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Press Release

"The Drug Llama" Pleads Guilty to Distributing Fentanyl on the Dark Web

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Illinois

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois Prosecutes Dark Web Drug Distributor

Earlier today, Brandon Arias pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois to conspiring to distribute fentanyl throughout the United States via the “dark web.” As part of his plea, the 34-year old from San Diego, California admitted that he was one of two individuals known on the dark web as “The Drug Llama,” and that he knowingly distributed misbranded fentanyl pills throughout the United States from October 2016 to August 2018.

Fentanyl is a highly addictive and oftentimes lethal opioid painkiller.

In January 2019, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Illinois returned a superseding indictment charging Arias and his co-defendant, Melissa Scanlan, with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, illegally distributing fentanyl (5 counts), selling counterfeit drugs, and misbranding drugs. Arias was arrested in San Diego and made his initial appearance in the Southern District of Illinois on March 12. At the time, he entered a not guilty plea and was ordered held without bond pending trial.

In court today, Arias pleaded guilty to all eight charges pending against him, admitting that he and Scanlan created and maintained an account on “Dream Market,” a dark web marketplace for illegal substances and services. Through that account, Arias and Scanlan sold substantial quantities of narcotics while operating under the moniker, “The Drug Llama.” Arias further admitted being actively involved in Scanlan’s distribution of 1,000 fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl pills every week.

The dark web is an underground computer network that is unreachable by traditional search engines and web browsers, creating a seeming anonymity to users. This false cloak has led to a proliferation of criminal activity on dark web marketplaces, like Dream Market.

Despite the identity veil that the dark web seemingly provides, participants in illegal activity are not shielded from the long arm of the law. “People think they are anonymous when they use the dark web,” U.S. Attorney Weinhoeft commented, “but the drugs and money are here, in the real world, and our agents will work tirelessly to connect the illegal contraband to the criminals hiding within the shroud of the dark web.” U.S. Attorney Weinhoeft gave special recognition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Office of Criminal Investigations, whose agents worked to “pull the Drug Llama enterprise out of the shadows of the dark web.”

“The opioid crisis has evolved and so has the nature of the threat, with potent synthetic opioids representing a sharply increasing amount of the total exposure to these drugs, further fueling the opioid addiction crisis,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. “The FDA has expanded our enforcement efforts to include increased interdiction work aimed at stopping the illegal flow of counterfeit and unapproved prescription opioid drugs, like illicit fentanyl, online including on the dark web. We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who threaten the health and safety of Americans by illegally distributing prescription drugs.”

“Drug traffickers who operate from the dark corners of the internet are not immune from arrest and prosecution” stated DEA Special Agent in Charge William Callahan of the St. Louis Division. “The men and women of the DEA and our law enforcement partners are well positioned to investigate, locate, and arrest cyber drug traffickers, and their co-conspirators, who spread their poison in the Greater St. Louis Metropolitan area, no matter where they operate from.”

“The traditional drug dealing mechanics have changed, but law enforcement has changed with it,” said U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer, Jr., of the Southern District of California, who shared in U.S. Attorney Weinhoeft’s accolades of the multi-agency collaboration in this important prosecution. “This case, like others being prosecuted throughout the United States, demonstrates that hiding behind a cloak of anonymity on the dark web, no matter where you are, will be pierced and uncovered by investigators, and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Arias is scheduled to be sentenced on October 29, 2019, at the United States District Court in East St. Louis, Illinois. His sentence will be determined by the court and will be guided by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Scanlan, 31, has pleaded not guilty and remains in federal custody awaiting her trial, currently set for August 27, 2019, in East St. Louis. Members of the public are reminded that all criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This case was part of a months-long, coordinated national operation involving the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Homeland Security (HSI), United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois. Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek J. Wiseman is the prosecuting attorney on this case.

Updated July 17, 2019

Drug Trafficking