Four university students who trafficked drugs via the “dark web” of the internet will be sentenced later.
Londoners Basil Assaf, 26, Elliott Hyams, 26, James Roden, 25, and Jaikishen Patel, 26, became heavy users of recreational drugs in their first year at the University of Manchester.
Inspired by the hit TV series Breaking Bad and led by Assaf, they moved on to selling ecstasy, 2CB, LSD and ketamine on the now-closed Silk Road website.
The defendants enjoyed a lifestyle “far above that of typical students” including taking holidays to Jamaica and the Bahamas, said prosecutors.
Assaf also boasted of his fondness for Veuve Clicquot rose champagne and that he had enough money to pay for his education and buy a flat in Manchester city centre.
Assaf, Roden and Hyams were arrested on the same date the FBI seized the Silk Road servers in October 2013 and it was announced the US government had seized the online marketplace.
Silk Road, hidden on the dark web, was launched in February 2011 and advertised banned drugs and other illegal commodities, with buyers and sellers using the bitcoin cryptocurrency.
Manchester Crown Court heard that when officers from the National Crime Agency raided Assaf and Roden’s Manchester flat they discovered “what can only be described as a drug dealing factory”.
Among items seized was Roden’s iPhone which contained a photograph of a flask which bore the image of Walter White – Breaking Bad’s lead character who transforms from chemistry teacher to crystal meth supplier.
Also discovered was an envelope containing drugs which had a return name of Walter White – which appeared to be “a sort of running joke” between the defendants.
Sales on the Silk Road website were valued at 1.14 million US dollars (£812,000) but some drugs were supplied in person for cash and other online payment systems were used to evade Silk Road’s commission fees.
The Crown said Assaf was in control of funds by paying his co-defendants and had hidden money in bitcoin accounts.
Assaf is said to have messaged a friend “no-one could find out how many bitcoins accumulated and are stored elsewhere”.
In another message he said: “Me and Jamie have accepted we’re more than happy to do time for all of this. If btc continues going up whilst we’re inside there’s a chance we’ll come out with mills.”
Counsel for “weak-willed” Hyams said his naivety was exploited by Assaf, a former classmate at Dr Challonor’s Grammar School in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, while Roden was also said to be vulnerable and came into contact with Assaf as a customer and then essentially became his employee.
Patel became involved in the operation when he needed cash to feed his drug addiction at university.
Assaf is said to have viewed Silk Road as a “safe” and “morally defensible” method of sourcing drugs which was said to be “ubiquitous” at the university.
It was in the supplier’s interest that the drugs were of good quality, said his counsel Alistair Webster QC, and their Silk Road accounts were highly rated by customers.
Assaf, of Corringway, Ealing; Hyams, of Barnsbury Street, Islington; Roden, of Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, and Patel, of Woodford Avenue, Ilford, all pleaded guilty at earlier hearings to various counts of conspiracy to importing, exporting and supplying controlled drugs.
A fifth defendant, Joshua Morgan, 28, of Chapeltown Street, Manchester, has admitted assisting an offender in his paid role of packaging drugs.
Sentencing by Judge Michael Leeming takes place from 2pm on Wednesday.