"How do you eat an Elephant? You nibble at it, nibble at it, just use a lot of little bites" explained Special Agent Jared Der- Yeghiayan at the FIC 2019 conference in France last year. He was describing how he helped in infiltrating the online marketplace known as the Silk Road and how he participated in unmasking the sites operator under the name of Dread Pirate Roberts.
I had intended to post this piece several times over the last few weeks but this story took much longer than I had anticipated. It's a bit lengthy but I hope you find it as entertaining as I did.
Ross Ulbricht was not your average Texan computer geek that moved to Silicon Valley to start a better life in computer science. Whether for good or for bad, Ross played a pivotal role in the development of the perception of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies at large and likely fostered the majority of the sensationalistic biases/media coverage that we see surrounding the space today. But as I've familiarized myself with him and his story, I see a lot of myself in him whether it's his philosophies or his economic/political beliefs.
His formative years were spent in Austin Texas with an extremely tight knit family. He seemed to be the typical American teenager who in high school, drove an old Volvo, smoked plenty of Pot, and still managed to get a 1460 on his SAT. Many of his peers that have looked back at what he was like have described him as "Care free but still caring".
Following high school, Ross went on to the University of Dallas Texas, where he received a scholarship, to study Physics. He was very accomplished and earned himself another scholarship to Penn State, where he would excel even further in a graduate program. However, he soon became bored with tedious lab reports and began to immerse himself into the world of Psychedelics and Eastern Philosophy.
During this transitional period, Ross began to express a loss of interest in Physics and instead felt an affinity for Economics. This newly found passion lead him to study Liberterian Orthodoxy and he began to align himself with figures like Ludwig Von Mises and other important Liberterian philosophers. As his passion grew stronger, he became emboldened to express his opinions on taxation and other forms of Governmental coercion, describing that he felt the Government served only one purpose: to "hold a monopoly on violence and use that power to enforce taxation". He also expressed that he believed the only way for American citizens could obtain the original virtues that the founding fathers had intended and the only key to be politically/morally independent from the federal government is economic freedom.
Following graduation Ross moved back to Austin and into an apartment with his girlfriend Julia. They were both young and shared big dreams, one of which was getting married.
"Ross Had Been An Eagle Scout. But He Smoked Plenty Of Pot - And Still Got A 1460 On His SAT. To Friends, He Was Caring And Carefree"- Lyn Ulbricht
Ross entered adulthood with brighteyes, but immediately suffered a series of setbacks. He tried day trading, but couldn't hold onto an account. He tried to start a video game company, only to fail again. He landed a third attempt with one of his neighbors, Donny Palmertree, at a business called Good Wagon Books. It was here at the company's digital storefront that Ross fell in love with coding and developed the company's website alongside learning inventory management on a database. He even created a custom algorithm to determine an item's price based on peer reviews - all of which would be fundamental to his future venture later on.
During this brief moment of success, Ross began focusing on personal growth by hiking in his freetime as well as learning yoga. However, it was at this point where his relationship with Julia began to sour and drift on top of rough waters. They began arguing over politics, money, and their social lives. At some point during the summer of 2010, this rocky period in their relationship came to a climax and they separated. This would become one of the significant events that would send him adrift and set onto the path that would lead him to create the largest criminal enterprise in history.
He began recording his thoughts in a personal journal, his first entry being: "I went through a lot over the last year in my personal relationships. I had left my promising career as a scientist to be an investment advisor and an entrepreneur and came up empty handed." Soon after, Palmertree got a job in Dallas and left Good Wagon in the hands of Ross.
Ross took this opportunity to quit trying, and start doing.
Ross's first month in ownership of the store was the best month Good Wagon had ever had, with over $10,000 in sales. This was a major boost in confidence for Ross and by the end of the year, he began looking beyond the book business. This came after Ross had discovered Bitcoin, writing in his journal: "I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind." He went on to describe what he called "The idea". The idea "was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to him." he also wrote that he'd "been studying the technology for awhile but still needed to develope a business model and a strategy."
He wrote in a later journal that he had recorded shortly before he was arrested that his new business would be served to combat the war on drugs. He wrote "I was calling it Underground brokers, but eventually settled on Silk Road."
