Shortly before AlphaBay took over the dark web’s top spot, Alpha02 had changed his username on the site to merely “admin” and announced that he would no longer accept any private messages sent to him by anyone other than AlphaBay’s staff. Instead, he left much of the site’s communications work to his second-in-command and head of security, a figure who went by the pseudonym DeSnake.
The Alpha02 moniker had served its purpose, lending the site its initial credibility. Now the person behind it intended, like discreet criminal bosses the world over, to slip into the shadows, raking in his fortune as quietly and anonymously as possible.
That fortune was, by the time of Alpha02’s name change, growing at an unprecedented rate: By October 2015, AlphaBay had more than 200,000 users and more than 21,000 product listings for drugs, compared to just 12,000 listings on Silk Road at its peak. Sometime around the middle of 2016, AlphaBay surpassed Agora’s peak sales rate of $350,000 a day, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon. It had become not only the biggest black market on the dark web, but the biggest cryptocurrency black market of all time. And it was still growing wildly.
For Grant Rabenn, the Fresno-based prosecutor, it was clear that Alpha02 was now the most wanted man on the dark web; Rabenn compared his notoriety among digital crime investigators to that of Osama bin Laden. AlphaBay and Alpha02 were invoked at every law enforcement conference on cybercrime, every interagency meeting, every training event, Rabenn says. And as the target on Alpha02’s back loomed larger, so too did the unspoken fear that this mastermind might stay a step ahead of them indefinitely.
“Is this person just a pure genius who’s figured out all of the possible mistakes?” Rabenn remembers asking himself. “Has this individual found the perfect country with the right IT infrastructure to run a marketplace, and he’s able to bribe the officials there so we’ll never touch him?
“As every day passed there was, more and more, a sense that this might be the special one,” Rabenn says. “You begin to wonder: Is this the Michael Jordan of the dark web?”
But Rabenn followed these discussions of Alpha02 from a distance. The idea that his Fresno team might actually take on the Michael Jordan of the dark web had never occurred to him. “It’s not expected for people like us,” he says simply, “to go after a site like that.”
Before Grant Rabenn became a federal prosecutor, his second job out of law school was at a boutique firm in Washington, DC, devoted to defending white-collar criminals. The young, olive-skinned lawyer with dark hair and a Hollywood smile ended up representing Russian oligarchs and corporate executives accused of bribing foreign governments. “Very interesting, wealthy people trying to hide their assets and avoid scrutiny,” as he described them, or alternatively, “James Bond characters who are jet-setting around the world with suitcases full of cash.”
Rabenn was captivated by these glimpses into a world of billions of dollars moving in invisible transactions. But he also found that he admired and envied the prosecutors on the other side of the table—the way they worked in the public interest and possessed a certain autonomy, choosing which cases they would pursue. So he began applying for Justice Department jobs, finally finding one in Fresno.