US doctor pleads guilty to federal charges tied to dark web, kidnapping plot

Prosecutors had originally charged Ilg with attempted kidnapping after the FBI recovered messages from the so-called dark web, websites that require specific software to access. — Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

The ill-fated plan by a Spokane neonatal doctor to use the dark web to hire someone to kidnap his estranged wife and force her to reconcile, as well as injure a colleague, will now likely result in a federal prison sentence of at least five years.

Ronald Ilg, 55, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two federal charges of making threats in interstate commerce. The admission draws nearer to a close an investigation that began with international journalists tipping off local authorities that Ilg was bartering with cryptocurrency to have someone abduct his estranged wife, inject her with heroin and convince her to return to the marriage on conditions.

"Your honour, I was a broken man," Ilg told US District Court Senior Judge William Fremming Nielsen, after pleading guilty to the two counts Wednesday.

Ilg, who has been in custody of the Spokane County Jail since April 2021, appeared in a yellow Spokane County Jail jumpsuit, occasionally donning reading glasses to review the 23-page document that lays out a potential prison sentence of between five and eight years.

Prosecutors had originally charged Ilg with attempted kidnapping after the FBI recovered messages from the so-called dark web, websites that require specific software to access. Using the moniker "Scar215," Ilg solicited what he thought was an Internet hit man tied to Mexican cartels to "injure both hands significantly or break the hands" of a coworker, according to court records, in February 2021.

Ilg then contacted someone he believed to be a kidnapper-for-hire to abduct his estranged wife for a week, inject her with heroin and "cancel all court proceedings immediately" in late March 2021. A divorce hearing was scheduled for that next month.

During this time, he had also filed a lawsuit against his former employer alleging wrongful termination. That lawsuit has been dismissed.

Investigators discovered a password for the "Scar215" account, a play on the character of Mufasa in The Lion King film, in Ilg's biometrically locked safe at his home in Otis Orchards, authorities said. They said the password and screen name were consistent with Ilg's "affinity for lions."

That search occurred after investigators stopped Ilg on a return trip from Mexico during which the kidnapping was being negotiated. FBI agents took Ilg to a conference room, where they copied files on his cellphone and he made admissions about using the dark web. Despite mentioning he should have a lawyer present, Ilg continued to speak with investigators during that initial interview.

"The hitmen sites intrigued me," Ilg told investigators, sharing with them a Word document on his phone that included descriptions of dark web sites dedicated to stolen credit card information, pornography and steroids. "Again, this was a while ago. They are interesting."

Prosecutors said Ilg had invested more than US$60,000 (RM266,400) in cryptocurrency to pay for the crimes to be committed, and linked bank statements and video of ATM withdrawals to the doctor. Until Wednesday, Ilg had insisted he was seeking someone to kill him, including in that recorded interview.

His defence attorneys, Carl Oreskovich and Andrew Wagley, had sought to exclude the interview and information from the dark web and financial accounts from going to a jury at trial. But Nielsen had previously ruled the interview was admissible, because Ilg was free to leave at any point.

Ilg told Nielsen on Wednesday he had written the messages himself, and that he intended to hurt others.

"They are accurate and consistent with the horrific messages that I wrote," Ilg said.

Ilg had also been accused of witness tampering, based on a letter he wrote while in jail. Ilg had travelled to Mexico with a woman who was not his wife. While in jail, he wrote to that woman, suggesting marriage as a way to potentially avoid having to testify against him.

"I know you are worried about cooperation, and being truthful, I want you to be also," Ilg wrote in that letter, dated July 10, 2021. He'd been in jail for three months. "Importantly, if we are married, we can decide if you testify or not. Washington law is unique in this way."

Ilg asked in a postscript that the woman burn the letter after reading it. Instead, it was turned over to prosecutors.

US Assistant Attorney Richard Barker told Nielsen that the investigation would not have been possible without the assistance of witnesses and victims in the case.

"Without them, and the agents who did an incredible job, we wouldn't be here today," Barker told Nielsen.

US Attorney for Eastern Washington Vanessa Waldref said in a statement the case demonstrated the potential criminal use of the dark web.

"The amount of money Mr Ilg paid to advance his schemes and his efforts to obstruct justice in this case indicate Mr Ilg would stop at nothing to maintain control over his victims," Waldref said.

Nielsen set sentencing for Ilg on Nov 8. He was led from the courtroom in handcuffs after the brief hearing Wednesday morning. – The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash./Tribune News Service

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