Soon afterwards, he cultivated his own Psilocybin mushrooms as the first product. He began seeing Julia again while trying to balance programming his new marketplace with Good Wagon. That is until one night in early 2011, when Good Wagon literally collapsed. He was working in his warehouse one night when he heard the sound of the library falling apart. Each individual shelf came crashing down like dominos. This event would serve as a bit of foreshadowing, as he neglected two vital screws that held the foundation together, ultimately leading to a collapse in on itself.
Ross broke the news to Palmertree and they deceided to close the company with no hard feelings. But before leaving Ross had mentioned to him that he had begun working on a business - "something really big."
On January 1st, 2011, Ross wrote "In 2011, I am creating a year of prosperity and power beyond what I have ever experienced before. Silk Road is going to become a phenomenon and at least one person will tell me about it, unknowing that I was the creator."
Year of prosperity and power
Silk Road went live in mid January 2011, with the first sale within the first few days of the grand opening. Business came pouring in very rapidly and eventually Ross sold all 10 pounds of his mushrooms when other vendors started onboarding. Although he was handling everything by hand, it wasn't long before it became a thriving, self-driving marketplace.
Within weeks after its launch, Special Agent Carl Mark Force recalls that he was "half-asleep" when a postal inspector informed him of something weird that was going on with the parcel sorters. "Just wanna let everybody know about this, we are having problems with drugs coming through the mail."
Force was a member of the DEA based out of Baltimore and over a meeting with the FBI, DEA, IRS, and Homeland security, it was discovered that it was coming from an underground site, known as Silk road. A drug dealer using the federal postal service was music to Force's ears. He was a 6 foot 200 pound monster that was in love with the thrill of busting down someone's door with a Heckler and Koch MP5 in his hands and Doc Martens on his feet at 6AM.
But by the time they had discovered the source of the illicit parcels, it had already been 6 months. By then the site had become an established, well organized community, with profiles, listings, and even peer reviews. It was "The Amazon of the black market." But everything was anonymous and went through traditional postal services. There was no need for fake names, if anybody asks then you just play dumb.
Silk Road's seller's guide featured helpful tutorials like how to vacuum seal or hide drugs to evade detection. Most shipments made it, but the small percentage that didn't represented the growth of the website that couldn't be stopped. The website's catalogue featured everything you can possibly think of like: Fishscale Colombian Cocaine, Afghan No. 4 Heroin, Strawberry flavored LSD, Caramello Hash, "Mercury's famous uncut Cocaine flakes", "Mario Invincibility Star XTC", White Mitsubishi MDMA, Black tar heroin called "Devil's Licorice", and the list goes on.
It even served as a self-service pharmacy providing prescription meds like Oxycontin, Xanax, Fentanyl, or Dilaudid. And the peer reviews served as a mechanism to enforce excellent value and quality. The community standards were top notch. Which only facilitated the growth of the marketplace and Silk Road would soon become the premier destination for digital drug sales.
To say that Law Enforcement was overwhelmed would be an understatement. By September 2011 they had made no additional progress. The opportunity was right in front of their face, but they didn't know where to begin.
As 2012 rolled around, the site was at the top of the priority list going all the way up to the heads of Federal Agencies. In January, Homeland Security was assembling a task force for a full on case. And force soon found himself attending Silk Road summits, crammed with presentations all about nodes and TCP/IP layers. It's safe to say that the agencies were not equipped with the knowledge to find value in these kinds of presentations, but Force was ready to immerse himself in order to identify the criminal mastermind heading this organization.
The task force called itself Operation Marco Polo. Having become more equipped with the knowledge of how to navigate the marketplace, they were finally able to determine who was in charge, the revered figure Dread Pirate Roberts. Like Silk Road, DPR was an enigma who was the wearer of the mask belonging to the mythical character in The Princess Bride and Force was intrigued by the appeal. But Force wasn't any closer to knowing his identity or fully understanding how the exchanges on the market happen. So it was time for him to learn a few things, the priorities being Bitcoin and Tor.
200 miles away a young FBI agent was booking a man named Hector Xavier Monsegur at the New York FBI office. Monsegur was being escorted by an agent by the name of Chris Tarbell who arrested him earlier that night on the lower East Side. He also went by the name of Sabu, who was a co-founder of the internet group LulzSec, a group of hackers responsible for targeting corporate giants and executive governmental figures. Sabu was also a high profile member of the beta male sleeze bags who call themselves Anonymous. The FBI had deceided to ring him up and try to bring him in to make him an informant for the agency.
