The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin, Part 4: Face to Face

The FBI agent, thinking quickly, avoided eye contact with Cazes and walked directly past him to the door. In the seconds it took for Cazes to cross the room, seemingly in slow motion, thoughts raced through Rabenn’s mind: How did Cazes know who they were? Or that they were on his trail? Or which hotel they were staying at in Bangkok? Had there been a leak? Had they been meeting too conspicuously, blowing their opsec? Had this criminal mastermind outsmarted them?

In mere moments, Rabenn expected Cazes to sit down next to them at their table, smug expression on his face, and say, as he imagined it, “Fuck you guys, I know you’re here, and you’re not going to get anything.”

Rabenn realized he had no idea how he would respond. They could arrest Cazes on the spot, but they’d lose all hope of getting access to his laptop or any smoking-gun evidence of his control of AlphaBay. Just as they were on the cusp of victory, it seemed their plan had failed.

“Oh, shit,” Rabenn silently concluded, in a state of blank panic. “This thing’s over.”

Then, when Cazes was about 5 feet away from their table, he turned and sat down at the table next to them, across from a pair of Israeli businessmen wearing suits and yarmulkes.

The Americans looked at each other in confusion. After a moment, the FBI agent returned and sat down casually. He and Miller began silently signaling to the rest of the table that everyone else should leave.

Rabenn, recovering his composure, allowed the thought to cross his mind that perhaps all was not lost—that this was simply the most stunning coincidence of his life.

Doing their best to act naturally, the prosecutors cleared out and walked up the curved staircase to the mezzanine floor of the hotel, while the FBI agent and Miller hung back to eavesdrop on Cazes’ conversation at the neighboring table. On the floor above, Rabenn and Hemesath shared a moment of wide-eyed relief. Text messages from the FBI and DEA agents still at the table began to roll in, reporting on Cazes’ meeting: He was talking with the Israelis about one of his real estate investment deals in the Caribbean.

As their panic subsided, they now saw that a group of Thai undercover police—including the team leader, Colonel Pisal Erb-Arb, in plain clothes—had stationed themselves around another table across the hotel lounge from Cazes and were discreetly watching him, even stealthily taking photos of each other that captured Cazes in the background. The AlphaBay founder gave no sign of having spotted them.

As Rabenn and Hemesath silently rejoiced, the FBI agent joined them on the mezzanine floor and pulled out his phone. He started Googling, trying to calculate the odds of what had just happened. How many hotels were there in Bangkok, anyway? He quickly showed them the answer: There were thousands.

In a euphoric daze, the two prosecutors marveled at their bizarre near-collision—but not for long. In two days, they knew their team would be encountering Cazes face-to-face again, this time in the most elaborate arrest they had ever attempted.

Continued next week: The day of the takedown arrives. Operation Bayonet reaches its kinetic climax. And then the case takes a tragic twist.

This story is excerpted from the book Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency, available now from Doubleday.

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Chapter illustrations: Reymundo Perez III

Photo source: Getty Images

This article appears in the December 2022/January 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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