Inside a Kidnapping Planned on the FBI's Secret Chat App

Anom, the FBI's secret tech startup, is reaching breaking point due to being too popular. Will another murder fall through the cracks?
Image of Dillan Mancuso, the Anom logo, and a Swedish police officer.
Image: Joseph Cox.
This article is adapted from my new book DARK WIRE. The book follows drug traffickers worldwide who used an encrypted messaging app called Anom. Little did they know, the FBI ran Anom for nearly its entire existence. The agency, along with partners at the Australian Federal Police (AFP), put a backdoor into Anom, intercepting every message sent across the platform. At this point in the narrative in mid-2021, Anom has spread around the globe, and the FBI has roped in more than a dozen countries to act on the intelligence. But, Anom is buckling under its own weight, and the agents find it hard to keep tempo with the sheer number of chats. As I show in the book, at least one successful assassination was planned on the FBI’s own chat app. What if another murder fell through the cracks?
Buy DARK WIRE anywhere books are sold, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Hachette.

Former Lone Wolf biker Dillan Mancuso was fast asleep at around three a.m. on June 1, 2021, dressed in just a pair of translucent white underpants. A “what goes around comes around” tattoo encircled his pudgy stomach in a gothic font. His collarbone read “Unstoppable.” His back brandished a giant cross, and “MANCUSO” was printed across his shoulder blades. That was the then thirty-seven-year-old Mancuso to a tee: loud, brash, and very cheeky. Throughout life, he always managed to land on his feet, what others called Mancuso Luck.

He was staying in his father’s terracotta-roofed bungalow in Bringelly, a rural Sydney suburb where well-spread-out homes stood along a long, straight road sidelined with palm trees. Four-foot-high fences sat between each house. The bungalow was packed, with another five members of the family all sleeping too. Authorities had granted Mancuso bail to come to the area for a wedding. The real point of the trip was to see his young son, one of those five. Mancuso was only staying in the bungalow for one night before he returned back to Perth, on the other side of the country.

As well as being a user of encrypted phones, Mancuso had sold phones for Phantom Secure, a company that had been particularly popular in Australia. These sorts of phones, which were incredibly popular among organized crime groups, sent secure messages to one another. Now he owned a handful of Anom devices. One for a friend, one for his girlfriend, and one for himself. As soon as Mancuso started to use his phone it broke, before he had a chance to plan any serious crimes on it. Mancuso brought the broken Anom with him on the wedding trip to have it fixed. That night it sat in the open on his bedside table, apparently back in working order.

This bail was just the latest episode in Mancuso’s life in and out of prison. He said he was previously convicted when a drug importation went south. At first prison was daunting, but he came to enjoy some of his stints in jail. It was like being back with the boys at summer camp—when he wasn’t deep in beefs with bikers. In late 2020 as part of an investigation into an alleged drug trafficking ring, Australian authorities seized two Mercedes Benz automobiles and a Bentley from Mancuso and his girlfriend at the time. The cars were worth more than $100,000 each. Even though he was charged with possessing suspected proceeds of a crime, Mancuso wasn’t bothered by the car seizures. He fobbed them off as chump change. Which might have been why rumors circulated about his true wealth. Maybe he had more money stashed away.

A laptop with an Anom sticker. Image: Joseph Cox.

Joe, Mancuso’s father, woke up when dogs outside started barking. He made his way to the lounge, sat down in his armchair, and put on the TV. Joe drifted back to sleep. 

Suddenly, a bang shook the bungalow. The noise was so loud that Joe thought a car had crashed into the house. He jumped up and ran to the front door. But Joe saw there was no door left: it had flown off its hinges and now lay on the ground. Through the gaping doorway strode multiple burly men in balaclavas, hoodies, and sweatpants, more than a half dozen of them. The biggest carried a handgun.

Joe thought they must have the wrong house. “What’s going on, fellas? What’s going on?” he asked. “You got the wrong place, you got the wrong place.”