Being able to track down an elite hacker through cyber space was an incredible accomplishment for the FBI freshman and almost immediately earned him the role as the Cyber expert in the office. Tarbell reveled in it, not for the glory it came with, but that he was able to combine computers with his passion in life, being a cop. Tarbell always wanted to be a cop and it shocked his parents when he dropped out of medical school to pursue computer science before joining the academy. He had deceided on programming because he knew it was the future. The former MD in progress was now at the bottom of the totem pole in the world of beep booping, but he rolled his sleeves up and came out the other side as a computer forensics expert.
He spent the next four years traveling the world working on cases following the digital footprints of terrorists, child pornographers, or botnets. He had proven that he possessed talents in deciphering the secrets within complex code and breezed through Quantico where the Bureau asked him to join the HQ of the FBI's Cybercrime division based in New York City.
So catching Sabu in his first year really set the tone for the rookie cop. Sabu was highly respected in the world of hacking and would prove to be a valuable asset for the agency. Over the next 9 months dozens of high profile arrests were made and every major network of hackers were essentially disabled, so it was pretty quiet at the New York office. But Tarbell kept himself busy tasking himself with a new project, Tor.
If you're into cryptocurrencies, you're probably aware of what Tor is. But for the uninitiated, Tor is the encryption software that allowed customers to visit markets like Silk Road. Tor's protocol is like an invisibility cloak that makes the world below the surface web go around. It stands for "The Onion Router" and was a product of the Navy. But it was unusual for a law enforcement officer to immerse himself in such a project. Tor's encryption is so layered that it had never been used in court, simply because forensics agents didn't know how to crack it. Traditionally when an investigation led to a Tor IP, the investigation would be scrapped. But Tarbell was still high on taking down Sabu, so the difficulty only served as motivation.
By now Silk Road was the hottest case in the nation. Homeland security was on it. The IRS was on it. The DEA was on it. And now, Tarbell and the New York office were on it. But Tarbell was equipped with knowledge that most of the other agencies lacked and he was aware of the difficulty that came with the case. He knew that this wasn't going to be like any other case involving the typical drug cartel, you couldn't take down the snake by targeting its body. The only way to take down Silk Road was to take out the head, the administrator, who was Dread Pirate Roberts.
Nearing the end of 2011, Ross had taken a trip down to Australia to spend some time with his older sister. Over the summer that year, Silk Road's usage had exploded and was finally getting mainstream recognition. Following an article posted by Gawker in June of 2011, usage had grown so rapidly that Ross couldn't sustain handling every order personally himself. Ross was also humbled after employing the help of a benevolent hacker, who informed him of major security flows and told him that his prized project was "amateur shit."
The wall surrounding his digital castle had holes and he felt exposed. He wrote, "And yeah, that was yet another learning curve, configuring and running a LAMP server, oh joy! … But I was loving it. Sure it was a little crude, but it worked! Rewriting the site was the most stressful couple of months I’ve ever experienced."
So security became a number one priority for Ross. In order to mitigate that risk he employed the help of an old friend that he trusted named Richard Bates. Bates helped Ross with the basic programming and even fixed the sites first major outage, caused by the recent significant spike in users. But when Ross tried to hire Bates as the first employee, he rejected the offer and asked Ross, "Have you ever thought about doing something legitimate in life? Something legal?"
But to Ross, Silk Road was the most legitimate thing he'd ever done and he was determined to make Silk Road a success. After all, he was making $25,000/month just from commission alone. But becoming rich wasn't enough to sleep at night.
Ross realized that in order for him to succeed in this mission that he'd need to construct a wall between the two lives that he was living so he decided that he needed to organize his life in order to fit the mold he had created for himself. He thought it would be best for him to uproot and start fresh outside of Austin because he needed to grow. But before he headed off into the world, he broke up with Julia for the last time and told Bates that he "sold the website to a mysterious buyer." Then he left and didn't look back, laptop in hand and wrote in his journal "“It was time to bring in some hired guns...take the site to the next level.”
But Ross had two identities for a reason, that he couldn't abandon his old values entirely. The cleaner side of Ross struggled with living two lives and couldn't stand the lies he had laid down as his foundation. Just before New Year's he went on a date with a woman named Jessica; who he told that he was working on a Bitcoin exchange. That action alone had breached Ross's comfort zone and Jessia was quickly becoming a liability, but he felt an urge to be honest with her. Again, he fell into himself facing a crisis between his two personalities, one between intimacy and deceit. Before departing Jessica that evening he gave her the most honest answer he'd given all year, he told her "I have secrets."
