LOS ANGELES — As with other online businesses, the site promised convenience and efficiency.
LOS ANGELES — As with other online businesses, the site promised convenience and efficiency.
With a few clicks of the mouse, one could hire a professional hit man ready to kill "at a moment's notice." On the "employment" section of the site, would-be assassins could upload resumes for consideration.
"Thanks to the Internet, ordering a hit has never been easier," read the site HitmanForHire.net, in a chipper, infomercial-like tone.
Most thought it was a joke, including the Web designer in Florida commissioned to create the site. FBI Agent Ingerd Sotelo, who had investigated perhaps half a dozen hit-man cases in her 12-year career, probably wouldn't have taken it seriously if she came across it Web-surfing.
Except there was a terrified 23-year-old woman sitting in front of her, pale with genuine fear, saying someone had used the site to put a $37,000 hit on her head.
The man behind HitmanForHire.net showed up at Woodland Hills mortgage broker Anne Lauren Royston's office one Saturday morning in 2006, wearing head-to-toe black and driving a yellow Corvette.
He was middle-aged and tan, with a thick mustache and a heavy accent, and brought along a woman with cigarette breath he called his wife. He carried a black folder holding numerous photos of Royston and an email message: "I want her done by a shot to the head." The message was from her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend.
His client, the man said, had deposited $17,000 for the job.
The hit man calmly told Royston she reminded him of his daughter. Then he made her an offer: Pay him the balance on the contract, and he would let her live. She had three days.
Sotelo, who other agents in the violent crime squad knew as the "prison girl" for the number of federal lockup cases she's investigated, now sat in the same conference room with Royston. It was Tuesday, the deadline the man had given.
Royston easily picked him out in a photo lineup. In either a sophomoric gaffe or a sign of brazen confidence, he had given Royston his real name.
Essam Ahmed Eid of Las Vegas seemed an unlikely killer — or at least one who hid it incredibly well. The Egyptian-born man was 51, had a heart condition, and worked as a poker dealer at the Bellagio. He lived in a four-bedroom tract home in North Las Vegas with his family, including a daughter in college.
Sotelo recorded a series of calls to Royston in which Eid and the woman purported to be his wife repeated their demands for money. At the agent's direction, Royston asked for more time to come up with the cash. But a couple weeks later, the man seemed to disappear.
Following her instincts, the agent pulled up a database of entry and exit records in and out of the U.S. Sure enough, Eid, along with a woman named Teresa Engle, had left the country.
But the couple hadn't flown to Eid's native Egypt, or some remote tropical paradise with no extradition treaties with the U.S.
Eid, it appeared, was in western Ireland.
Around the same time, detectives in the quaint riverbank town of Ennis — billed on an Irish travel site as "the most endearing town" — were scratching their heads over a similar situation.
It had started with a cut-and-dry burglary case: Two laptops were stolen from the office of wealthy businessman P.J. Howard. The next day, a man contacted one of P.J.'s two sons and told him someone wanted their father and both sons dead, for 130,000 euros. But for a discounted sum on the balance of the contract — 100,000 euros — he would let them live.
The Irish police — Gardai, as they are known — swiftly arrested the man. Their suspect was Eid.
Sotelo learned of the arrest through the FBI's attache in London. Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic compared notes but weren't sure exactly what they were looking at — an audacious, bumbling extortion scam, or something more.
For answers, federal agents raided Eid's Las Vegas home. The "mother lode," as Sotelo later recalled, was on the family computer. Over about a week, she scoured its contents.
Through the website, people around the world had written to Eid — some clearly more serious than others. A fifth-grade girl in Kentucky wanted another girl in her class dead. Several volunteered to kill for hire. One woman wanted help committing suicide.
Two women, one in Pennsylvania and another in Ireland, confided about men in their lives who drove them to want to kill.
Marissa Mark, a collections agent in Allentown, Pa., was to the point about the new girlfriend of the man who left her behind and moved to the West Coast: "I need someone by the name of Lauren Royston killed ASAP. She is located in Los Angeles, CA."
