When the alleged Dread Pirate Roberts, the mastermind behind the infamous Silk Road, was apprehended on a fall afternoon in a San Francisco library one year ago, more than a few people were surprised at his identity. Not yet 30 years old, the young man known to family and friends as Ross Ulbricht was quickly surrounded by federal agents and taken into custody.
Ross Ulbricht is facing charges of money laundering, computer hacking, and narcotics trafficking. In a separate investigation, Ulbricht was also indicted for arranging contract killings!
While the Silk Road website had only been operational for a little over two years when it was shut down, during that time, the federal government alleged that it had managed to conduct more than $1 billion in transactions, most of which were in illegal substances. For months, federal agencies had been stalking the site before finally converging on the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco public library in order to take the man they claimed was the administrator of Silk Road into custody. The government later released a statement indicating that when he was taken into custody, Mr. Ulbricht was logged into Silk Road and that his laptop contained numerous operational files, a large stash of bitcoins, worth approximately $80 million at the time.
Once word broke of Ulbricht's arrest, friends and family quickly converged, claiming that authorities had arrested the wrong man. Friends from high school claimed that he was completely guileless and non-aggressive. Family portrayed him as sensitive and compassionate.
Is Ross Ulbricht merely a scapegoat used by the government to shut down Silk Road, or is he a real criminal?
Relying solely on bitcoin along with an encrypted online network, Silk Road comprised extensive marketplace that allowed users to purchase items, incl. drugs. Transactions were conducted entirely through the mail. The creator of the site, Dread Pirate Roberts, established a system to ensure that no one got stiffed. Silk Road held payments in escrow until delivery of products were confirmed by buyers. The site would then release payment to the seller while retaining a percentage of the transaction for the service provided. Within just a few months of its launch in 2011, the website had gained massive popularity. Similar to the auction site eBay, Silk Road even allowed reviews to be posted. In order to handle potential disputes, a small staff was employed. None of the staffers working for the site appears to have known the true identity of Dread Pirate Roberts, however. While Silk Road was gaining attention among users, it was also catching the attention of government officials.
Precisely how authorities eventually connected the alias Dread Pirate Roberts, or D.P.R. to Ross Ulbricht remains somewhat of a mystery. That, alone, has continued to fuel the idea that the authorities may have nabbed the wrong man. According to the New York Times, the first mention online of Silk Road occurred in January 2011. A few months later, someone using the same username stated on a bitcoin forum that they were looking to hire an IT professional. Interested parties were asked to email a Ross Ulbricht at a Gmail address. Once he was a person of interest, authorities began searching for clues in earnest. Two years later, a package was intercepted at Customs and Border Protection from an address in Canada and addressed to Ross Ulbricht. Inside, authorities found nine fake IDs with photos of Ulbricht.
Parents, friends, and family maintain Ulbricht's innocence. A former Eagle Scout, Ulbricht grew up in Austin and later attended the University of Texas at Dallas on a full scholarship. After earning a degree in physics, he moved to Penn State where he began working on a master's degree in material sciences and engineering. Following his return to Austin, Ulbricht co-founded a used bookstore and donated 10 percent of his profits to charities. When his fledgling business failed, Ulbricht told his friends that he had started a hedge fund for trading stocks, currencies and bitcoin. Eventually, he relocated to San Francisco, where he told people that his name was Joshua Terrey, according to Forbes. In July of last year, Homeland Security Investigations agents appeared on Ulbricht's doorstep, but he refused to answer any questions. Within two months, he was arrested.
The most vital breakthrough in the government's case against Ulbricht occurred when the FBI located Silk Road's main server in a foreign locale. Through a treaty that allowed for mutual legal assistance, the FBI was able to obtain a copy of the server. Ulbricht's attorney; however, has stated that the government may have acted improperly when it located and copied the server.
Judge Katherine Forrest later dismissed a motion from the defense to suppress evidence, alleging that authorities obtained the crucial evidence on which the case hinges through an unreasonable search.
With Ulbricht's mother continuing to say that she is proud of her son, Ulbricht himself maintaining his innocence, and defense sites for Ulbricht popping up all over the Internet, the truth of whether he is merely a scapegoat or a true criminal mastermind remains unclear.
What is clear is that the plot thickens. Hopefully we will get the real truth from the trial that is scheduled to begin on January 5, 2015.
Meanwhile we'll surely have a string of movies coming out before the trial is over. One such film is already in the works by 20th Century Fox who have hired Shutter Island novelist Dennis Lehane to write the story about the Silk Road hitman. 1
The Silk Road hitman story is about former Silk Road employee Curtis Clark Green, a.ka. Chronicpain and Flush, who claims Dread Pirate Roberts ordered a hit on him. He is alleged to have cooperated with the FBI to fake his own death and ultimately bring down the Silk Road website leading to the arrest of Ross Ulbricht. 2
1) Silk Road hitman story to become a feature film from the author of 'Shutter Island'
2) FBI sting and faked death may have played key role in Silk Road demise