A Libertarian experiment
Ross and Silk Road embodied one another, both something of a cipher. The conceptual framework was founded upon two fundamental aspects: Drugs and Liberty. Like Ross, Silk Road consisted of a few basic ethics so Silk Road established a strict code of conduct:
No Child Porn, No Stolen Goods, and No Fake Degrees.
The single tenant being, “Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else.”
As the site aged, the administrator became the foundation. He was the sites leader and its strongest advocate of individual liberty.
At this point, still unnamed, in February of 2012 he posted:
“I am Silk Road, the market, the person, the enterprise, everything … I need a name,” he continued, "Drum roll please...My new name is Dread Pirate Roberts."
The name fell nicely among like minded individuals. The mask, worn by several generations of pirates, obfuscated the relationship between the man and the name. Ross and the mask were emblematic of the website and he quickly became Christ. Among his followers, Silk Road became much more than their free market, it became their sanctuary. And what DPR wrote, became their scripture and their doctrine.
“Stop funding the state with your tax dollars,” DPR wrote, “and direct your productive energies into the black market.”
Everyone a part of the community, including Ross, believed that every transaction on Silk Road represented a step towards freedom.
Silk Road became a new power structure. It detested the establishment, it embodied the most polarizing elements of silicon valley, it was a disruptive & thriving economy, and it was a home for political and doctrinal rhetoric. DPR was a philosopher and Silk Road was a direct challenge and a slap in the face to law enforcement.
The criminal activity became secondary to law enforcement; the site shutting down just became an outcome of their main objective, taking down DPR. They felt threatened by the captivation DPR's personality attracted and they felt their authority was being called into question. But DPR represented freedom and was emboldened by the challenge the establishment posed when US senator Chuck Schumer held a public announcement denouncing Silk Road.
“The US govt, my main enemy,” he wrote, “was aware of me and … calling for my destruction.”
A man on the inside
By April of 2012, the agencies had breached into the network and like Ross, they too were wearing a mask.
Agent Force had created the perfect identity going by the name of Eladio Guzman, who was a cartel operative based out of the Dominican republic that specialized in moving large shipments of Heroin and Cocaine. To go with his identity, Force had selected the perfect username to suit his role like the man of the mask, although too subtle for Ross to have noticed. He chose the name Nob, being the Biblical city in which David obtained the sword that conquered Goliath.
Force used his experience with the agency to put together a backstory for his role, serving majority of his early career on the front lines of the drug war. Filling this role was easy for him and the mindset of a smuggler came naturally to him after spending years tracking them. Force recognized Silk Road for what it was as a hub for communications and distribution for the black market. Using this to his advantage, on his first day he posted that he was "offering the opportunity for vertical integration from wholesale to retail." This post must have caught the operators eye because the next day he responded, "I'm open to the idea. What did you have in mind?"
Operation Marco Polo occupied the premier real estate in the office having taken charge on the task of taking down Silk Road, which they had nicknamed The Pit.
This is where Tarbell and his cyber team would play. Tarbell felt confident in his team, his favorite being Ilwhan Yum. Yum was from Korea, but by the time he got to Long Island he had been immersed in Video games, networking, and packets from playing competitively in college. He was also one of the most important players in the team because he specialized in Bitcoin. He attended the first ever Bitcoin conference in New York during August in 2011. This was because from a law enforcement perspective, Bitcoin screamed money washing. But as a technologist, he believed the protocol was "simply beautiful."
Next to Yum sat Tom Kiernan, who served 17 years in the agency as the "civilian tech support guy." Kiernan became the spine of the cybersquad simply because he just understood machines. He was also equipped with decades of experience having seen every critical cyber case that took place over the last 17 years - so he was just the right kind of guy that Tarbell needed to help take down Silk Road's defenses. Tor network was a vexing problem. He recognized its benefits, but he also believed that every technology would inevitably find a way into corruption. Tor made the classic law enforcement methods useless. While it's true that you may want to start piecing together the network or get closer to Dread Pirate Roberts, but all you'd have is usernames. Therefore this was not a people case, but a computer case. And the path to the head was through the server.
There were 1.5 billion computers in the world and Tarbell had to find one. It could be anywhere. He was looking for a nanowire in a haystack.
