One of the most salacious tidbits in the accounts of the FBI’s takedown of the anonymous marketplace Silk Road was that its 29-year-old kingpin had paid for the murders of two associates who he thought had double-crossed him. Or, rather, he thought he had paid for two murders. What he actually did was pay $80,000 to an undercover federal agent for one hit—which the agent then staged and photographed with the cooperation of the intended target—and then pay another $150,000 to a second (probably fake) hit man, for a murder that (probably) never took place. The details of the second deal are still sketchy, but this much is true: this guy is in a lot of trouble.
The “dumb criminal” files of the Internet include way too many examples of people trying to solicit hit men on Craigslist, or on Facebook, and then, obviously, getting caught. Desperation makes people dumb. So does the false confidence of online anonymity. In a recent Daily Beast piece, Eli Lake explored “The Hitman Network,” an entire online marketplace where people can (supposedly) anonymously hire an assassin and pay for the hit with Bitcoins, the same electronic currency that made Silk Road tick.
This begs the question: Who would be so stupid as to order a murder on the Internet? If you were so depraved and desperate to do such a thing, well, wouldn’t it be a better bet to ask someone you know and trust to do the job, in person? Say, an in-the-flesh, ZZ-Top-bearded, tattoo-covered, Hell’s-Angel’s-looking thug guy you may have seen hanging out at your local crack den?
Well, as it turns out, maybe that’s not such a safe bet, either. Jeanne Marie Laskas has a fantastic piece in the latest issue of GQthat explores the bizarre and secret world of federal agents posing as hit men to snag would-be murderers. Dread Pirate Roberts’ story was not uncommon, it seems. Laskas describes the process:
Sometimes people want proof before they'll pay. For example, photos, which can be a pain. The hit man will have to stage the crime scene, fake blood, fake gunshot wound—a whole Hollywood production. The hard part is teaching the intended victim how to play dead.
When the cops swoop in for the takedown, [the “hitman”] will get busted along with the bad guy so as not to blow his cover, and when the coast is clear, he'll reemerge on the streets, ready to resume his dirtbag work. Other federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies have undercover units, but hit-man work is an ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] specialty.
Laskas describes the life of an undercover hit man, building up “dirt bag cred” by buying drugs and guns, hanging out by dumpsters in parking lots, taking their time, networking. They and the targets of their investigation will meet up several times to plan out the crime, and the hit man will ask the customer over and over and over again, on a hidden recorder, whether they are sure. The customer has to say this out loud, because the recording will be used later to help the prosecutors put him or her in jail. “People interested in murder are a naive and trusting lot,” Laskas writes.
It also turns out that “hit man” is a useful ruse—not just for catching would-be murderers, but for investigating other crimes as well. In one setup she narrates, a desperate customer tells the ATF employee who he thinks is a hit man that he doesn’t have any money at the moment to pay for the hit. The hit man then very helpfully suggests that he would be happy to be paid in “hardware”:
Lucero tells the hit man about a friend who makes remote-control pipe bombs. Would the hit man like some of those? Why, yes, the hit man would love to know about the friends and all the other people Lucero might know involved in the sale and distribution of black-market explosives.
After reading this equally hilarious and frightening piece, some questions remain. Just how many undercover “double-crossing fake hitman” like this one are actually working for law enforcement? We can’t really know. Nor can we know how many of the 6,000 unsolved murders in the U.S. every year are the work of real hit men. Are there any “real” hit men out there? How do they do what they do? And is it worth it to them, at least?
The last of these questions is the subject of a somewhat bizarre article published last month in the Review of Social Economy, entitled “Killing for Money and the Economic Theory of Crime.” That title is a little misleading, because the author, Samuel Cameron, doesn’t actually come up with a working theory (how could he?); he merely describes the need for one.
Throughout the article, Cameron laments the lack of previous research into the economics of murder for hire. It should probably not be surprising that there is not nearly enough data publicly available about how much money hit men typically make to allow researchers to study the economics of this particular market. But Cameron’s own analysis of patterns of known murder-for-hire over several decades in London, as reported by daily tabloids there, does lead him to one conclusion. In his words:
The material and discussion presented here draw attention to the fact that the majority of paid killings take place for very small sums much lower than the economic value of life and lower too than what one would expect as compensation for efforts and risks of the hiree.
Translation: this crime really doesn’t pay. Apparently, the clients of hit men—whether the hit men are real or fake—may be desperate, but they’re not made of money.