Inside an S.C. state prison, it is possible for an inmate using an illegal cellphone to get on the internet's "dark web," run a thriving drug ring and plot to send a bomb by the U.S. mail.
In U.S. District Court in Columbia this week, witness after witness — including FBI domestic terrorism and internet and explosives experts — testified just how easy it was for convicted killer Michael Young, 32, to do all those things from his cell at the Broad River Road complex near Irmo.
The FBI's investigation of Young — dubbed "Operation Boom Box" — involved more than 40 agents from February through June of last year. The agents included four eight-person surveillance teams. They used two Cessna airplanes to track Young's out-of-prison accomplices, all of whom lived in the Columbia area.
The trial also offers insights into the role that illegal cellphones can play inside state prisons. S.C. officials blame last weekend's deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution, in part, on the presence of those phones.
The FBI allowed Young, who court records say was provided his illegal cellphone by an unnamed S.C. Department of Corrections employee, to think he had ordered a mail-order bomb made up of Semtex, a general-purpose plastic explosive.
Young wanted to send the bomb by U.S. mail to the Florida address of his ex-wife, Shaunna Clark. Young is serving a 50-year sentence for killing Clark’s father during a shooting at Columbiana Centre. However, he was trying to get that sentence overturned, and Clark would be a key witness in any new trial.
"Let me ask you this ... could u possibly booby trap a box? So that as soon its opened ... boom? Just curious," Young asked a person who he thought was a Russian or Eastern-bloc arms dealer on the internet in March 2017, using encrypted email on the internet's dark web.
The dark web is the digital underbelly of the internet. Difficult to access, it has some legitimate uses. But it is also a place where child pornographers, drug dealers, killers for hire and other criminals hang out to sell their wares. It is easy to stay anonymous on the dark web.
Unknown to Young, the supposed arms dealer that he was emailing actually was "Marcus," one of a stable of FBI undercover operatives who hang out on the dark web in hopes of catching criminals bent on harm.
"Marcus," a soft-spoken, dapper-looking agent, testified at this week's trial, using his code name. To use his real name might put his life in danger, the FBI said.
In a reply email, "Marcus," using broken English, told Young: "Yes, I make box like that very easy, very bad last day for person open up ... you want one for you?"
Young replied, "I want this! But how much?"
They eventually agreed to a price of $500, which Young paid "Marcus" in bitcoin, a digital currency. Besides bitcoin, Young also had access to a stolen credit card to make purchases with, according to testimony.
Testimony showed Young was proficient in various internet encryption techniques, including a type of email that only can be read once before its message disappears forever. He found "Marcus" on AlphaBay, a dark web shopping mall that testimony likened to eBay or Amazon.
The FBI got its break in the case in May 2017, when Young sent "Marcus" two addresses. One was for a Young accomplice, who lived in Columbia and would get the bomb. The other was for another Columbia-area resident to whom "Marcus" would send the Florida address of Young's ex-wife, which the inmate had given him online.
The device that arrived wasn't a real bomb. Instead, FBI scientists put traces of explosive chemicals that could not ignite in the device. Legally, then, the FBI was sending an explosive through the mail but it posed no danger.
In June 2017, the supposed bomb arrived at the house of one of Young's accomplices, a 17-year-old high school dropout, and was addressed for Florida by another accomplice. A third conspirator then delivered the box to the Irmo post office.
Then, the FBI began rounding up Young's accomplices — Tyrell Fears, Vincent Meredith and Vance Volious.
After Fears and Meredith agreed to cooperate, the FBI agents received an unexpected dividend.
Meredith told agents that Young had been operating a profitable drug-smuggling operation, using the dark web to order two 3-pound boxes of marijuana a month through the U.S. mail, UPS or FedEx. The boxes, sent from California, were shipped to Meredith's house, and he would pass the boxes on to others. Volious was involved in the drug-trafficking scheme too, Meredith testified.
In this week's trial, Young and Volious are charged with a conspiracy involving drug trafficking and sending explosives through the mail. They could be sentenced to 45 years each in prison if convicted.
On Thursday afternoon, federal prosecutors Jay Richardson and William Lewis argued to the jury that Young and Volious were guilty of the charges.
Aimee Zymroczek, representing Volious, argued while there might be evidence against her client on the drug charges, he did not know he was being used in Young's bomb plot.
Young, represented by attorney William Hodge, admitted on the witness stand Thursday that he was guilty of the drug and bomb conspiracies. However, he told jurors, Volious did not know about the bomb.
The trial, before U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs, is expected to wrap up by Friday.