A 25-year military veteran quietly became one of the more successful dark web narcotics dealers in history, according to the DOJ. With a $15 million fortune, and sales of liquid mushrooms worth more than $140 million in Bitcoin today, he had a lavish lifestyle to match his illegal empire, according to sources and court documents reviewed by Forbes.
Maybe the U.S. Army doesn’t pay enough. Or perhaps the lure of making a fortune selling narcotics on the dark web – and the lavish lifestyle that goes with it – is too much for some.
According to the U.S. government, one of its own, a 25-year military veteran named James Verl Barlow, has made a small fortune over eight years flogging psychedelic drugs on a variety of dark web bazaars under the name Tripwithscience. If the government account is right, one of the U.S. Army’s own was one of the more successful dealers to grace the internet underworld; prosecutors are still totting up what they claim are the 44-year-old Las Vegas resident’s criminal winnings, but expect them to be between $12 million and $15 million in assets, across expensive property, luxury cars, jet skis, mountains of cryptocurrency and loaded fiat currency bank accounts.
The Justice Department believes he was the coordinator of the Tripwithscience drug trafficking organization but had a number of co-conspirators, including his brother, 35-year-old Matthew Barlow. Together the crew carried out a complex, globe-spanning psychedelic operation, according to the Justice Department. It claimed the mushrooms themselves were grown by a business partner of the elder Barlow brother, Ronald Brust, while Matthew Barlow and another co-conspirator would mix the liquefied fungi in the U.S., before sending them out to Tennessee and the U.K. for further packaging and delivery. They primarily sold liquid psychedelic mushrooms in nine milligram vials for $20 each across all manner of markets, including Silk Road 2.0 and Empire, both now defunct, as well as more modern bazaars like Monopoly and Televend. The government claimed the crew used a variety of shill accounts to promote the main Tripwithscience brand too.
But by January this year, investigators were closing in, recovering data from what they claimed was Barlow’s Google account. Within his Google Drive were spreadsheets with sales information for both Tripwithscience and another vendor he helped run, called Perfectshrooms, the government wrote in a search warrant. It said that in one tab titled “2015 Received,” it showed the accounts made 704 darknet transactions, making just over 1,544 in Bitcoin, worth around $400,000 at the time, but now worth around $90 million. On another spreadsheet, data for Bitcoin income for each year was recorded, indicating he earned nearly 2,300 Bitcoins from 2014 to 2020, currently worth $140 million, prosecutors said. Meanwhile, he was earning around $4,000 a month working for the U.S. Army as a sergeant first class, according to a DOJ search warrant application.
The DOJ didn’t expand on just how it came to estimate Barlow’s fortune at the far lower figure of $15 million. He would have had significant outgoings, according to court records, which indicate he was paying as much as $6,000 in cryptocurrency every two weeks to a reshipper, who was tasked with packaging up the psychedelic vials. On top of that were purchases and manufacturing of the narcotics, the court documents showed, as well as the packaging and payment for the co-conspirators.
Investigators noted Barlow was listed as owner of a handful of other businesses, with names including Good to Glow and Illuminated Couture, both of which made clothing containing LED lights and were run with Brust, the alleged shroom grower. The Justice Department said Barlow “was not generating enough, if any, income from these businesses to support his lifestyle, which included travel on private jets, world travel, purchases of high-end automobiles, and ownership of multiple properties,” including one worth $1.5 million, bought in March. He owned two Tesla cars and purchased two others for friends in recent years, according to the DOJ, which said he also owned two jet skis. A Google Maps search for his property listed in the government court filings shows two Teslas, a Mercedes and two jet skis outside a large, one-storey building. A video from within his Google Drive account also showed Barlow discussing how he bought land in Colorado using Bitcoin, the government said.
James Barlow and his brother were arrested in April, but are yet to file pleas. The siblings’ lawyer declined to comment. Brust and the other co-conspirators have pleaded not guilty and await a trial date.
The Barlows aren’t the first brothers to be accused of running a dark web drugs business. As Forbes reported in 2020, two brothers were charged with running a six-year scheme under the name Pill Cosby, laundering $2.8 million over that time. Global law enforcement are continuing to crack down on dark web dealers, announcing the arrest of 150 alleged suspects involved in buying or selling illicit goods on the dark web. More than $30 million in cash and virtual currencies were seized, as well as 234 kg of drugs and 45 firearms, according to Europol.
Cuddle with a Cuddlefish?
The court documents reveal little more about Barlow. According to a source familiar with the DOJ investigation, he served in the U.S. Army from 1994 to 2019 in both the National Guard and as an active deployed soldier, retiring in 2019.
Web domain records provided leads into his personal history. Forbes looked through the histories of websites created by the same Jim Barlow who set up the company Royal Bowmen, which the Justice Department claimed was one of his businesses. The records show he had long tried to become a legitimate entrepreneur through clothing, before his foray into LED-based couture. In 2006, he set up SmartTorso.com, which sold “funny shirts for smart people.” In a goodbye post in 2015, he said he was just about breaking even and it wasn’t enough to keep going. That was two years into his alleged dark web enterprise.
His registered websites also included a personal page, which redirected to his Facebook profile. His profile picture includes Barlow in his full uniform, while his background image includes him appearing to be on the stairs of a luxury boat, wearing a light-up bowtie and pocket square, surrounded by scantily-clad women. He had given himself the nickname Cuddlefish, domains for which he also registered, including cuddlefish.xyz.
A version of this story appeared in my weekly newsletter on cybercrime and surveillance, The Wiretap, where I’ve linked all the relevant court documents. You can sign up here for exclusives and all the security, intelligence and privacy news you need to know today.