He was a global entrepreneur doing business in every state and 45 foreign countries. He connected buyers and sellers in a virtual marketplace where millions of dollars' worth of merchandise was traded. For customers, he offered quality control by screening suppliers and guaranteeing delivery.
This week, Marc Peter Willems, a 45-year-old Dutch national, admitted in federal court in Los Angeles that the merchandise was illegal drugs and that he took a cut of the sales.
Willems, federal prosecutors say, was one of the main operators of an innocuously named online network, the Farmer's Market, that sold LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and other drugs. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
The network operated in the shadowy corners of the Web using a network that masked the Internet addresses of buyers and sellers. Customers were directed to make payments via Western Union to individuals in Budapest or to accounts in Panama, according to a plea agreement Willems signed. Willems' customers included a 19-year-old in Oak Creek, Wis., and an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Los Angeles, according to the agreement.
Five others have pleaded guilty in the scheme, and another has agreed to plead guilty Monday. An eighth defendant also charged in the case has died since the indictments were handed up two years ago. Willems faces between 10 years and life in prison, prosecutors said.
Willems was the "originator" of the network, initially called Adamflowers, that was launched in 2006 and offered an online storefront for controlled substances, prosecutors said. Michael Evron, a U.S. citizen who was living in Buenos Aires and who has also pleaded guilty, soon joined him to handle the technological aspect of the operation.
The network handled all communications between suppliers and customers, and charged a commission on each order, according to the plea agreement. At checkout, customers were even given the option to insure their purchases in the event of law enforcement seizures or other delivery problems, Assistant U.S. Atty. Rasha Gerges Shields said.
"Think of it as Amazon," she said.
The network's thousands of customers were of varying ages, but many were under 21 and some of the orders went to college dorm rooms, according to Shields. Authorities identified more than a dozen customers in California, she said.
Between 2007 and 2012, the marketplace handled about $2.5 million worth of orders, according to the plea. In addition to Western Union, the marketplace also used PayPal and gold-based digital currencies Pecunix and iGolder to handle the financial transactions between customers.
Many of the men involved in operating the site had never met in person, and some were regular customers who were later recruited to work for the marketplace, Shields said.
An undercover DEA agent made a purchase of 25 hits of LSD in March 2009, according to court records. The drugs were delivered to him in Los Angeles in exchange for $180 wired to Budapest. He was again able to place an order in September for 500 hits, for which he paid $2,500.
When the indictment was unsealed in April 2012, authorities made arrests across the U.S. and in the Netherlands and Colombia, where Evron was visiting. Willems fought his extradition from his native Netherlands for two years, taking his legal battle all the way to that nation's highest court, Shields said.
Evron has also pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering charges; he is scheduled to be sentenced in November.
Willems' attorney did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Willems is scheduled to be sentenced in December.