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A Minnesota church elder's Ashley Madison affairs led him to the 'dark web' - and murder, police say

Stephen Allwine photo from the Washington County Sheriffs Office

Churchgoing Midwestern folk don't normally land on the wrong end of a bitcoin murder contract, so the news about Amy Allwine was bizarre.

It was May 2016. On the dark web, hackers had cracked into Besa Mafia, a website that claimed affiliation with Albanian organized crime and offered to arrange beatings and assassinations for a price.

Emails between the site and potential clients, a treasure trove of illicit material, leaked across the Web - eventually landing at the FBI. As investigators sifted through the material, they zeroed in on an exchange between a user called "dogdaygod," who they determined was trying to arrange the murder of a woman named Amy Allwine from the Cottage Grove suburb outside St. Paul, Minnesota, according to court records recorded by Fox 9.

She "tore my family apart by sleeping with my husband, and is stealing clients from my business," user "dogdaygod" explained to Besa Mafia, adding the death should "look like an accident."

That image was hard to sync with Amy's life. The 43-year-old ran her own dog training business. She and her husband Stephen had met at a Christian college and were devout members of a local United Church of God congregation, according to news reports. Stephen served as a church elder and offered marriage counseling to couples. They had an adopted son.

Local law enforcement met with the Allwines about the alleged threats, the Pioneer Press reported. But there was little they could do about an anonymous Internet user apparently plotting to take her life, beyond suggesting increased security. In August, Stephen got a permit for a 9mm Springfield XDS handgun, authorities say.

But the dark web machinations suddenly took on new significance in November 2016 when Amy Allwine was discovered dead on the floor of her bedroom. Initially thought to be a suicide, police soon suspected foul play. Within months, they would allege Stephen Allwine was actually "dogdaygod;" he had killed his wife after Besa Mafia failed to come through.

This week Allwine went on trial for premeditated first-degree murder. The situation laid out by prosecutors was a mix of religious guilt and piety, online double lives and desperate measures. According to the prosecutors, Stephen, an Internet technology specialist, had begun cheating on his wife using the infidelity site, Ashley Madison. But to him, divorce was not an option.

"He was seeing other women but he didn't want to divorce her because of his position in the church," Washington County prosecutor Jamie Kreuser told a jury this week, the Star Tribune reported.

Stephen's attorney, Kevin DeVore, emphasized in his opening remarks there was little physical evidence tying his client to the crime. "It sounds like an amazing story, but it's not a TV show or a movie but real life," the attorney said, adding: "Just because he had an affair doesn't mean he killed his wife."

Divorce - and its religious implications within the Allwines's faith - is the central piece of the prosecution's theory. The United Church of God views on marriage run conservative.

"Couples who decide to marry are expected to know one another well enough, before they marry, in order to assess as closely as possible how they will get along after marriage. The Church strongly recommends counseling with the ministry," the church's website says. "Even if couples have a short courtship, fail to counsel before marrying or have dysfunctional backgrounds, none of these recognized troubles justify the later putting away of [divorcing] a mate with the freedom to remarry. Marriage is a commitment for life. Failure to plan properly is not grounds for the future dissolving of a marriage."

Prosecutors allege that Stephen first learned about Ashley Madison, a dating site for cheating spouses, while counseling married couples in his congregation. He had affairs with at least two women he met on the site, law enforcement alleged. Wishing to end his marriage but denied divorce, Stephen allegedly burrowed into the Dark Web for an answer.

Besa Mafia, however, was not actually an outfit of Albanian contract killers. It was a ruse.

"We have zero information at this point that any of the hits that were ordered on that website were actually carried out," a Minnesota detective told Fox 9. "In fact there is pretty good evidence I think that it was just a scam."

"Dogdaygod" paid the site at least $6,000 in bitcoin to arrange Amy Allwine's death, prosecutors say. The user provided details of her movements. But the hit never happened.

Instead, on Nov. 13, Stephen called 911. He and his son had just found Amy's body, he reported.

Police arrived around 7 p.m., discovering Amy on the floor of the couple's bedroom, blood pooling out of a gunshot wound in her head, the Pioneer Press reported. A handgun - the 9mm Springfield XDS Stephen had purchased three months earlier - was lying near her left forearm.

It initially appeared Amy had killed herself. But investigators quickly decided it was meant to look that way.

There were no powder burns or stippling on the victim's head, meaning the gun was not pressed against her temple when it was fired.

Gunpowder and blood also were not detected on Amy's hands.

The gun was lying on her left side, but she was right-handed.

The house's security camera footage showed only Stephen entering and exiting the property, prosecutors say.

Police detected traces of bloody footprints between the kitchen and the bedroom.

The medical examiner also found swimming in Amy's system a large amount of scopolamine, a nausea treatment that can incapacitate someone who takes high doses. She had no prescription for the drug.

Search warrants on Stephen's computers showed he had been accessing the Dark Web since 2014, the City Pages reported. Investigators also discovered a 35-character bitcoin transaction code on a backup drive for the suspect's cellphone.

The same code was used by "dogdaygod" in the user's transactions with the Besa Mafia account, prosecutors say. Investigators would later uncover that "dogdaygod" had posted on other Dark Web sites about scopolamine.

In court this week, Stephen's attorney DeVore argued the physical evidence at the crime scene was "contaminated" after officers removed the handgun from the bedroom to unload the weapon. The attorney also says the defense will argue the timeline of Amy's death will show Stephen could not have killed his wife.

The trial, entering its third day, continues.

 

 

Story by Kyle Swenson. Swenson is a reporter with The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. He previously worked at the New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Cleveland Scene.

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