I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives and have privacy and anonymity.
- Ross Ulbricht
The Deep Web, or the Dark Web, is pretty much hidden in society. Not everyone knows about its existence nor ever venture there. But the number of information that are held inside the network is much larger than the usual web where search engines can index them.
In the interconnected networks where people's identity are kept anonymous, Ross Ulbricht that came with a pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, was into something dark and massive.
Hidden within those networks, Ulbricht owned and operated a marketplace named after a central ancient network of trade and cultural transmission routes connecting the West and East, the Silk Road. It was one of the most well-known online blackmarket for selling illegal drugs and activities.
Ross William Ulbricht was born on March 27th, 1984, to Lyn and Kirk Ulbricht. Growing up in Austin, Texas, raised in a tight family, Ulbricht was an Eagle Scout ranked Boy Scout. Ulbricht and his family usually spend their summers at their solar-powered bamboo houses at Costa Rica. Ulbricht liked to swim and surf.
After passing his elementary school, he continued his studies to West Ridge Middle School, and then to Westlake High School where his friends used to call him "Rossman". He drove a Volve, carefree but also caring.
Ulbricht first love was from Dallas, Texas. He mentioned that the first time they really hung out, they experimented on some kind of psychedelic drug.
Ulbricht then entered University of Texas taking Physics for his bachelor degree on a full academic scholarship, graduating in 2006. He then took his Master degree at Pennsylvania State University in Material Science and Engineering studying crystallography.
In the middle of his studies in Pennsylvania State University, Ulbricht was interested in economic theories and Eastern philosophy, making him engaged in political debates arguing libertarianism. During that time, Ulbricht also participated in an African drumming group where he played the West African drum djembe.
Ulbricht was in a long-term relationship with Julie Vie. When he was still studying at Pennsylvania State University, playing djembe, Vie that was a 18 years old free-spirited freshman first saw him. The two started to fall in love and have a relationship not long after that.
Ulbricht that was studying crystallography, was working on thin-film growth. One day he made a large, flat blue crystal, affixed it to a ring, and gave it to Vie. When He finished his Master's degree, he moved to Austin with Vie. Vie left before graduating, and the two got a cheap and cramped apartment together.
As his early career, Ross Ulbricht tried day trading. But since it didn't go well he expected, he started a video game company. Apparently that venture also failed. The result has made his devastated. He didn't want to be trying anymore, he wanted to be doing.
Downstairs, Ulbricht and Vie's neigbour Donny Palmertree invited Ross to work for him of Good Wagon Books, a book company that collected used books and then sold them in digital stores like Amazon. While working for Good Wagon Books, Ulbricht learned inventory management, created its website, and wrote his own program to determine a book's price based on its Amazon's ranking.
Living together as a young couple, Ulbricht and Vie do argue a lot. From politics, money to their social life. Their relationship became complicated and frequent breakups happened. In 2010, the couple split up and Ulbricht was heartbroken.
Creating Silk Road
Hearbroken and desperate, Ross Ulbricht started thinking about himself and his life. "I went through a lot over the year in my personal relationships," he wrote in a journal on his computer, a kind of self-assessment of life goals. "I had left my promising career as a scientist to be an investment adviser and entrepreneur and came up empty-handed."
He was ashamed of himself for being incapable in doing what he want.
It wasn't long that Palmertree got a job in Dallas and left Good Wagon to Ross. For the first time, Ulbricht that wanted to in charge of something, had his dreams come true.
When Book Wagon started to expand its business beyond selling books, in 2010, Ulbricht became interested in Bitcoin. Using his LinkedIn account, he stated that he wished to "use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind."
With his interests in economics that grew larger ever since Ross Ulbricht graduated university. He came to see taxation and government as a form of coercion, enforced by the state's monopoly on violence. Ulbricht's way of thinking was heavily influenced by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a totem of the modern American libertarian orthodoxy.
According to von Mises, a citizen must have economic freedom to be politically or morally free. And Ulbricht wanted to be free. He was also inspired by writings by Murray Rothbard.
Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort.
At that moment, he had a flash of idea. "The idea," he wrote in his journal, "was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them."
As a libertarian, Ulbricht believed that drug use was a personal choice, and from what he saw, the wars on drugs were complete failure. This sparked the new idea of what would he sell on his anonymous market.
"I was calling it Underground Brokers," he wrote. But eventually settled on Silk Road."
