The CBS TV program, “48 Hours” has been instrumental in helping people explore the dark underbelly of the hidden web, focusing on cases involving murder-for-hire procured via the dark web.
For more than two years, Peter Van Sant, the TV program’s correspondent, has immersed himself into investigations targeting the murder-for-hire websites hosted by dark web sites. So far, Van Sant has succeeded at exposing a considerable number of active murder plots that were hatched via darknet, with a 2018 report demystifying 20 murder plans.
Recently, a mind boggling new murder-for-hire case has been exposed – involving a targeted Minnesota teenager who learns that she has been targeted by a hit ordered on the dark web.
Consequently, “48 Hours” launches a global manhunt to find the mysterious mastermind of the murder-for-hire sites – focusing their efforts to track Yura, a so-called dark web operator behind the murder-for-hire sites. The mastermind had succeeded to conceal his identity and location.
To succeed in the investigation, the team cast their net far and wide, exploring locations in England, India, Eastern Europe, and finally concluding with an eventful encounter in New York.
The “48 Hours” team sought the services of a darknet intelligence specialist, operating under the alias “Lisa” to search the digital underworld in search of Yura’s identity and location. It later turned out that a solid lead into the murder-for-hire mastermind would be made possible by a consistent grammatical error on the subject’s part.
The target in this case was Alexis Stern, a 19-year-old from Big Lake, Minnesota, who received a police warning about a plot on her life. In her own account, Stern said that the police had informed her last year that a person with the alias Mastermind365 wanted her killed. At the time, Stern did not take the warning seriously, dismissing it as a joke.
Tables would later turn when the teen learns that Mastermind365 had sent her personal info and picture to a mysterious figure called Yura – the covert identity of an individual who operated a murder-for-hire website in the dark web. Things turned out very serious to her after learning that Mastermind365 went ahead to pay $5,000 worth of Bitcoin for the hitman service.
Lisa, the CBS News consultant, stepped into action and began establishing a trail that would help Stern figure out the possible face behind a claim to her life. Through cyber intelligence analysis, the expert came across an online murder-for-hire account linked to Yura – which bore millions of dollars of profits and, apparently, $5,000 of the profits was supposedly inferred to be payment made to kill Stern.
It is at this point that the teenager recalled a case of “love gone sour”, which probably pointed out to an individual that may have wanted her dead. According to her statement, she met someone online who would later threaten her once the romance hit the rocks. The man, called Adrian Fry, was an England-based accountant in training and a gaming hobbyist.
The Hitman Order
“48 Hours came across disturbing emails shared between Mastermind365 and Yura, the alleged murder-for-hire facilitator within darknet corridors. In the emails, Mastermind365 contacts Yura to obtain confirmation about the advertised murder, assault and arson services promoted on his website.
This first communication indicated that Mastermind365 wanted to procure kidnapping services – sending one of Stern’s pictures to Yura to establish the target.About a week later, Mastermind365 upgraded his request by stating his interest to have Alexis Stern shot and killed.
In Stern’s thinking, the timing and language used in the emails assured her that her one-time lover was behind the hitman order. Apart from distinct grammatical errors that were characteristic to Adrian’s writing, the timing of the hitman order coincided with the same period that she informed the suspect that she was “dating someone else”.
Importantly, a consistent misspell of the word “thank you” with “thankyou” was evident in Mastermind365 writings to Yura, a spelling mistake that constantly appeared in Adrian’s messages to Stern.
Things would later take a different turn when, through the emails, Mastermind365 grew impatient with Yura and asked to buy a “gun with a silencer”. This message indicated that the man intended to take matters into his own hands.
At this point, it became worth flashing back to a similar case in 2016 in which a 43-year-old man had made thousands of dollars in payment to Yura to have his wife murdered. When this order was not executed, Stephen Allwine, the suspect, decided to orchestrate the killing himself – fatally shooting his wife in the head. He was later convicted of murder two years later.
Allwine’s case and the flow of emails between Mastermind365 and Yura suggested that Yura’s websites were probably a scam. Lisa, the CBS dark web expert, maintained that the fact that Yura may have appeared to be a scammer rather than an actual murder-for-hire facilitator still meant that his actions drove frustrated clients to violence – as demonstrated by Stephen Allwine.
A Fresh Lead
A series of analysis were conducted to find Yura’s trail and expose his real identity. At some point, Lisa discovered the first clue – a huge trail of hacked digital data. Combing through the information, Lisa believed that she had established a fresh lead into their prey, which involved Yura’s likely password Frunza22 harvested from one of his websites.
Using the principles of digital forensics, the team was able to trace the password to an online car seller in The Republic of Moldova. Further investigations led Lisa to believe that Yura’s possible password was linked to a regular email address in the U.S. The car seller in this context may have been Yura’s relative, a Russian woman based in New York. Well, this appeared to be a dead end.
As the search for the Yura progressed, an interview with a self-styled cybercrime expert called Chris Montiero affirmed the team’s efforts regarding their knowledge of Yura’s exploits. It turned out that Montiero had been watching Yura and his murder-for-hire websites for more than three years – action that exposed a series of disturbing emails of clients ordering the murder of oblivious victims.
Exposing Yura’s “Skeletons”
Late last year, “48 Hours” informed authorities of a case involving a YouTube star who solicited a murder. It was alleged that Brigham, the YouTube vlogger, made payments to Yura to organize the killing of his stepmother. Detectives would later hear confessions of how the suspect came across the advertised service online.
In Stern’s case, where she sought help from “48 Hours”, the fact that no arrest had been made since police acknowledged the plot against her life frustrated her. The investigative team managed to trace Adrian’s, her ex-boyfriend, house in England – placing it under close watch.
When efforts to meet Adrian were unsuccessful, Lisa devised a different plan that involved tracking the people who worked with Yura. A thread in Yura’s web led the team to India, where Santosh Sharma, a computer contractor operated.
Sharma was summoned to a police station where he confessed to having created hitman websites for Yura – including murder-for-hire.com, besa-mafia.com and hire-a-hitman.com. He was released without charges as the team began closing in on Adrian’s location.
A Dramatic Meeting
Finally, after “48 Hours” had successfully identified Adrian’s house and waited for his appearance, the investigative team saw a car pull up to the front of the property. This was an opportunity for the team to show up at the door and speak with Adrian Fry – the man that is alleged to have ordered the murder of Alexis Stern via the dark web.
After knocking, Fry’s brother answered the door and claimed that Adrian was out, and provided the team with a lead to his supposed whereabouts. The investigative team failed to trace his based on the brother’s information.
Then, months later, Lisa uncovers a trail leading to a man in New York City – he was believed to be the real Yura. The “48 Hours” team sprang into action and approached the man on a public sidewalk. Attempts to trick the man into a confession failed as he claimed to have no knowledge about Yura or any dark web dealings.
It was until Van Sant, the CBS correspondent, mentioned the password “Frunza22” that the man became completely dramatic. According to Lisa, this reaction exposed his disguise and suggested his surprise at the team’s knowledge of sensitive personal information. The cyber intelligence expert had absolute confidence that they had found their target.
Over the next two weeks, the team tried contacting the man in request for an on-camera interview with CBS News. The suspect did not agree to another interview but engaged the “48 Hours” team via text messaging.
It was the last message declining an interview with CBS that the team realized that they were right all along – the text was concluded with “thankyou for the opportunity”, an aspect that perfectly matched the writing habits of Mastermind365 who used “thankyou” in his texts to Alexis Stern.
The team at “48 Hours” went ahead to share their findings with NYPD pending further investigation into the dark web’s illicit products and services.