The owner of the underground drug market Silk Road was a 29-year-old Libertarian engineer living in San Francisco raking in over $80 million in 2 years, according to the indictment revealed today. Who is the man behind the biggest underground drug market, and how did he get caught? The indictment lays out a detailed account of how Silk Road grew and how FBI agent Christopher Tarbell took it down.
According to the indictment, Silk Road was bigger than anyone had suspected: It boasted over $1.6 billion in sales from 2011-2013, which resulted in $80 million in commissions. (Researchers had previously estimated that Silk Road was doing about $22 million in total sales per year.) According to the indictment, which claims that FBI agents obtained a mirror of the server that housed Silk Road's business from law enforcement in an unidentified foreign country, Ulbricht "alone has controlled the massive profits generated from the operation of the business." He used some of the profits to pay a team of administrators as much as $2,000 a week each. And yet, he only paid $1,000 a month in rent for his San Francisco apartment, according to the indictment.
The most bizarre and spectacular allegation in the indictment is that Ulbricht solicited a murder-for-hire against a Silk Road user who was attempting to blackmail him. The user, FriendlyChemist, told Ulbricht—whose alleged online persona was "Dread Pirate Roberts," or DPR, a reference to the film The Princess Bride—that he had obtained a list of thousands of Silk Road users and was going to release them unless DPR paid off his $500,000 debt to another user, RedandWhite. Instead of paying the debt, DPR contacted RedAndWhite and paid him $150,000 in Bitcoins to off Friendly Chemist.
"In my eyes, FriendlyChemist is a liability and I wouldn't mind if he was executed," DPR wrote. DPR even tried to bargain down FriendlyChemist, messaging: "Don't want to be a pain here, but the price seems high. Not long ago, I had a clean hit done for $80K." DPR gave redandwhite the address of FriendlyChemist in British Columbia, and the indictment reports that redandwhite sent back photo evidence of the deed. But according to the indictment there is no indication the hit actually happened—"Although I believe the foregoing exchange demonstrates DPR's intention to solicit a murder-for-hire," Tarbell wrote, "I have spoken with Canadian law enforcement authorities, who have no record of there being any Canadian resident with the name DPR passed to redandwhite as the target of the solicited murder-for-hire. Nor do they have any record of a homicide occurring in White Rock, British Columbia on or about March 31, 2013."
Currently the most-discussed aspect of the case on the Darknet is speculation on how Ulbricht got caught. Silk Road was hosted using the privacy-protecting Tor Network, and its brazen customers believed their digital tracks were hidden. But it appears that Ulbricht was tripped up by some security mistakes while promoting Silk Road in the early days. Tarbell found that the two earliest mentions of Silk Road were forum posts by a user called Altoid on the drug forum Shroomery.org and the semi-official Bitcoin Forum. Both were obvious astroturfing efforts to promote the Silk Road:
"Has anyone seen Silk Road yet?" goes one. "It's kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com. I don't think they have heroin on there, but they are selling other stuff. Let me know what you guys think." Altoid was easily connected to Ulbricht by a post on the Bitcoin forum in which Altoid solicits programming help for a "venture backed bit coin startup" using the email address: Rossulbricht@gmail.com. From there, agents surveilled Ulbricht in real life and were able to match up his locations to locations used to log into the DPR account. They noticed that both Ulbricht and DPR were fans of the Libertarian Ludwig Von Mises Institute. And a key used to log into Silk Road's administrator account was linked to another email address Ulbricht had used.
The feds also managed to gain access to servers belonging to Silk Road. They spied on the traffic in real time, determining that from Feb 2011 to July 2013 there were 2013 1,229,465 transactions on the site, and 957,079 total registered users. This raises the question of exactly how much information they have on Silk Road's users, and whether more busts are to come. (Agents made over 100 undercover transactions throughout the investigation, according to the indictment.)
Browsing Ulbricht's social media accounts show a pretty normal, nerdy guy. Ulbricht graduated from the University of Texas in 2006 with a degree in Physics and went to the
University of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania State University for grad school, where he studied engineering and wrote a master's thesis on "Growth of EuO Thin Films by Molecular Beam Epitaxy." According to property records, he owned a home in State College, PA, which he sold in 2010 for $187,0000. Curiously, the indictment misidentifies his grad school as the University of Pennsylvania.
He's got a Facebook page full of beer pong pics and, of course, was a vocal supporter of Ron Paul, donating $200 to his campaign in 2007. "He doesn't compromise his integrity as a politician and he fights quite diligently to restore the principles that our country was founded on," Ulbricht told the Penn State student newspaper in 2008.
Last year in a YouTube video for the storytelling project StoryCorps with his friend Rene Pinnell. Pinnell, speaking to the Verge, was adamant about his friend's innocence: "I don't know how they messed it up and I don't know how they got Ross wrapped into this, but I'm sure it's not him," he said.