Center of trust
For the first couple of weeks, Nob pushed his investment scheme. But DPR declined, saying "This operation is much bigger than you think." And he was right, Silk Road was like a finely tuned engine. With all free markets, especially those in the dark, comes the problem of scamming. To prevent this, Ross created an escrow. Where he would hold all transactions until settled. DRP wanted to create a "Center of Trust," and it was this that allowed the site to really reach new heights.
So when Nob asked for a price tag, Ross evaluated it at $1,000,000,000. In fact, this value would be undercutting him, the scale of next years commissions would make him arguably the biggest entrepreneur of the second internet boom. He justified this price by saying, "this is more than a business to me. This is a revolution and is becoming my life's work." Ross seemed to have found himself in a founder's dilema saying "it would not be easy to pass the baton without hurting the enterprise. And right now that is more important to me than the money."
Over the next few weeks Force found himself in a friendship with DPR, forming their intimacy over late nights through TorChat. DPR encouraged Nob to go Paleo. Nob advised DPR against going to see the new Batman. And even invited him to LA to get tacos.
To force, DPR seemed to be appropriately cagey. No matter what, his new friend never wanted to meet under any circumstance. For some reason, Force imagined DPR as a skinny white kid from the west coast. But Force liked him. He enjoyed their deep conversations about the underlying culture within Silk Road. It reminded him of all the time he had spent undercover. He imagined DPR as someone living a double life and the allure of taking on his newfound identity.
Force had experienced first hand what it was like to play the role of a big shot criminal operator. But playing that role came with a price. The more he pretended, the more the two identities blended. At home he was a clean cut father. At night he was at clubs looking for drug deals, splurging on bottles, mobbed by women, and he was very surprised how comfortable it all felt.
But Force recognized the dangerous game before Ross did. He knew how it changed people. Having your identity based on what was fundamentally a lie was an incredibly difficult task. At first you are lying to the world, but then you start lying to yourself.
A good man, but a better friend
"The world is in flux," Ross tells the camera. He was having a conversation with his best friend Rene Pinell, for a non-profit called StoryCorps. The experience offers you the opportunity to share about your life, stories and thoughts they feel the world should know to get to know them.
During the conversation, Ross is contemplative. He's moved to San Francisco, which has served as a revelation. He is awed by the beauty and energy. He came on an invitation from Rene, who has been his best friend since the 7th grade. In the video they get nostalgic about their childhood. There was the time they helped each other steal tater tots in the school lunch room. Ross shared how he liked to eat his peanut butter wafers, precisely, nibble by nibble. How a sleep over ended with his friends stealing all of the change he had saved up.
They talk about young love. Ross reminisces about Ashley, his first, and her "great tits." The first time they hung out they did AMT, a peculiar research chemical similar to LSD. Ross was still a teenager then, lying on the floor, expanding his mind with a beautiful girl for eight hours.
"Life is like a fluctuating value," Rene says, "like currency." Rene thinks Ross is a trader. Rene talks about how Austin is the "meh" of startups while San Francisco is the "mecca" of startups. He said everyone wants to change the world, but make a lot of money in the process. Rene was not aware of it, but he was sitting next to someone doing exactly that.
They conclude the interview with a bit of an emotional angle. Rene and Ross wonder what the world will be like in 200 years. Ross adds that he "wants to have a substantial positive impact on humanity by the time I die." Lastly, Rene asks Ross if he thinks he will live forever. Ross looks up, a tiny smile crosses his face and says, "Yes. I think I might in some form or another."
As his creation became a global sensation, DPR loved his role as a leader and libertarian evangelist. He created a book club, where users could share their thoughts and passions. He talked more about the future when our governments would seem like ancient history, like the "pharaohs and their armies of slaves." He thanked the rest of the forum, "for your trust, faith, camaraderie, and love." He then offered them advice, "Hugs not drugs," but quickly corrected it to be "wait, hugs AND drugs."
The community loved him. Calling him a "job creator" and declaring that his name would live on "among the greatest men and women of history."Silk road had become a fanatical cult, with Ross being their Steve Jobs. Force noticed a swelling in Ross's confidence. After all, he'd been talking with him for over a year and had come to learn his personality and passions. But he had figured that the experience must have been intoxicating, bringing an idea to life and projecting your will through encrypted code. This was the spirit of DPR, a self created beacon in the darkness. Who was spreading the good word and holding the lantern of truth. But on the inside Ross felt lonely, sharing with Nob that he thought of himself as a person "who hides behind computers." There were many times where Nob wanted to meet DPR, but instead they shared a mix of fiction and truth about their lives.
