The increasing toll of opioid deaths in recent years has coincided with the growing use of the Darknet, an unregulated, largely anonymous part of the Internet that often facilitates the sale of illegal drugs — especially the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The first nationwide undercover operation targeting Darknet sellers recently resulted in more than 35 arrests, including the arrest of a Hazleton man charged with operating an online drug business. The U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrests June 26.

The Darknet, or dark web, which helps users remain anonymous through encrypted messaging apps and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, played in role in the overdose death of 24-year-old King’s College student Joshua Sollenberger in October, according to his mother, Janice Hall.

“They found packaging, and it was coming from Canada and Hong Kong, China, through the dark web,” Hall said.

Sollenberger died Oct. 3 at his Dennison Twp. home, where he lived with his father. Toxicology tests determined he had cocaine, marijuana, fentanyl and the sedative alprazolam, or Xanax, in his blood, according to court records.

Sollenberger started taking Xanax for anxiety, turned to steroids for bodybuilding and also began taking Adderall to help with his college studies, Hall said.

“I just think he went crazy with all the drugs,” Hall said. “He started with the Xanax, and he realized he could make money from the Xanax as well.”

A 2011 graduate of Crestwood High School, Sollenberger was studying computer and information systems at King’s.

“He had horrible anxiety. I think he decided to get in on the dark web, and then it just escalated,” said Hall, who lives in White Haven.

“The steroids didn’t help at all. He had the heart of an 80-year-old man. All his organs were a mess. He was just a mess, the poor child,” Hall said.

In November, Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough signed an order allowing prosecutors to seize the assets in Sollenberger’s bank accounts, pending forfeiture proceedings, and froze access to the accounts by Sollenberger’s estate.

Sollenberger’s cellphone received multiple messages from people inquiring about illegal drugs, according to police. He possessed more than 3,000 Xanax pills, multiple bags containing an unknown white powder, 41 glass vials containing an unknown liquid, nearly $3,400 in cash and a large quantity of unused pill capsules, investigators said.

His PNC Bank accounts had large transfers of cash, and he had a total income of more than $121,000 over the preceding year, with only about $4,700 from his part-time job at Dick’s Sporting Goods, prosecutors said.

The investigation conducted by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office “is still open and active,” First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said, adding he could not comment further on the probe.

The Hazleton man charged by federal authorities last month is Joshua Sweet, 26. He allegedly obtained alprazolam, LSD, and other substances from foreign sources and allegedly laundered more than $200,000 through Bitcoin as part of a drug trafficking scheme.

Federal authorities investigated 65 targets during the year-long, coordinated national operation in more than 50 federal districts — including the Eastern and Middle districts of Pennsylvania.

“We seized their weapons, their drugs, and $23.6 million of their ill-gotten gains. This nationwide enforcement effort will reduce the supply of deadly drugs like fentanyl that are killing an unprecedented number of Americans,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced in a June 26 press release.

The extensive operation culminated in four weeks of more than 100 enforcement actions around the country. It resulted in the seizure of massive amounts of illegal narcotics, including 333 bottles of liquid synthetic opioids, more than 100,000 tramadol pills, 100 grams of fentanyl and more than 24 kilograms of Xanax, additional seizures of Oxycodone, MDMA, cocaine, LSD and marijuana and the confiscation of 15 pill presses, which are used to create illegal synthetic opioids.

“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated,” Derek Benner, executive associate director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, said in a U.S. Department of Justice news release. “But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit.”

In March, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele announced the arrests of two men for trafficking fentanyl and carfentanil, which they ordered, purchased and had shipped from China to residences in suburban Philadelphia. Those arrests followed a nine-month investigation that involved the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Fentanyl is cheap and deadly, since it’s 50 times stronger than heroin. But as dangerous as fentanyl is, carfentanil is substantially more dangerous since it’s a drug developed to tranquilize a three-ton elephant. It’s 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine,” Steele said in a news release.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro added, “… two drug dealers selling fentanyl and carfentanil — fatal poison — that was purchased on the Dark Web and shipped from China are behind bars. We’ll continue to be relentless in taking these criminals off our streets and battling the heroin and opioid epidemic across Pennsylvania.”

Contact the writer:
570-821-2073, @cvmikebuffer