He began creating the Silk Road. The drug soon-will-be drug czar hired several people to help him out. One of them was Richard Bates, a friend of Ulbricht where they were both in University of Texas, helped Ulbricht by giving his tech assistance on Silk Road. He worked with Ulbricht to create a Bitcoin exchange, and his purchasing of drugs on Silk Road for personal use. First, Bates that has Computer Science degree, didn't know exactly what he was working at. In the late 2010 and early 2011, Ulbricht frequently asked Bates programming questions, but when Bates asked him what were they were for, Ulbricht would only say a "top secret project".
Ulbricht cultivated his own psilocybin mushrooms as a starter product. He was spending time with Julia again, while struggling with programming his site with Bates, and still running Good Wagon.
In 2011, Good Wagon collapsed because of an accident. The library fell apart because of two missing vital screws. The shelves came off and fell on top of each other like dominoes. Ulbricht that was working late at night in the warehouse that night forwarded the news to Donny Palmertree. He answered that his heart is not anymore at Good Wagon and the two agreed to close down the company.
Ulbricht then told Palmertree that he had a business idea. "Something really big," he said.
It didn't take long until the Silk Road was properly launched in the hidden Dark Web where internet's search engines like Google can't access it. In mid-January 2011, the site was accessible to those who wanted to venture there, and in February 2011 it was fully launched. Users that wanted to visit the Silk Road needed a special cryptographic software as a portal to the Tor hidden service.
By being totally anonymous, merchants and buyers can use the digital traceless payments Bitcoin for transaction. The encrypted digital currency couldn't be traced, with no government or bank behind it. Because of the status, the currency that was regulated by a network of computers, and represented by a long string of numbers, was considered "safe" for illegal transaction.
A few days after the launch, Silk Road made its first sale. It didn't take long until the market sold all of Ulbricht 10 pounds mushroom. Then merchants started to join. Ulbricht was still doing all the transactions by hand, he was busy but happy and thrilled.
The popularity of Silk Road grew tremendously that it didn't take long until it has enough merchants to keep it functioning, like a real growing marketplace.
Initially limited to only few merchants, the site continued to grow wide and large, opening itself to thousands of drug dealers seeking for almost 1 million worldwide customers.
For a brief of time, the dark e-commerce site was successful, creating a portfolio of more than $1 billion in sales.
"In 2011," Ulbricht wrote in his journal. "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 its creator."
With the massive popularity, Ulbricht is always on his own, working by himself. He learned things on the fly. From programming of Silk Road's automated transactions to rewriting the site with CodeIgniter after a hacker alerted him to some Silk Road's major flaws.
When Silk Road came to popularity, Ulbricht tried to hire Bates, but Bates already had a steady programming job, said to him: "Have you ever thought about doing something legitimate? Something legal?"
Ulbricht was not convinced. He failed more than several times and his passion and focus were only to bring Silk Road a major success. As Ulbricht broke up with Vie again, with Silk Road in his laptop, there is nothing that would keep him in Austin. Ulbricht left for Australia.
The Silk Market wasn't the only market that sell drugs online. There were other sites that did (do) the same thing. But the Silk Road with its friendly user-interface and third-party payment systems has made it more popular than others.
Ulbricht banked $100,000 and was earning $25,000 a month in commissions. "It was time to bring in some hired guns," he wrote, "to … take the site to the next level." Ulbricht told Forbes in an interview in 2013 that the Silk Road's "core" role was "a way to get around regulation from the state". He even hinted that Silk Road might head in the direction of selling weapons. "Firearms and ammunition are becoming more regulated and controlled in many parts of the world," he said.
Drug transactions, despite being conducted far from prying eyes, are pretty much common. Especially in large cities in many countries around the world. Silk Road was an alternative to such transaction, taking a role as the market where anyone could purchase illegal drugs, or activities, without them associating and exposing themselves to dealers or venturing to dangerous places.
As time went on, visitors to the Silk Road started to wonder who is the administrator of the site. Ulbricht decided that since it users of the Deep Web are totally anonymous, just like himself the administrator, he posted: "Who is Silk Road?" in February 2012 under the name administrator to the community.
"I am Silk Road, the market, the person, the enterprise, everything … I need a name."
"Drum roll please … ," announcing his dramatic reveal. "My new name is Dread Pirate Roberts."