Ross had also mentioned a problem to Force. As the sole operator, he was having issues providing reliable telecommunication and human resources for the marketplace. To grow, he needed to start building a strong workforce. As a leader he needed support in order to further the future desires he had for Silk Road.
Ross deceided to begin the expansion with hiring the user Chronicpain, AKA Curtis Green, who eventually will be the downfall of Silk Road.
"I just wanted to let you know that your work in the community hasn't gone unnoticed," DPR said
"I'd like to offer you an official position."
Curtis had been apart of Silk Road since the early times of the network. He'd chosen the name Chronicpain because of his own pain, caused by a back injury he'd sustained working as an EMT. After being forced into retirement, he'd become an amatuer pharmacologist, mastering the ins and outs of Opiates. Silk road was a piece of heaven for him, fulfilling his interests in technological intricacy by combining computers and safe drug use. Chronicpain was the founder of Silk Road's first Health and Wellness forum, where he provided tips on snorting Ephedrine, cautioned against Fentanyl for the uninitiated, and aided someone in explaining why injecting Heroin into their eye wasn't a good idea.
So when DPR offered him the job, he was thrilled. He became Silk Road's first official customer support outside of Ross. He would reset passwords, work 80 hours a week, settled drug disputes, all while watching Fox News. Like any good Digital Don, Ross could also be generous, like when he funded a poker tournament for Green, which he ended up losing - Ross even helped someone pick out a wedding ring on the website.
The leader showed great compassion in the public spotlight, but working for Ross wasn't easy, he would be reprimanded if he was 1 minute late on TorChat or when he was scolded for not sending Christmas greetings. One time Green forwarded a troubling customer service complaint whose brother overdosed on Heroin from Silk Road, noting that under the system right now children could use the site. Green had mentioned that he felt that was too much freedom but Ross erupted "THAT'S THE WHOLE IDEA!". He believed that any constraints would destroy the fundamental underlying concept and refused any assistance for the grieving sister.
But on Silk Road trust only went so far. Green was obligated to send his driver's license to DPR, which he obliged to even though it exposed himself while Ross remained anonymous. This is where both Green and Force had found themselves on similar ground, having established a seemingly very close relationship with DPR, but neither had the slightest clue of who he was.
Subduing the Digital Frontier
The cybersquad worked diligently on searching for any flicker of information that would help crack open the underbelly of the internet. They explored the site, patrolled the forums, and browsed through Reddit trying to find Silk Road community members talking amongst each other about any Cryptographic weaknesses they've found surrounding the site.
They were a good team, with Tarbell emerging as the dominant personality. The rookie of last year had found himself to be a confident alpha type who bristled about any rumblings he heard coming out of Washington about the ownership of the Silk Road investigation.
Every Federal Agency found themselves in a battle trying to plant their flag in the investigation - Tarbell and Force had been at war with each other in particular. Force was trying to claim complete ownership of the investigation singling out the FBI specifically. Tarbell took the criticism to heart telling Yum,“They think we’re a joke, poking around on the Internet, but we're going to prove them wrong." he continued, "the other agencies have been in it since the start, but they don't know fuck-all."
Cyber crime is the only frontier in the US justice system that has no clear jurisdiction. But an agency's cyber department is the main attractor for funding and with money along comes politics. Within this new frontier, Silk Road became the wild wild west. Conquering it became the manifest destiny for every agency and whoever brought law to the lawless would be a hero. Solve the case and your name gets engraved on a plaque and will be passed down for generations, so Silk Road became the largest digital manhunt in history.
The mail man
Curtis Green was at home just getting the day started when the doorbell rang at 11:00 AM. This caught Green off guard because visits were not a commonplace up in the Wasatch Mountains. But Green slowly made his way to the door with his two Chihuahuas in stead.
When he got to the door he caught a glimpse of the mail man hustling off and found it strange when he got into a white van with no logos or rear windows. On the porch sat a package that printed no return address and was post marked out of Maryland. Green observed the package and took it into his kitchen.
But when he tore open the package with a pair of scissors, a plume of white powder exploded into his face, covering himself and numbing his tongue. Moments later a battering ram smashed through his front door followed by a flood of SWAT officers armed with riot shields and AR-15s. "On the floor!" someone yelled but when he tried to comfort his Chihuahuas they pushed him to the ground yelling "keep your hands where we can see them!"
