NEW YORK A former New York University student from China was sentenced on Tuesday to 16 years in prison after being convicted of trying to buy the deadly toxin ricin on a secretive website in order to sell it in the form of “simple and easy death pills.”
Cheng Le, 22, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan after a jury in August found him guilty on charges including that he attempted to possess a biological toxin for use as a weapon.
Nathan said Le, who attended NYU to study physics but left school early, deserved a severe sentence in light of the “horrible, serious and quite terrifying offense” he committed through sophisticated means.
“He used the Dark Web to acquire the biological toxin ricin,” she said.
During a rambling statement in court, Le said he planned to appeal, but said of the case: “Not a day goes by that I do not think of all of things I could have done.”
The case came amid efforts by law enforcement to crack down on illegal activity involving online black markets operating on a hidden network of websites that can only be accessed using specialized browsers.
The marketplaces included Evolution, which before its abrupt March closing became the largest after the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2013 seizure of Silk Road, where drugs and other items could be bought using the digital currency bitcoin.
Prosecutors said that in December 2014, Le, going by “WhenInDoubt,” contacted an Evolution vendor called “Dark_Mart” about buying ricin.
In messages to the vendor, who was actually an FBI employee, Le discussed plans to sell the ricin as “simple and easy death pills” to customers for their own use.
Prosecutors said Le discussed wanting the ricin pills included in a bottle with ordinary vitamins, so when a target took the pills daily, “sooner or later he’d ingest that poisonous pill and die.”
Le wrote, “After all, it is death itself we’re selling here, and the more risk-free, the more efficient we can make it, the better,” prosecutors said.
The FBI shipped fake ricin to Le, who, wearing latex gloves, retrieved the shipment and took its contents to his apartment.
He was arrested at his apartment, where authorities found not only the fake ricin but castor oil bean seeds, ricin’s source, and Le’s computer, which was logged onto the website.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Andrew Hay)