The biggest of the men belted Joe with the butt of the gun. Then hit him again. A second man then shoved Joe into a corner and pushed his head against the wall. “Don’t move, just put your head there, and don’t look,” the man ordered.

Joe was fine taking the beating as long as the group didn’t hurt his family. Blood gushing from his face and head held to the wall, Joe strained to see what was going on. Joe’s daughter and her boyfriend came out of their room. They saw what was happening and immediately ran back inside. One of them locked the door, and the men kicked it a couple of times. Joe’s elderly mother somehow didn’t wake up as the invasion continued.

Then the men found what they were looking for: Dillan Mancuso. They dragged Mancuso, still dressed only in his underwear, through the house and then onto the pebbly driveway where two cars were waiting. Before they left, one of the men grabbed Mancuso’s Anom phone from the bedside table.

“Where you taking him?” Joe said as the men started to leave the house.

“Just don’t look. Don’t call the cops,” one of them replied.

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Outside, the gaggle dragged Mancuso toward one of the cars. In the scuffle, Mancuso managed to break free and started to run in the pitch black. It wasn’t clear where he could actually escape to, but he kept on going. Mancuso turned around to see how far he had managed to get away from his pursuers. A sizable gap was between them. “All right, see you later, dickheads,” Mancuso thought. That hubris ended when Mancuso turned back around and tripped over one of the fences. The men started to catch up. Mancuso staggered back to his feet and started running again. He might just get away.

Mancuso, ever pushing his luck, looked behind again. A long driveway stood between him and his pursuers. I’m good, Mancuso thought.

Then from behind a house, one of the men jumped out and caught Mancuso. The group, finally, shoved their target into the car. Having caught their prize, they immediately bound Mancuso, including duct tape around his eyes. Mancuso never saw the pistol whip against his head coming.

“Do you like the taste of bleach?” one of the men asked, signaling what might be yet to come.

“Not really,” Mancuso cheekily replied. The men said something about wanting a hundred million dollars. Mancuso said they had better call the guy who ran the Powerball lottery, he would pay.

The men weren’t in the mood for smart remarks. The gang relentlessly beat Mancuso all the way to their destination, an industrial warehouse in another town southwest of Sydney about a half-hour drive away.

Mancuso fell silent. When faced with extreme danger, a situation where in all likelihood you know you are about to die, you may expect to try to kick and fight your way out of it. Or perhaps you might cry, beg for your attackers to stop. In his life as a criminal, that’s what Mancuso had always thought he would do. But instead he clammed up. He didn’t think of his parents. He didn’t even think about his child. Instead, he didn’t really think about much at all. He was going to die now, was his only rumination. Just a clean, empty humming of acceptance moved through his mind.

Photos of messages sent during Mancuso's kidnapping. Image: Joseph Cox.

The group arrived at the warehouse at 3:30 a.m. The floor was freezing; Mancuso’s bare skin slammed against it. That was when the real beating started.

Mancuso was conscious, but the gang beat him so much he couldn’t tell exactly which part of his body they were hitting. In that violent haze the men yanked out three of Mancuso’s toenails. He doesn’t know how the kidnappers did it, he didn’t see any pliers.

As Mancuso lay on the floor after an hour of severe thrashing, his face pointed to the ceiling and “Unstoppable” tattoo speckled with blood, one of the kidnappers took out Mancuso’s Anom device and snapped a photo of the damage. The kidnapper sent it to a contact stored in the phone and the pair exchanged messages:

“Hello brother. Send to his friends who value his life and will negotiate.”
“What do you want?”
“Get his manager and partners to contact us.”
“OK I will get back to you shortly or have them contact you.”
“Sooner rather than later. He goes in a hole by nightfall.”

The kidnappers explained they wanted thirty million worth of cash or “product”—drugs.

While Mancuso was helpless on the floor, a new thought kept running through his mind: “Fuck me, how the fuck do I get them to shoot me fucking soon so I don’t have to sit on the factory unit floor so long?”

