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Who Is Ross Ulbricht?

Who Is Ross Ulbricht?


Good day everybody,

Welcome to CryptoGod-1's blog on all things crypto. As part of a new series I am going to be looking at some prominent names in the financial, crypto, and general world who made a name for themselves through interesting means, many of which ended up behind bars for their actions. To start things off, I will be looking at one of the most famous cases from the crypto and darknet space, Ross Ulbricht.

 

Ross Ulbricht

Ulbricht was born in 1984 and is most famous for his activity on the darknet, most notably that he created the famous darknet marketplace known as Silk Road. He grew up near to Austin, Texas, and went on to study physics at the University of Texas at Dallas and then Pennsylvania State University where he gained a master's degree in material science.

In 2011 he created the darknet marketplace known as Silk Road and continued its operations until it was finally shut down by the United States government in 2013. The marketplace was known for all sorts of activity, including illegal, which saw drugs and weapons being sold in exchange for cryptocurrency. Ulbricht made use of the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts" when conducting his activity, and in 2013 was arrested and indicted on seven charges including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics by the means of the internet, and continuing a criminal enterprise.

After two years in custody, Ulbricht was finally sentenced by a Manhattan federal jury, which found him guilty on all seven charges. Although he was a first time offender, and not convicted of selling any actual drugs or weapons, his role in creating the website and opportunity for these illegal items to be sold resulted in him being sentenced to two life imprisonment terms plus 40 years, to be served concurrently with no chance of parole.

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"Dread Pirate Roberts"

The idea behind Silk Road was formulated by Ulbricht while he was busy working on another project, known as Good Wagon Books. This was a business which focused on selling used books, which he built with the help of his friend Donny Palmertree. Once Palmertree moved away to Dallas, in doing so leaving Ulbricht to run the business himself, Ulbricht outlined in his diary an idea for a website "where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them." This was to be known as 'Underground Brokers' although he later changed it to Silk Road, based on the historic trade route between Asia and Europe.

Making use of the Tor Network and Onion Browsers, a free and open-source software for enabling anonymous communication released by the Naval Research Laboratory in 2004. According to Ulbrichts LinkedIn Profile, he envisioned Silk Road as a "means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind" while he also claimed "I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force."

The rise of Silk Road took place in a very short space of time, with a variety of media outlets picking up stories about the market in mid-2011. This led to a spike in popularity in the site, with a huge increase in traffic and therefore profits for Ulbricht. With the increasing attention of the site, the authorities made efforts to locate and terminate the website and thus put an end to the market.

Throughout the lifespan of the site, Ulbricht had made use of the handle 'Dread Pirate Roberts,' a name he had based off the 1987 movie The Princess Bride in which the pirate was a mythical character, inhabited by the wearer of the mask. It is not known whether or not he was the only person to make use of this username, however it was the logged in username when the police seized his laptop as part of his arrest. When the police arrested Ulbricht, they did so in the public library in San Francisco, where the police waited until he was logged into his account on his laptop. From there they staged a couple arguing to distract Ulbricht as the police swopped in and another police offer grabbed his laptop before he could shut it off or destroy it. They officers inserted a USB drive into the laptop which immediately downloaded all key data, therefore incriminating Ulbricht.

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Special Agent Carl Mark Force IV

Another key component in the case was special agent Carl Mark Force IV, an agent from the Baltimore DEA. He learned about Silk Road about a year or so after its creation, and at that time the site was the go to place for online drugs trade. The site was listing 13,000 or so items, with items such as fish­scale Colombian cocaine, Afghan No. 4 heroin, strawberry LSD, Caramello hash, Mercury’s Famous uncut cocaine flakes, Mario Invincibility Star XTC, white Mitsubishi MDMA, a black tar heroin called the Devil’s Licorice available. Force was determined to find a way to take this site down, as he had become disillusioned with the daily slog of arresting dealers on the streets of Baltimore. He big chance came in early 2012.

He was informed by his supervisor that Homeland Security was assembling a task force for a full-on Silk Road case and he was to be on the team. Known as Operation Marco Polo, there were roughly 40 agents on the team and they were based out of the Baltimore Homeland Security Investigations office. Once Force had been shown how to navigate the Silk Road website, and decided it was time to get a better understand of both computers and Bitcoin.