Prior of its closure, and Ulbricht arrest, the Silk Road was a vast pharmacopeia covering dozens of categories with 13,000 listings that offered drugs ranging from prescription medications such as everything from Oxycontin and Xanax to LSD, heroin, fishscale Colombian cocaine, to Caramello hash, Mercury's Famous uncut cocaine flakes, Mario Invincibility Star XTC, white Mitsubishi MDMA, Devil’s Licorice black tar heroin, and a lot more.
The reviews and community standards enforced excellent value and customer service on Silk Road, which brought even more users, increasing its reputation up higher further. This was until the peak of Silk Road becaming the first destination for digital drug sales.
In early 2013, 70 percent of the products were drugs, with 159 other listings related to "services", most of which were for hackings, 800 listings for digital goods such as pirated content, or hacked accounts, fake driver licences, fake passports, fake utility bills, fake credit cards and much more.
The Hunt for The Dread Pirate Roberts
By the time the government and the authorities heard about the dark e-commerce drug enterprise, the Silk Road has been running its business for about a year. The site that is modeled after Amazon and eBay was looking professionally made and well-organized.
Complete with profiles, listings and transaction reviews, the Silk Road was the center of anonymous drug dealer community to meet their upcoming customers. Everything were kept anonymous, and shipments often went through the regular old postal service.
The authorities saw potential to make this a case but didn't know where to begin with.
In January 2012, Homeland Security assembled a task force for a full-on Silk Road case. Over 40 agents was into the Operation Marco Polo, based out of the Baltimore Homeland Security Investigations office.
Digging into the many layers of presentations, learning Bitcoin, looking at technical information about nodes and TCP/IP, as well as visiting the Silk Road themselves, they stumbled into the Dread Pirate Roberts figure. The idea of taking the name where the pirate of the story was a mythical character with a mask appealed to Silk Road's character. Furthermore, the character was also known for espousing libertarian ideals and criticizing regulation.
Chris Tarbell that spent four years traveling the world with global forensics, tracking down terrorists, child pornographers, and botnets, took the case. After a big case arresting Hector Monsegur, a co-founder of LulzSec, an elite group of hackers responsible for attacking corporate and government targets the CIA, Tarbell took an interest in Tor, the encryption software that allowed users to visit the Deep Web and access the Silk Road.
in February 2013, Tarbell opened the FBI's first Tor case: Operation Onion Peeler.
With the many agents working on it, they were still unsuccessful. The DEA asked Tarbell for technical advice. Agents involved made up an identity: Eladio Guzman, a cartel operative based in the Dominican Republic who was moving midsize shipments of heroin and cocaine. For Guzman's Silk Road screen name, the name was Nob.
Putting himself in the mindset of a smuggler, the FBI saw Silk Road's power coming from its ability in becoming the center of communications and distribution. By operating hidden in the Tor network, what the FBI normally do are nearly useless. They have to piece together the network that is made from 1.5 billion computers, to come up with a single culprit: the Dread Pirate Roberts, the administrator, the operator of the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht.
Ulbricht's path to be the Dread Pirate Robert was through his server. And for that the FBI needs to keep tracking his communications.
Nob offered Dread Pirate Roberts a proposal. Hoping to have a quick response, they got what they want. The unsuspecting Dread Pirate Roberts replied: "I'm open to the idea. What did you have in mind?"
After the FBI proposed Nob's proposal, and the offer to buy Silk Road with a $1 billion price, the Dread Pirate Roberts denied. "This is more than a business to me. It's a revolution and is becoming my life’s work." Struggling in a dilemma, he then wrote: "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.”
The FBI kept the communication alive with TorChat. Nob talked about opening a site dedicated to cartels with the name Masters of Silk Road. This was kept on late until many nights that Chris Tarbell led a double life where at day he worked as an agent and churchgoing dad, and at night he was drug lord talking like a young person in his teen years eager to know his new chat buddy that is nonetheless the owner of a drug dealing enterprise market.
During that time, the Dread Pirate Roberts has hired Chronicpain, or Curtis Green, a man from Utah. Green had been a regular buyer on Silk Road for some time, and his pseudonym was made up because of his own chronic pain caused by his injuries he got while working as an EMT. With his disability, Green has become an amateur pharmacologist. With his hobby in talking to strangers on the internet, he learned of Sillk Road, and that was where he fulfilled his interest in "safe drug use". With the Dread Pirate Roberts' approval, he started Silk Road's Health and Wellness forum where he advised people on how to take drugs.
Green's way of moderating the forum got the Dread Pirate Robert's appreciation. He was offered a job and he was thrilled. Green worked 80 hours a week mediating drug sales disputes at home.