Officers handcuffed Green while fending off the tiny fangs of his beasts. Pinned down on the carpet surrounded by $27,000 in Peruvian snow, green was eye level with dozens of boots but the only thing he was thinking was "man that thing was unlocked," looking at the door.
The fact was, Green wasn't your average Mormon in Utah, he was a respected member Silk Road and wearing a fanny pack with $23,000 cash inside of it. The police made themselves comfortable in his home and when they logged onto his computer they realized how pivotal this arrest would be when they found messages from an irritated DPR.
"Why aren't you clearing out your accounts?"
"Get back to me ASAP."
They'd just caught one of the biggest fish in the pond. They caught a Silk Road Lieutenant.
The next few days would prove to be the most difficult days of Ross's life. Ross had googled Green and found that he'd been arrested, and DPR suspected that he would flip. On top of that, Ross got a message from another employee named Inigo informing him that 2500 BTC/$350,000 had disappeared ($25,000,000 today). Which was quickly traced back to Greens account. Ross responded, "this will be the first time I have to call on my muscle."
Moments later, Nob got a message from DPR that he had a "problem" in Utah, since Force had told him that "enforcement and collection" were one of his many skills. Almost like it was written out of a TV show, Force received a PDF from DPR containing an image of Green's driver's license. Looking directly across from him at an interrogation table, Force thought, "well this sure is an opportunity."
But Green claimed he hadn't stolen any Bitcoin and that the laptop was in the possession of the police when it happened.
(EXTREMELY SIGNIFICANT-MORE ON THAT IN PART TWO)
But Force didn't care about the money. He wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.
Force planned to stage a torture video with Green as the lead role. Soon Green was being dunked in a motel bathroom by secret service agents while the camera was rolling. "Did you get it?" Green asked while gasping for air and feeling as though this was going too far. As a response they dunked him a few more times to "get a convincing shot."
DPR was jittery and waiting for news from Nob. In fact, the entire forum was waiting in anticipation and wondering what was going to happen to their sanctuary. A user named Cimon asked DPR, "What kind of transgression against Silk Road would require a lethal response?"
DPR told him, "If this was the Wild West, and it kinda is, you'd get hung for stealing a horse."
Inigo chimed in, "I don't condone murder but this is almost worthy of assassinating him over lol."
Later on that day, DPR messaged Nob:
DPR was right, Green had flipped - but by the man he just hired as an assassin. DPR had been reduced to one side of his split identities, going from the beloved leader to negotiating prices for murder.
Force immediately started formulating a plan to "kill" Green. They got it done swiftly and Nob sent DPR photos of Green laying on the floor covered in Cambell's Chicken and Stars soup to stage the supposed aftermath of asphyxiation. And DPR sent over $80,000 to a capital one account, owned by the government.
DPR felt ashamed. He had a discussion with Inigo on the forum saying that "he just wishes the best for people," but ultimately concluded that Green had become too much of a liability.
But like so many revolutionaries before him, DPR became an ideologue, willing to kill for his vision. He even told Inigo that it was "justice," but according to whom? Had DPR become convinced that he himself had become the judge?
Morality begins to fade when you have shifting personalities. And the irony here, is that the moral of the story behind Dread Pirate Roberts is that the wearer always becomes the mask. Everyone began to wonder who DPR was anymore - including Ross.
DPR asked Nob to tell him when he thinks he has gone too far. This was the most genuine conversation that Nob has had with DPR over the last two years. Nobs advice to DPR was simple, that power can consume you. He then reminded DPR not to lose himself - which is exactly what Ross had been trying to do.
But how could he not? Ross had built a Multi-Billion dollar enterprise within two years at 25 years old. Ross was no longer the man who struggled to lie to a woman. His diary entries had gone from aspirations to strict entries on what needs to be done to build his empire. Ross shared one last post with the forum:
"What we are doing...will have rippling effects for generations to come."
This moment of weakness was revealing to not only Ross looking at himself, but to two agents back in New York that are desperately searching to find a break in a case with so much evidence yet zero idea how to use it. At that moment, Tarbell and Kiernan stared at the screen in disbelief.
They'd discovered the true IP address for the Silk Road server.
To be continued...
I find it fascinating to look at the obsene amounts of coins going through these wallets back then.
Ross: Literally billions of dollars today - some of them are active... makes me wonder if he gave the keys away or if someone is moving them on his behalf.