Force created a screenname on Silk Road known as Nob and pretended to be "Eladio Guzman," a cartel operative based in the Dominican Republic whose bread and butter was moving midsize shipments of heroin and cocaine. He had one plan in his mind, to convince the creator of Silk Road to communicate with him, and therefore he would be able to work on tracking him down, The following message was sent to Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR);

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Nob got a response and over the coming weeks the pair exchanged messages, but DPR was hesitant as the site had become his life's work. A valuation of $1 Billion was offered up but Nob (Force) scoffed at this price. The pair kept up communication, with Nob suggesting the creation of a pro version of the site for Cartels to be known as 'Masters of Silk Road' and through their discussions they become friends of sorts. At this stage Silk Road had become a brand cult, with tens of thousands of fanatical users with DPR at the helm. While Nob at times tried to encourage them to meet up, suggesting they could get tacos in San Francisco at times, DPR was always hesitant. While their interests and discussions grew in time, the pair never met.

 

Tarbell & CY2

The cybercops on this case were led by a man named Tarbell out of an office in New York. The team was known as CY2 and two of his main colleagues in the case were Ilwhan Yum and Tom Kiernan. Tarbell believed that Tor had benefits, but also that all technologies could have their purposes corrupted. In a criminal context, such as dealing with Silk Road, Tor made classic law enforcement - knocking on doors, interviewing witnesses, making deals - nearly useless. Therefore he knew the only real solution for his team to crack this case was by locating the server used for Silk Road, which would therefore lead to Dread Pirate Roberts. Out of 1.5 billion computers in the world, Tarbell started to think about just one machine, day after day.

 

ChronicPain

A popular member of the site, Curtis Green aka ChronicPain was 'hired' by DPR to be one of his lieutenants as the growth and expansion of Silk Road took place. On disability, Green had become an amateur pharmacologist, learning the ins and outs of opiates from his location in Utah. With DPR’s approval, Green started Silk Road’s Health and Wellness forum. A new position of being a trusted moderator saw ChronicPain become the user Flush and was in charge of handling disputes, customer service and resetting passwords. DPR demanded a scan of Green’s driver’s license as a loyalty test and Green obliged, even though it exposed him while allowing DPR to remain in the shadows.

 

Assassination Orders

Nob (Force) had managed to set up a bait for Green and it was there that he was arrested by a SWAT team. Once he had been questioned, and willingly answered everything and anything he could, before eventually being released from jail. After returning home he eventually decided to give Force a call to become an informant for the DEA. He allowed the agent to search his entire accounts and put him up in a Salt Lake City Marriott once he realised how close Green was to DPR. 

DPR had grown nervous over the lack of communication from Green and searched his identity to discover he had been arrested. At a similar time another employee of Silk Road by the name of Inigo noted that $350,000 in bitcoins had just disappeared from various accounts. Inigo quickly traced the theft to Green’s admin identity and DPR wanted to get this sorted. He contacted Nob to teach Green a lesson and get the bitcoin back, all the while unaware that Nob was in fact Force and Green was with him in the Salt Lake City Marriott.

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Force took advantage of the situation and got Green to agree to a 'fake' torture, and they took photos to send on to DPR. Green denied any knowledge of the missing Bitcoin, as the police had his access info at this stage, and Force awaited DPR's response. Meanwhile DPR had discussions with his other lieutenants and they decided something like that warranted more than torture, it warranted death in case Green flipped. 

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Over the length of a week Force agreed a price with DPR and along with his team staged the fake death of Green. He sent  DPR photos of the staged torture, followed by photos of Green, facedown on the floor, pallid, smeared with Campbell’s Chicken & Stars soup—the supposed aftermath of asphyxiation. Green was forced to stay hidden from there on out as part of a 'witness protection' requirement, while Force went back to Baltimore. DPR meanwhile sent $40,000 to a Capital One account which was controlled by the government as an advance for the job, and he sent another $40,000 as a 'job well done' once he received the photos as a proof of death. DPR never got back his stolen Bitcoin from Green.

After having sent orders for someone off Silk Road to be murdered, the attitude of DPR seemed to have changed from someone who claimed to be a man of the people and care about his users to someone willing to kill for his beloved vision. DPR was now at a stage where he was focused on one thing and one thing only, empire-building.

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Towards the Death of Silk Road

In June 2013 the site reached nearly 1 million registered accounts and the federal investigation was no closer to unmasking the creator and operator of the site. That was until one day luck was on Tarbell and Kiernan's side, as they looked at their usual investigative screen and noticed something they had never seen before. A key to unlocking the entire case. The IP address of Silk Road - 62.75.246.20.

