A gang of students from the University of Manchester who funded a luxury lifestyle by selling more than £800,000 worth of drugs on the dark web have been jailed for up to 15 years.
The men partied in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Amsterdam and boasted of their fondness for Veuve Clicquot rose champagne before they were intercepted by the FBI.
One student claimed to have bought a Manchester city centre flat and paid off his student loan with some of their $1.14m (£812,000) sales.
The gang, who compared themselves to the Breaking Bad character Walter White, included undergraduates studying pharmacology, computer science, petrochemical engineering, geology and marketing.
The ringleader, Basil Assaf, 26, a former grammar school pupil from Buckinghamshire, was sentenced to 15 years and three months in prison. Family members of Assaf, a petrochemical engineering student who had no previous convictions, cried and hugged each other as he was led to the cells.
Manchester crown court heard how the group sold drugs to fellow students to fund their own habits before expanding their operation, selling ecstasy, LSD and ketamine across Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand on Silk Road using the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
At one point the group was nominated for drug dealer of the year on the site, leading Assaf to boast to his accomplice Jaikishen Patel: “Nominated for shotter of the year haha on SR. Someone posted a thread and prof nominated us. TBF if they knew what we did IRL we do deserve it.”
The value of their sales was at least £812,000, the court heard, but their profits are likely to have grown exponentially due to the rise in the value of bitcoin over the period. Prosecutors have so far been unable to trace Assaf’s bitcoin.
Between May 2011 and October 2013 the group sold 16.7kg of ecstasy worth $750,000, as well as 1.23kg of 2CB, a a psychedelic drug more potent than ecstasy, and 1.46kg of ketamine in more than 6,300 transactions with buyers across the world.
Sentencing the group, the judge said use of the dark web was an aggravating factor and that the harmful and dangerous class A drugs wrought misery on society.
“As intelligent men, you will each appreciate the misery that is caused and contributed to by people like you,” he said. “My duty is threefold: firstly, to protect the public from people like you. Second, to punish you, and third, to deter those who may be similarly minded to act this way in the future.”
He added: “These offences are so serious that only immediate custody and sentences of some length can be considered.”
James Roden, 25, who read computer science, and Patel, 26, who studied pharmacology, were both involved with the Silk Road account and the buying and supplying of drugs. Roden received a 12-year prison sentence and Patel was jailed for 11 years and two months.
Elliot Hyams, 26, a geology student who had been at Dr Challoner’s grammar school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, with Assaf, was involved in the underworld startup but was thrown out after Assaf “lost patience” with him, the judge said. Hyams was jailed for 11 years and three months.
Marketing student Joshua Morgan, 28, who the judge accepted played the smallest role in packaging drugs for the group, was jailed for seven years and two months.
Assaf and Roden were arrested at their Manchester city centre flat on the day the FBI shut down Silk Road in October 2013. Officers found laptops used to access the dark web, thousands of pounds in cash, a baseball bat next to the front door and drugs including LSD, ecstasy, ketamine and diazepam.
A picture of a flask recovered from Roden’s phone featured an image of Walter White, the Breaking Bad chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer, which the court heard was a “running joke” between the defendants.