Article Thumbnail

The Sudden Rise of Crypto Hitmen and Bitcoin-for-Murder Plots

2021 saw a spike in one very particular type of crime: paying crypto to take out a hit. Who are these would-be killers, and why do they think crypto makes them invisible to the eyes of the law?

This is the time of year when you learn all about the trends that supposedly made 2021. There was the GameStop-inspired, redditor-backed disruption of the stock market, a spike in popularity for all things mushroom and a cultural awakening around the female dirtbag. While it’s a bit more difficult to identify the “trendy” crimes of 2021, if you do take a gander back at the headlines, one clear through line does emerge: Bitcoin-for-murder plots.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Beverly Hills or Tennessee — people all across this nation were WhatsApping with hitmen and offering them Bitcoin to kill their spouses and exes this year. In fact, in November alone, there were three different national news stories about crypto-contract killings. 

So let’s start there: At the beginning of the month, Annie Nicole Ritenour, 25, was busted by the FBI after she reportedly visited a site on what authorities love to call the “dark web.” Next, she offered $3,200 in Bitcoin to have a person she knew killed. The Virginia woman allegedly provided info for her target for assassination — including photos, the type of vehicle she drives, her daily routine and where she works. 

The FBI soon learned of the proposed contract killing, and according to acting special agent Neil Mathison, the FBI “moved quickly to ensure the safety of the intended victim and identified Ms. Ritenour as the person responsible for the threat.” Ritenour has since been arrested and charged with one count of murder-for-hire and a count of solicitation to commit a crime of violence. She faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

Meanwhile, Jessica Leeann Sledge, 39, of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, was arrested after she reportedly attempted to arrange a hit on her husband. Beginning on October 4th, and again on October 9th and 10th, Sledge transferred three payments in Bitcoin, totalling $10,000, to move the plan into action. Two weeks later, when a hitman allegedly contacted Sledge and asked if she legitimately wanted to go through with the murder of her target, Sledge confirmed. At that point, she began chatting on WhatsApp with a “hitman” who was actually an undercover FBI agent. 

A few days later, authorities say Sledge called the undercover agent and coolly informed them that her husband was “going to an area gas station to get breakfast.” She then provided a photo of him and identifying details of his car. The undercover agent surveilled the scene, took a photo of the husband and sent it to Sledge. She confirmed it was indeed him. On November 2nd, the FBI agent arranged to meet in person with Sledge for an additional payment. This time, though, she was arrested for engaging in a for-murder plot and additonally charged with “using interstate commerce facilities to hire someone to commit a murder.” She now faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

Jessica Leeann Sledge

For his part, 41-year-old Christopher Pence of Cedar City, Utah, reportedly wanted multiple people murdered. According to the FBI, “Between July 16 and August 9, 2021, Pence used a computer at his residence in Utah to connect to a darknet website that offered the services of ‘hitmen,’ and paid approximately $16,000 in Bitcoin for the murder of two individuals.”

Outside of November, the month of May also saw a couple of similar arrests. Nelson Replogle, 59, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was busted by federal agents for attempting to have his wife whacked while she was on her way to a veterinarian appointment. Replogle requested from her would-be-killer that they make it look like she was the victim of “road rage or [a] carjacking gone wrong,” per the FBI. If the contract killer could make this happen, he’d gladly pay them 0.2924549 Bitcoin, which was worth roughly $17k at the time.

The feds were tipped off by, of all places, the British Broadcasting Company, after which, they warned Replogle’s wife of the plot against her. When the FBI contacted Replogle himself, though, he played dumb, telling the agents, “he could not think of anyone who wished to harm her.”

The FBI then approached the cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase and investigated the wallet associated with the tip from the BBC. Once Coinbase provided the info and IP address in question, the FBI sent a subpoena to the associated internet provider, AT&T. The tech giant confirmed that the traffic and IP address was coming from the Replogle household. Replogle has since pleaded guilty in federal court, and like Sledge, he too faces up to 10 years in federal prison. 

Finally, there’s Scott Quinn Berkett, 24, of Beverly Hills. He, too, allegedly turned to the “dark web” to try to have his ex-girlfriend murdered and found a site that offered to kill people for money. He then sent a purported hitman 13k in Bitcoin to kill his ex. (For clarity’s sake, it’s highly likely that these Bitcoin-for-muder plots began on a “dark web” site run by a group of scammers that advertises such services to separate stupid would-be criminals from their money. When the offer seems real enough, that same group contacts the FBI or a media outlet — at least, that’s what happened in Berkett’s case.) 

On April 28th, Berkett reportedly contacted the would-be scammer killer and detailed exactly how he’d like his ex to be killed: “I’d like it to look like an accident, but robbery gone wrong may work better. So long as she is dead. I’d also like for her phone to be retrieved and destroyed irreparably in the process.” Berkett also allegedly demanded that he be provided with a “a proof-of-death photo that would show the corpse” as well as his ex’s distinctive tattoo.  

Scott Quinn Berkett

Berkett — like Ritenour and Sledge and Pence and Replogle — seemed to believe that paying in Bitcoin would somehow make his dark deeds invisible from the eyes of the law. But while the blockchain can definitely obscure things, the FBI can easily discover who accesses a wallet online. So while Bitcoin has helped a lucky few amass great fortunes in recent years, it doesn’t mean anyone is getting away with murder.