She had sent a $17,000 deposit through PayPal by cobbling together charges on three stolen credit cards.
Sharon Collins, a divorcee in Ennis, went into far more lurid detail about how she wanted her lover P.J. Howard killed, and why.
In emails that went on for pages, she told Eid that his two sons were to be killed first. Then, it should appear as though Howard jumped to his death from his 14th-floor penthouse vacation home in Spain.
As a deposit, Collins sent 15,000 euros in cash wrapped in brown paper to Eid's home.
His clients may have thought they were emailing a veteran killer, but his computer records painted Eid as a novice when it came to murder for hire. After launching the website a few months earlier, Eid appeared to have done what any modern-day neophyte would do with a new task — he turned to Google.
Between numerous searches for Clay Aiken — Eid's wife was an avid fan — Sotelo found records showing that Eid had surfed the Web about his new trade. He looked up how to make a homemade silencer from toilet parts, attempted to place an Internet order for cyanide, and researched ricin — the castor bean-derived poison famously used in the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident journalist Georgi Markov through an umbrella gun.
"The powder you have made is tasteless and odorless. It can be sprinkled into soup or placed in a drink or inhaled," read one Web page that Eid searched, which offered a 15-step instruction on making ricin. "It takes about 3-4 days to act and when it does the guy will be dead within a week."
At the home, agents found indications that Eid had utilized his research. There was a 9 mm pistol with a homemade rubber silencer, and a shriveled castor bean plant in the backyard.
With the information, Sotelo pressed Teresa Engle about the ricin. Engle had married Eid a year earlier, even though he was legally married to another woman — the Aiken fan. All three lived in the Las Vegas home. Engle would later tell a federal judge Eid "dominated and controlled" her.
Whether it was because of Eid's control or from her own will, Engle had accompanied Eid to Woodland Hills and then to Ireland. After Irish authorities decided not to charge her because she had little direct involvement there, she quickly flew back to the U.S. and began cooperating with the FBI.
Engle described how they made ricin in the garage — boiling and grinding the beans, eventually producing a fine powder. They had packed it into a contact lens case, and flown with it across the Atlantic, Engle told Sotelo. It was in Eid's bag of toiletries.
Sotelo quickly called her Irish counterparts. To their horror, his toiletry bag had been searched at the time of Eid's arrest and returned to him because it contained the medication he needed for his heart condition.
Irish authorities raided his jail cell, and seized the bag. They found the lens case.
It was empty.
In 2008, Sotelo arrived in Dublin to testify in Eid's trial and found herself being chased by cameramen like a Hollywood starlet.
The case was a sensation there. Between Howard's fortunes, Collins' beauty, the flirtatious tone of email exchanges between Collins and Eid — "You're very handsome," she wrote after they sent each other photos — the story was tabloid gold.
Then there were the lab results that came back from the lens case: It tested positive for traces of ricin.
After a six-week trial, with every sordid detail splashed across the national media, Eid was convicted of extortion and burglary, but acquitted of solicitation of murder. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
Last year, he was extradited to Los Angeles to face charges here. On the eve of his trial, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy relating to extortion and received a 33-month prison sentence. Engle was sentenced to a lighter eight months because of her cooperation. Collins, dubbed the "Devil in the Red Dress" by Irish media for a photo she sent to Eid of herself, was convicted of soliciting murder and sentenced to six years in prison, according to press accounts there. Mark, who hired Eid to kill Royston, was sentenced in Pennsylvania in January, also to six years.
Throughout, Eid has kept mum about what it was that led him to such a drastic midlife career change, smiling enigmatically at the Irish cameras and occasionally waving to them. Sotelo said the motivation appeared to be financial — he seemed to enjoy the finer things in life, like his prized Corvette.
But in the end, Eid's Web venture may have revealed far more about the people enticed by its promises than the man behind it. He now sits in federal prison in Mississippi after having served his sentence in Ireland. He could be released as early as November 2013, just after celebrating his 58th birthday.