One day, Ulbricht aka the Dread Pirate Roberts demanded a scan of Green's driver's license as a loyalty test. Green obliged in uncovering his true identity while keeping Ulbricht safe under shadows somewhere in his hideout.
The FBI has browsed forums, both on the Surface Web and the Deep Web, commit to Reddit, looked at Silk Road's community members talking to each other. All with no clues.
Like how Tarbell's chats with Ulbricht, Green felt a bond with the Dread Pirate Roberts - a partnership in a secret world. But no matter how close Green of Tarbell with the FBI are close to the Dread Pirate Roberts, no one has an idea who he really was.
As time time went, FBI that is in the middle of the U.S. government, has no clear jurisdiction for cybercrime. It's growing time means that its eating away enforcement fundings. This attracted more people including those that are into politics. Silk Road became the new frontier of crime and Washington wanted to be included. The Silk Road case became the largest online manhunt in history.
At this Utah house, Green was raid in part of the Marco Polo investigation. Green took the bait and he was cuffed. He couldn't stop talking and answered more than the FBI had questions for him. He was taking a package full of cocaine when the FBI brought him to his feet. He said he was a former EMT; he was just trying to help people; they could have just knocked; he thought the package was something else, a totally legal drug called N-Bombe.
After interrogation, Green he went home and found his door still broken. He loaded a gun and wanted to commit suicide but admitted that he couldn't do it. He phoned special agent DEA Carl Force.
During Green's time in jail, the FBI has cracked into his computer and saw his Silk Road account online. They saw the Dread Pirate Roberts messages on his computer and realized that for the first time they finally see the light in this operation.
Ulbricht noticed that Green, his trusted admin, had been offline for days. A quick search at Google revealed that Green had been arrested. Moreover, Ulbricht also got a message from his other employee, Inigo, saying that $35,000 Bitcoins had disappeared from various accounts. Inigo traced the theft and the evidence pointed to Green. Ulbricht went fury.
Nob then got a message from the Dread Pirate Roberts, saying that he has a problem he needed to solve. Nob, or Tarbell, took this opportunity to offer his some of "his" assistance. Ulbricht wanted Green to be beaten, and send the Bitcoin he stole back. Soon, the FBI staged a torture on Green using phony thugs who were in fact a Secret Service agent and a Baltimore postal inspector, dunking Green into a bathtub.
A Silk Road user named Cimon, a trusted adviser who had guided the Dread Pirate Roberts in several things on Silk Road said that Green's attempt in stealing money requires lethal response. on opsec, programming, and leadership, asked DPR when a transgression against Silk Road requires a lethal response. "I don't condone murder but that's almost worthy of assassinating him over lol."
Later that day, the Dread Pirate Roberts messaged Nob to execute Green rather than torture.
The FBI faked Green's death. Tarbell sent Ulbricht photos of staged photos and followed death of Green with this face down on the floor, supposed to be an aftermath of asphyxiation. Ulbricht sent $40,000 to a Capital One account controlled by the government as an advance. He never got back the stolen Bitcoins, but once in receipt of the putative proof of death, he sent another $40,000 for the "assassination" job well done.
Within those moments, the Dread Pirate Roberts wrestled with his own mind. What he wished was the best for people and loving them in the libertarian's way. But his decision in executing Green with Nob's help was too much to bear. His principles was using technology to bring freedom, but all went into murder.
Up to one point, what's done is done. This was justice, not a revenge, according to the new law of Silk Road.
The FBI used this moment to see what changed. Nob contacted the Dread Pirate Roberts to ease this mind, saying that Nob is his friend and that is what friends are for. Ulbricht feared that he was being corrupted by his new power, and Nob reminded the Dread Pirate Roberts to not "lose yourself."
The multimillion-dollar drug operation empire Ulbricht built in less than two years has changed his soul. His way of thoughts and his journal changed from story about doubts and hopes, to arrogant ambitions.
"What we are doing," said the Dread Pirate Roberts to his followers, "will have rippling effects for generations to come."
The FBI is not yet close to where the Dread Pirate Roberts was despite Nob was already "a trusted friend". All until Tarbell found a Reddit user posted a warning that Silk Road's IP address was "leaking' and visible to other computers. Tarbell take all the data he had in hopes to see the leak. He entered bad usernames with bad passwords and pasted data into input fields for hours to analyze network traffic and collect the IPs communicating with his machine.