The address lead them to a server farm in Iceland where Ulbricht had long ago rented server space to run and store the information for Silk Road. The agents had discovered this vital information via a thread on Reddit where a user posted a warning that Silk Road’s IP address was “leaking” and making it visible to other computers. Once they cracked the IP and went to Iceland, where they met their counterparts in Iceland who accommodated their request to access the information. They got a mirror copy of the all the data held on the server regarding Silk Road and headed back to the States. They scanned the data and broke it down into as many pieces as possible, revealing transaction data, the variety of users, and finally their clue to the man behind the site, revealed via a subpoena that this particular IP’s physical location was Café Luna, Sacramento Street, San Francisco.

By this stage Ulbricht had long since left Texas, spent a period of time in Australia, and was now residing in San Francisco under the name Joshua Terrey. One day the police visited his new address, as a stash of fake IDs at the Canadian border customs office had been seized and all contained pictures of Ulbricht. The IDs were high-quality counterfeits which contained holographic features, and had been ordered so Ulbricht could secure additional server space for the requirements of Silk Road. He was questioned by Homeland Security but denied they were his and politely dismissed anything to do with them. Ulbricht grew spooked and moved once again, as he began to feel the pressure of running the site.

 

Downtime, Hacks, and Hells Angels

By this time Ulbricht believed the site alone was worth 10 or 11 figure sums, but had no interest in selling it. He saw it as a movement, but the site became plagued with problems including scams, hacks, and blackmail. Hackers had discovered ways to launch denial-of-service attacks on Silk Road, and DPR was forced to pay “protection” to the tune of $50,000 a week to keep the site live. That did not stop the attacks, and in May 2013 the site was down for an entire week. At the same time a new Tor browser marketplace, known as Atlantis, was launched as competition. With management and Bitcoin volatility issues, Nob offered a supporting ear for DPR. He confided in Nob (Force) that he was worried about law enforcement, and DPR was slacking in terms of security. DPR’s self-taught programming was also beginning to catch up with him and leaving holes in Tor’s invisibility cloak. 

As Tarbell rebuilt his own copy version of Silk Road with the information they got off the servers, it was uncovered that DPR was being blackmailed by a user named FriendlyChemist. DPR had hired assassins to take care of this problem, A user named Redandwhite claimed to be from the Hells Angels gang and was hired to off FriendlyChemist.

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DPR invited the Hells Angles to sell on the site, and also tried to negotiate the price of the 'hit.' He claimed to have previously gotten one done for $80,000 but RedandWhite was claiming a 'clean hit' would cost $300,000. In the interest of a potential future “business relationship” the Hells Angels agreed to $150,000, or 1,655 bitcoins at the time. RedandWhite told DPR, the blackmailer they killed was working with another guy known on Silk Road as Tony76, an infamous scammer. DPR agreed for him to also be killed, along with his housemates, although there was no discount for a group hit. A week later it was confirmed as completed by RedandWhite. While searching through all this information Tarbell discovered the Silk Road system all had a login system that created one trusted computer for all the other machines. This ended in frosty@frosty, and the belief was that whoever sat behind that computer was DPR. 

At this time Nob (Force) was in frequent contact with DPR, and confided that he had a man on the inside known as “Kevin,” a supposed source of counter-intelligence on the growing Silk Road investigation. DPR believed what Nob and Kevin told him, and went to Dominica, a tiny tax haven island in the Caribbean, and started an application for “economic citizenship.” At the same time he had an escape plan, while also giving more control to his lieutenants as he was growing weary of the entire ordeal, with Cirrus, Batman73, and Inigo the three top dogs beneath DPR.

 

House of Cards Comes Tumbling Down

A Homeland Security Investigations agent named Jared Der-Yeghiayan had stumbled across some drugs packages on international flights and associated it with the Silk Road. After some investagtive work, he located and cracked Cirrus. Taking over her account, he grew in the ranks and eventually got invited to work with Tarbell in New York as a part of CY2. 

An agent from the IRS, Gary Alford, had also become involved and through digging in some earlier investigations discovered a way to find the creator. He had searched for Tor URLs around the time of the site’s first appearance and discovered on the Shroomery.org forum on January 27, 2011, days after the Silk Road launch. A user by the name Altoid had talked about a “service that claims to allow you to buy and sell anything online anonymously.” Following the name Altoid they discovered a database programming question by the same username “How do I connect to a Tor hidden service using curl in php?” The email listed was [email protected]. From there the IRS had no idea what this meant, but once Alford found himself among CY2 they pieced it together to discover that Ulbricht was indeed DPR. A search on the federal database brought up the Homeland Security case of the fake ID's, and they found his last known address to be half a block away from Café Luna, the San Francisco node. Being careless at the beginning was what ultimately brought down Silk Road years down the line.

