market charges a commission on every transaction as a percentage of the sales price.
“The Dream Market web site is specifically designed to facilitate illegal commerce by working to ensure the anonymity of its administrators, as well as the buyers and sellers who participate in commerce on the web site,” according to the DEA affidavit. It noted that at the end of August, there were more than 94,000 listings, including drugs such as opioids, ecstasy and steroids.
In January of this year, DEA agents logged into Dream Market’s home page and clicked a link called “Forum,” which allows sellers, buyers and administrators to discuss anything for sale on the dark web, according to the affidavit. While browsing the forum, agents navigated to a topic called “Official Staff” under the “Announcements” tab. The first posting was written by “OxyMonster,” Vallerius’ alias, though agents had not made that connection yet. Agents clicked on “OxyMonster” and were taken to his profile, which said he was a senior moderator.
This summer, agents also identified “OxyMonster” as a vendor on Dream Market who shipped from France to anywhere in Europe as well as to the United States, the affidavit said. Agents analyzed his posts on the Dream Market forum, including tips on how to stay anonymous on the dark web. In August, agents learned that “OxyMonster” was using a certain bitcoin address for the sales transactions. They soon analyzed incoming and outgoing transactions from that bitcoin address and discovered that most of them went to Vallerius on Localbitcoins.com
DEA agents soon found that Vallerius has Instagram and Twitter accounts. They compared the writing style of “OxyMonster” on the Dream Market forum to the writing style of Vallerius on his social media accounts. “Agents discovered many similarities in the use of words and punctuation, including: the word ‘cheers,’ double exclamation marks, frequent use of quotation marks, and intermittent French posts.”
Vallerius traveled for the first time to the United States on Aug. 31 to participate in the international beard competition in Austin, Texas. He was arrested in Atlanta. Authorities would soon learn that the contents of his laptop matched up with the DEA’s evidence of his Dream Market deals.