One afternoon in the New York FBI's cybercrime office, when Chris Tarbell and Tom Kiernan was on the work, they glanced upon the computer screen, seeing something that interested them, something they may have been looking for in several weeks, something that made them up many nights.
After staring at IP addresses for hours, when Tarbell pasted one of them among the many he did into a browser, something was showing. There it was, the thing he had been expecting: the Silk Road Captcha field. This was the team's long awaited misconfiguration that Ulbricht failed to secure. It revealed the real IP address of Silk Road.
They looked at each other in disbelief then back to the monitor. At the screen, the list of numbers they were looking showed 22.214.171.124. The true IP address of the Silk Road server.
Tarbell traced it to Iceland.
With the help of the U.S. Embassy, an attorney, a bunch of official letters, the Icelandic authorities cooporated. Then there he was, Tarbell was inside Thor Data Center in a former airplane hangar sitting above a double shipping container. Inside them were servers standing inline with thousands of fans cooling them. Then the Icelandic authorities found what all have been waiting for, the mirror drive, a duplicate set of Silk Road has.
The drive was then handed to Tarbell. And just like that, there he was, holding the Silk Road in his hand.
Tarbell returned to New York. The team analyzed the drive to get many surprises. They looked at the traffic recorded for port 22 which was the encrypted connection for administrators. The team found several non-Tor IPs, a backup in Philadelphia, a hosting proxy server in France, and a VPN in Romania.
By connecting the dots from all the data he had, and mapping the lined leads and evidence, Tarbell found the last known login to Silk Road VPN: Café Luna, Sacramento Street, San Francisco.
In the FBI labs, Tarbell started to re-create the Silk Road from the drive they got from Iceland. Inside the place they dubbed the War Room, the team got busy. They had a plan: creating a Silk Road clone so the team can access the system as a superuser, seeing the Silk Road as the Dread Pirate Roberts. The team learn about the site's protocols, structure, communications and mechanics. Tarbell concluded that the Silk Road was indeed impressive.
Tarbell also concluded that the Dread Pirate Roberts is an autodidact, not a professional programmer. The codes were full of comments describing experiments he made on the live server. The team also found some private messages, Bitcoin data and other information. Tarbell then dig into more than 1,400 pages of chat logs to really understand him. He concluded that the Dread Pirate Roberts character can pose as many characters when talking to different people. At times he can be volatile, but at later times he can be an idealist and solicitous. But all of which embraced murder as a necessary practice.
The Dread Pirate Roberts also had chat logs with evidence of more hired assassinations. They discovered that he was being blackmailed by a Silk Road user named "FriendlyChemist" who had hacked into the computer of another Silk Road user and obtained what he alleged was a long list of names and identities of Silk Road customers. If Ulbricht didn't pay FriendlyChemist $500,000, the Silk Road customer list would be exposed.
After collecting the evidence, and IP addresses, Tarbell found an IP address with a name: Frosty. The name was given to one trusted computer for all the machines and had its encryption keys all ended with [email protected] Tarbell then looked back onto his network topology of nodes. He was sure that whoever was using Frosty, was the Dread Pirate Roberts.
The agents questioned Ulbricht at the Hickory Road building on July 26, 2013, and discovered his roommates knew him not as "Ross" but "Josh." They were unable to get much out of him because of the lack of evidence and his power to control emotion. The agents discovered a box of fake IDs and more, but couldn't charge him for being the mastermind behind the Silk Road, nor having clues of him being the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Before the agents left, Ulbricht did say something about himself, telling them that "hypothetically" anyone could have shipped drugs or fake IDs to him via a website called Silk Road.
Ulbricht took his precaution. By having the police once coming into his radius questioning him, he need some plans. He flew to other places, spending more time with Julia Vie. He dedicated more time to himself, leaving most of his work to his employees, and took his real name as his identity.
Tarbell back in his office then had a thing coming through his mind. Whoever started Silk Road is a person fond of computers, and because the Dread Pirate Roberts was an autodidact, must have been a regular internet users where he learned some parts of his knowledge in the first place. The team took their time looking at mentions of Tor's URLS around the time Silk Road first appeared. They found mentions in January 27, 2011 in a forum under the name Altoid. Googling the name, the team found that Altoid has asked questions about programming in a Q&A website on March 16th, 2013, asking "How do I connect to a Tor hidden service using curl in php?" Digging a bit further, Tarbell found out Altoid was registered under a email address that revealed someone's name, and Altoid's alias was later changed to Frosty.
