LONDON – The man accused of kidnapping a British model in Italy painted a picture of big money, international intrigue and spine-chilling dealings as a member of Black Death, an organization selling drugs, guns and murder on the dark web.
The reality of Lukasz Pawel Herba's life appears to be more prosaic, riddled with exaggerations and contradictions. Investigators are picking through his story to sift truth from myth – and uncover whether the shadowy Black Death group really exists.
On a website lurking in the murkier depths of the internet, Black Death claims to be “an organized crime group based in eastern Europe.” Its home page, captured by EU police agency Europol, contains a picture of figures wearing pointed masks associated with the 14th-century bubonic plague.
The site lists services including blackmail, murder, the supply of guns, bombs and drugs and the sale of trafficked women. Three alleged women for sale are listed, with ages, nationalities and measurements and asking prices ranging from $120,000 to $750,000.
The site even has a recruitment section, with job openings including “superhacker” and a “radioactives expert.”
It's far from clear, however, whether the group actually delivers on any of its supposed services.
The “sale” information has more in common with fantasy abduction scenarios presented in Hollywood movies like “Taken” than with typical human trafficking cases. And when a journalist, Joseph Cox, examined the site in 2015, he found that one of the photographs of a young woman supposedly up for sale had been lifted from a pornography video.
Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King's College London who has studied the dark web, said there is little evidence of “an assassination or kidnapping service 'hit job'” advertised on the dark web actually being executed.
Europol's dossier doesn't express a view on whether Black Death actually provides the services it advertises. Europol said it couldn't comment because there is “a live investigation ongoing” in an EU member state.
Black Death's administrators didn't return a message seeking comment.
Chloe Ayling, the alleged victim of a kidnapping by Herba, told investigators that Herba bragged about having earned $15 million over the last five years selling women on the internet. According to court documents obtained by The Associated Press, she said he told her that “at least three girls a week are sold, and when the buyer is tired of the girl he purchased in the auction, he can give to another person, and that when she is no longer of interest she is 'fed to the tigers.'”
Italian prosecutor Paolo Storati said Herba was dangerous and also appeared to have “traces of mythomania” – a tendency to exaggerate or tell lies.
Herba also downplayed his involvement in the kidnapping, telling investigators it was orchestrated by a group of Romanians who paid him $649,000 to rent properties around Europe. He said he became involved with the Romanians because he has leukemia and needs money to pay for medical treatment.
Italian police say he didn't provide the names of doctors or other evidence he is ill.
He also told police he wasn't present when Ayling was kidnapped, but came to her aid when he saw her photos in an online auction.
The two met three months before in Paris, when Ayling went to a modeling job that was canceled. Lukasz told investigators he called the job off when he realized the Romanians intended to kidnap her.