They surveyed him, and matched up his Internet usage with DPR’s activity on Silk Road. The activity matched and they knew they had their man. Tarbell started planning. This would be a complicated operation, seizing the site’s bitcoins undetected, taking control of Silk Road, and placing FBI people abroad at the server machines in Iceland and at another new one in France. At this time Nob (Force) was also encouraging DPR to flee, and suggested DPR meet him at some airport, under the guise of providing safe passage, where he would really take him into custody. DPR was having none of this though, and thought he was invincible. He had grown arrogant in his own ability over the years, and even told one potential employee for Silk Road that “Realistically, the only way for them to prove anything would be for them to watch you log in and do your work.”

To ensure they got what they need and evidence to convict Ulbricht, the GY2 team did not want to go with the local FBI's ideas of breaking into Ulbricht home. He may encrypt his laptop and the data will be lost forever, they thought, so instead, the plan to apprehend him in a public place was hatched. Once Ulbricht was arrested in the library and the laptop recovered, he was taken to jail. On the laptop they discovered a file called emergency .txt, with an unrealized escape procedure should the unthinkable happen.

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Little was found at his home after the arrest, but everything needed was on the laptop and it had been secured with minimal effort. According to reports, when Silk Road was finally shut down in 2013 the site had generated almost $213.9 million in sales and $13.2 million in commissions for Ulbricht. Below is the image which appeared on the website when the authorities finally seized the servers and shut the site down.

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Appeals

Ulbricht still remains in prison to this day although he has appealed against to rulings and tried to get his sentence reduced or written off. In May 2017 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied his appeal. From there his attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, making arguments that his case involved unresolved constitutional questions regarding the Fourth Amendment and the digital age, but in 2018 the court declined to hear his case.

In 2019 a motion was filed by Ulbricht with the New York Southern District Court to vacate or set aside his sentence. This motion was also denied, while there were also rumours that in 2020 former President Donald Trump was considering commuting Mr. Ulbricht's sentence, but ultimately he decided against it.

It is now almost a decade since Ross Ulbricht was detained at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library on Oct. 1, 2013, and the likelihood of Ulbricht having his sentence reduced or cleared seems increasingly unlikely. However, over 435,000 have signed an online petition created by Ulbricht's mother to commute his double life sentence.

 

Documentaries and Film

Over the years a number of documentaries and films have been released regarding the story of Ulbricht, the investigation of the DEA and FBI, and also a recent thriller style film portraying the story. They are all highly recommendable to watch and are as follows:

Silk Road - a 2021 movie about Ulbricht's creation of the website and the FBI and DEA investigations concluding in its closure and the capture of Ulbricht.

Silk Road: Drugs, Death and the Dark Web - a 2017 U.K. documentary covering the FBI operation to track down Ulbricht and close Silk Road.

Deep Web - a 2015 documentary film chronicling events surrounding Silk Road, bitcoin, and the politics of the dark web, including Ulbricht's trial.

 

There you have it, the story of Ross Ulbricht and his utopian ideals which lead to the creation of Silk Road, one of the modern days masterpieces in terms of online business. Unfortunately for him, it was also entirely illegal and lead to the destruction of his life. He built an empire but at the same time got careless and was undone by his own choices. A fascinating character and man, he is living behind bars as he considers his actions for the remainder of his days.

Have a great day.

Peace. CryptoGod-1.

 

** I first posted this article on Medium on the 4th of April 2023, which can be found here: https://medium.com/@1r3n9project/who-is-ross-ulbricht-a49419c4d528?sk=23981270b348a6e900297212032134d9 **

 

You can find the other post's in this series here:

Who Is Ross Ulbricht?

Who is Jordan Belfort?

Who is Bernie Madoff?

Who is Low Taek Jho?

 

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cryptogod-1
cryptogod-1

Writer, designer, creator, and life enthusiast. I love to read and write and enjoy sharing my passion for crypto, sports, literature and everything and anything I can enjoy in life.


CryptoGod-1 : Crypto & Blockchain
CryptoGod-1 : Crypto & Blockchain

Enthusiast here looking to share my ideas, thoughts, analysis, and experience when it comes to all things crypto

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