Meanwhile at the bungalow, Joe phoned the police as soon as the men left. Joe told them what happened, but he couldn’t help much. All he thought was that someone had tipped off the group to Mancuso’s location that evening. That was the only night Mancuso was staying at his father’s bungalow.

What did help was the Anom phone the kidnappers had taken. Unbeknownst to them, the kidnappers’ messages ended up right with the police. Mancuso’s bloodied face flashed on a screen.

Very shortly after the initial kidnapping, a black armored vehicle pulled up outside the warehouse. Its bullet-proof windshield guards made the vehicle look like it was ripped straight out of a war zone. A police squad dressed in black body armor, balaclavas, and tan helmets piled outside the door. Many were ready with semiautomatic assault rifles. Mancuso heard them outside. You’re surrounded by a heavily armed tactical squad, the police yelled, over and over again.

The kidnappers panicked. How had the police tracked them to the warehouse so quickly? Not seeing another option, they cut Mancuso’s bonds so he could leave. The group then huddled elsewhere in the building.

Mancuso walked out of the room toward the police. The rescuers seemed to treat him as one of the kidnappers. They pointed their guns directly at Mancuso and told him to put his hands up and turn around. Mancuso thought he was going to get another smack with a weapon.

“What’s your name?” one of the officers asked.

“Dil-lan Man-cuso,” Mancuso mumbled, not able to clearly say his own name through his injuries.

“What?” the officer asked.

“I’m Dil-lan Man-cuso!” Mancuso replied, still unable to get the message through.

There was no way Mancuso was packing a gun—his penis was visible through the thin layer of his underpants—but one of the officers searched him. After not finding anything, he directed Mancuso to the back of the crowd of the police. When Mancuso got there, still with weapons pointed at him, another officer asked, “Are you Dillan Mancuso?”

“Yeah, I’ve been trying to tell you that,” Mancuso said. Mancuso’s smartass attitude was back.

The sun was now up as Mancuso hobbled out of the factory unit and into the fresh air. Two tactical officers directed him to a white SUV, where he used its open trunk as a makeshift bench. While Mancuso sat hunched forward, a voice blared over the police loudspeaker system in a heavy Australian accent.

“You need to come down to the ground floor door, nothing in your hands,” an officer told the kidnappers, who were still holed up inside. Seeing no escape from the surrounding armed police, the men eventually exited the building into the car park. 

As the captors stepped outside, the police ran toward them with their weapons drawn. “Get your fucking hands up,” one officer yelled. “Get on the fucking ground! Get on the ground!” The police dispersed and took down multiple members of the gang at once, with sometimes two officers per suspect. The men got down to their stomachs as the police pointed their rifles. Once tied up, the men lay helplessly on their sides on the floor. Officers then pulled the suspects by the arms and put them into holding vans. The alleged gang, it turned out, was a ragtag group of mostly twenty-somethings, and even one teenage boy (several are still awaiting trial). Authorities allege that in an attempt to destroy physical evidence, the men started a fire. A fire engine then blasted water through a broken window of the building’s upper story to put out the blaze.

A supreme irony ran through the entire kidnapping and rescue: As someone who sold encrypted phones, Mancuso helped people avoid law enforcement surveillance. Now that same type of spying had let the police track down his captors. Anom had saved his life. Because Mancuso’s Anom phone was broken for a while, he didn’t use it to plan any crimes. His first piece of Mancuso Luck. And then another dose when the Anom phone led police to his captors.

The police told Mancuso they believed whoever ordered the kidnapping would try again. But right now, Mancuso was safe. The authorities might not continue to be so lucky. As Anom reached breaking point, the next Mancuso could fall through the cracks. It was time for Anom’s finale.

This article has been adapted from Dark Wire: The Incredible True Story of the Largest Sting Operation Ever, by Joseph Cox. Copyright © 2024 by Joseph Cox. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Book LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, NY, USA. All rights reserved.