Homer man accused of 'dark web' firearms sales seeks bail

Published: Sep. 17, 2018 at 12:53 PM AKDT
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Ben Handley, a 25-year-old born and raised Alaskan, smiled at his mother and other family members as he entered a federal courtroom in Anchorage Monday, escorted by U.S. Marshals.

As long as the Western District of New York gives the okay, Handley will be released on bail. Magistrate Judge Deborah Smith made the ruling Monday morning at the end of Handley's bail hearing in Anchorage.

Handley's release is on a 24-hour hold, to give the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York an opportunity to weigh in.

Handley's mother, Leah Handley, made the journey from the family home in Homer, a little more than a four-hour drive south of Anchorage, in hopes of convincing the court she'd do a good job keeping a hawk's eye on her son. It'd be worth babysitting him 24/7 if the judge would agree to let him out on bail, Handley told the court during Monday's bail hearing.

Her son faces 15 federal firearms charges. He's accused of transporting from Alaska to New York nine untraceable (serial numbers removed), unregistered machine guns. According to the indictment from the Western District of New York, the guns were shipped in different batches during five separate transactions over a six-month period between February and July of 2018.

Handley was arrested at the airport in late August.

At the bail hearing, the prosecution alleged that Handley had manufactured and distributed very lethal firearms and that Handley had to know they would likely be used in criminal activity.

A half-dozen community members offered written character testimony about a hard-working young man with whom they'd only ever had positive experiences.

Among them is Lorenzo Aburto, a supervisor of Handley's at the ConocoPhillips Alpine Production Facility on Alaska's North Slope, where Handley works as a journeyman millwright.

"He is respectful, professional, gets along well with others. Ben is an honest trust worthy professional gentleman, I'm looking forward to his return to work," Aburto told the court via a written letter to the judge.

Paul Gallagher described Handley as a youth ministry leader with a knack for working on salvaged cars. "Ben is active in church and is needed for a church building project that is getting underway. He will be mentored and supervised every minute while he is out on bail," Gallagher wrote.

"Ben is a very hard worker and is always willing to lend a hand to whoever is in need," wrote another community supporter, Joe Erickson.

Prosecutors expressed unease at allowing Handley to go home. They're aware of a phone call he'd made to his mom early after his arrest, during which they claim he directed his mom to "clear items from his truck and room, including two briefcases."

If that conversation was about destroying evidence, they told Judge Smith, it would be problematic to have the elder Handley be in charge of her son's compliance with the law while on bail.

But Leah Handley, who took the witness stand wearing a light blue striped, button-up shirt, gray jeans, and tennis shoes, with her glasses perched atop her dark, shoulder-length hair, told the court she's constantly on all of her kids to get their things out of the house. The go-ahead to clear something out of storage wouldn't be unusual.

Plus, she said, the words her son was saying to her seemed surreal.

"Hearing that your son has been arrested puts you in a mental state that's very difficult. So I don't really remember everything," Handley told Judge Smith.

Handley will be required to relinquish his passport, and to stay off of smartphones, computers and internet connections. This is because prosecutors allege there is evidence Handley conducted business on the dark web using false identification.

"You are basically in the role of a guard at the jail," Judge Smith told Leah Handley when explaining the requirements of being a third party custodian, including the need to immediately turn her own son in if he violates any conditions of his release.

"If it means that's how he comes home, then I would do that," Handley said.