A New Jersey man admitted in federal court on Thursday that he had tried to hire a hit man on the dark web, paying $20,000 in Bitcoin in an effort to kill a 14-year-old who he feared would testify against him in a child pornography case, the Justice Department said.
The man, John Michael Musbach, 31, of Haddonfield, N.J., pleaded guilty to a murder-for-hire charge in U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J., admitting that he had logged on to a website that promised to kill people in exchange for payment in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
He could face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on June 13.
Mr. Musbach’s motivation for the failed murder-for-hire plan, prosecutors said, dated back to the summer of 2015, when he exchanged sexually explicit photographs with the victim, who was then 13 years old and living in New York. The photos resulted in child pornography charges against Mr. Musbach, so he decided “to have the victim killed so that the victim could not testify against him in the pending criminal case,” the Justice Department said in a news release.
That case concluded on Oct. 11, 2017, when Mr. Musbach pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child by sexual contact, according to the Justice Department. He was sentenced on Feb. 9, 2018, to a two-year suspended sentence with parole supervision for life.
A lawyer for Mr. Musbach, Rocco C. Cipparone, said in an interview on Thursday night that his client, who worked in the information technology field, had “decided to put this matter behind him and accept his responsibility without a trial.”
“At this stage,” he added, “I’m relatively constrained in what I can address publicly.”
Using data, chat logs and an inside informant from the murder-for-hire website, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey meticulously outlined how Mr. Musbach had clumsily tried to arrange to have the child killed.
In 2015, the parents of the 13-year-old found out about the sexually explicit photographs and contacted the police in New York, who reached out to the authorities in Atlantic County, N.J. Officers in the county executed a search warrant at Mr. Musbach’s residence in Galloway, N.J., and soon he was facing a criminal case related to child pornography, the Justice Department said.
On May 7, 2016, a desperate Mr. Musbach began communicating with an administrator of a murder-for-hire site on the dark web that said “they were the right guys” to kill someone, prosecutors said.
“We have professional hit men available throughout the entire U.S.A., Canada and Europe and you can hire a contract killer easily,” the home page of the website read, according to court documents.
Mr. Musbach’s screen name, court documents show, was “agentisai,” and transcripts of his messages with a website administrator show he originally sought a gun and ammunition. But his request later changed, prosecutors said.
“Alternatively to a gun order, I could place a hit order,” Mr. Musbach wrote, according to court documents. “However, the target would be 14. Is that an acceptable age or too young? I can budget up to $20K for the order.”
“Yes,” an administrator replied, “14 years old is acceptable.”
Through May 20, 2016, Mr. Musbach continued talking with the administrator, who told him that a gang member could “do the hit,” records show.
But at about 7 p.m. that day, Mr. Musbach received a startling message from the administrator: “Our site is a scam, and we pass customer and target information to law enforcement.”
The person messaging Mr. Musbach warned him that if he didn’t send over more money, law enforcement would be told of his actions, prosecutors said.
Mr. Musbach’s reply was terse: “Is this a joke?”
Mr. Cipparone, Mr. Musbach’s lawyer, said, “It’s basically a website that defrauded him of the approximately $20,000 that he was spending.” Still, he added, that “doesn’t affect what his state of mind was.”
It’s unclear whether there was further correspondence between Mr. Musbach and the administrator after May 20, but prosecutors said that in January 2019 a person referred to in court documents as “Source” gave federal agents information about the murder-for-hire website, as well as messages from a certain user — “agentisai.”
Investigators pieced together other details in the case, including Mr. Musbach’s Google search history, which included research into child grooming laws, a sex offender search in New Jersey, and the terms “how are you notified of an indictment” and “death by chloroform,” prosecutors said.
Investigators also found another detail: Mr. Musbach had looked up how to clear his browsing data.
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