CEDAR CITY — A Southern Utah man in federal custody pleaded guilty in federal court for allegedly using the internet to solicit a contract killing of two individuals in New York. The scheme was intercepted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents before any harm came to the intended targets.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York is located in Utica, New York | Photo courtesy of Google Maps, St. George News

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New York, the defendant, 43-year-old Christopher Pence of Cedar City, pleaded guilty to one count of the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of a murder-for-hire plot.

The federal complaint was filed on Oc.t 27, 2021, and Pence was indicted two weeks later after federal investigators allege he went on the internet using a computer in Utah to solicit and pay for the murders using the darknet.

Two Rensselaer County residents that were targeted to be murdered were unharmed.

The investigation

The charge stems from an investigation that began in September of 2021 when the FBI field office in Albany, New York, received information that a darknet user had allegedly paid $16,000 in cryptocurrency to have two individuals killed.

FILE – The FBI seal is pictured in Omaha, Neb., Aug. 10, 2022 | Photo by Charlie Neibergall, The Associated Press, St. George News

The information was turned over to the FBI where agents learned that in a one-month span, an individual reportedly made several attempts to hire a hitman online, according to court records. They provided the individuals’ names and addresses, along with photos of the intended victims and details relating to the manner of death.

The defendant also wanted the murder to look like an accident or botched robbery and asked that care be taken not to harm any of the children who resided with the victims. The user began transferring $16,000, as requested, in a series of payments using Bitcoin.

The internet subscriber information provided during the transactions led agents to the identity of the user, which federal prosecutors allege turned out to be Pence, the complaint states.

During the investigation, agents discovered there was a possible adoption dispute between Pence and the intended victims. During a search of the suspect’s residence, agents reportedly seized a number of electronic devices among the evidence.

The complaint was then filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Pence was arrested and booked into jail in Washington County, where he remained until he was transferred to federal custody back east where the case was filed.

Motion to suppress

The case made its way through the federal courts, marred by a series of continuances, hundreds of pages of court pleadings, digital evidence, thumb drives, transcripts and hours of recordings, as well as several trial dates that were rescheduled.

On July 21, a motion to suppress was filed by Eric K. Schillinger, Pence’s defense attorney, asking the court to suppress any statements made by the defendant and any evidence obtained following after his arrest in October 2021.

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Schillinger filed the motion based on allegations that his client was removed from his home and questioned in a police-controlled vehicle for nearly two hours without a Miranda warning. The defendant was then subjected to another round of questioning which went on for more than three hours.

The defense attorney wrote a total of 21 federal officers and agents arrived at Pence’s home, where he lived with his wife and 13 children. The pre-dawn raid, where “every agent who entered was armed,” which the defense described as being intermittently pointed at his client.

Pence was held for two hours before being confronted with the evidence of his guilt and asked to confess — critical admissions the defense stated were made prior to the defendant being Mirandized. The defense also alleges that agents used an illegal two-step interrogation method during questioning, claiming that agents were threatening his client as they did so. 

On that same day in July, the government filed a memorandum rebutting the defenses claims with the courts stating that Pence “never had a firearm pointed at him,” and that he was asked “whether he would agree to speak with the agents either inside the residence or outside in a vehicle.”

The prosecutor also stated that agents never “stormed” the residence in “full riot gear,” as the defense had stated. The claim was disputed by a photo taken by the defendant within six minutes of the agents entering the home.

The government also stated that Pence was interviewed for less than two hours before he made confessions that led to his formal arrest, at which point he was given the Miranda warning.

On Oct. 18, the judge made a ruling on the case. Based on the footage, transcripts and other evidence presented in the case, the judge found that the “low-ready position” meant that agents had their weapons pointed at the ground — not at the defendant — according to the order signed on by U.S. District Court Judge David N. Hurd.

As such, the motion to suppress was denied and the evidence in question was ruled admissible.

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Plea hearing 

On Wednesday, less than two months after the ruling, the defendant entered into a plea agreement. If approved by the court, the maximum penalty could be up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine, as well as up to three years post prison supervision, according to the conditional plea agreement filed in federal court in New York last week.

The government also agreed to recommend a two-level sentence reduction based on Pence being a “zero point offender,” meaning the defendant had a clean criminal record prior to the current case and that he accepted responsibility for his actions.

Following the entry of plea, a pre-sentence report was ordered to be completed and a sentencing hearing was scheduled to take place at the U.S. Court in Utica, New York on April 4, 2024.

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.

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