This was Ulbricht first mistake by revealing himself.
After a thorough research and luck, the FBI ran the name Ross Ulbricht through the federal's database and found the a report under Ulbricht's fake ID. Then with a quick research, his last known address is just a half block away from Café Luna, the San Francisco. (the place that first put Ulbricht name under the FBI's wanted list).
The the FBI took Ulbricht identity a bit further, they did a quick look at his social media presence which revealed his likeliness to the Dread Pirate Roberts with libertarian way of thoughts. And suddenly they found a piece of code Ulbricht posted on Stack Overflow that matched the Silk Road source code.
"We found the guy," said Tarbell to his supervisor.
The FBI closed in to Ross Ulbricht. They dispatched two agents undercover to San Francisco, in order to get more evidence on Ulbricht. They watched him with his friends, with Julia Vie, on his laptop and walking to café. The FBI then recorded his activities, matching them with the Dread Pirate Robert's online activity.
They see that each time the Dread Pirate Roberts is logged online, Ulbricht was on his laptop, and vice versa. The activity matched, and the pattern was consistent. Both Ulbricht and the Dread Pirate Roberts activity were aligned.
Tarbell started planning his complicated operation.
When Tarbell was leading his double life as both a dad at day and a drug cartel late at night, Nob has said to the Dread Pirate Roberts to flee. Tarbell was surprised that the kingpin didn't do what he was saying. Tarbell thought Ulbricht was smart enough to get out while he could. But Ulbricht has put too much belief in himself, the Tor network, and his intellect.
The FBI planned an attack on Ulbricht with the help of the SWAT teams. But Tarbell denied this operation because of his failure back in the days where a dramatic raid on a hacktivist named Jeremy Hammond in Chicago with flash grenades alerted him to turn off his laptop encrypting all the data forever. Tarbell thought that to make this operation a success, they need finesse. The bureau needs to have their hands on the evidence, intact.
Tarbell had read in the Dread Pirate Robert's chat where he boasts how secure Silk Road was, and how it had a one-key destruction mechanism in which a single press on a keyboard could eliminate all data about the Silk Road's existence.
What could make this operation successful is having the direct evidence in Ulbricht laptop. Tarbell needs to have Ulbricht laptop with his fingers on the keyboard. This operation has no margin for error, and so they needed complete surprise attack.
5AM local time on Thursday, October 13th, 2013, a team of tactical force complete with dozens of agents gathered at San Jose FBI cybercrime facility and near Ulbricht house in Glen Park. The undercover team scattered and tried to act casual, hoping to see Ulbricht with his laptop anytime soon.
2:45PM, the Dread Pirate Roberts logged out, Ulbricht walked out of his house wearing red sweater and a pair of jeans carrying his laptop with him.
"He's on the move," they said high on adrenaline. And for the first time, Tarbell came face-to-face with the man he'd been tracking from many nights in many months. There he was, Ulbricht on the flesh, exposed from his masked digital identity, in person. Ulbricht walked right past him.
After a dramatic ambush, Ulbricht was caught and cuffed in Glen Park library, part of the San Francisco Public Library at 3:15PM, separated from his laptop thanks to Tom Kiernan. "Your sole job is to get the laptop," Tarbell briefed Kiernan earlier. "Get the laptop. That's why you're here. Get the laptop. And keep it alive."
As Tarbell instructed, he put his hands on the laptop keeping it out of harms way. He sat down on a nearby table and sees everything. The machine ID was Frosty, Ulbricht was logged in to Silk Road as an administrator under an account called /Mastermind.
The rest of the force started arriving, black vehicles with their lights blazing, and people with uniforms started to occupy the empty spaces.
Ross Ulbricht was arrested. He was accused of being the manager of Silk Road, though he denies it. Ulbricht faced charges of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and procuring murder to 6 people. The murder charges were later dropped because the prosecutor believes that none of the planned murders occurred, despite $730,000 being paid in the attempts.
Chris Tarbell who had his nights too long to remember, was the FBI agent that brought him into custody. He presented Ulbricht the warrant for his arrest. The FBI then shuts down communication between the machine in the Thor Data Center and all the others around the world.
The Silk Road welcome page then read: THIS HIDDEN SITE HAS BEEN SEIZED BY THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION.
Prior of his arrest, Ross Ulbricht rented a room for $1,200 a month on 15th Avenue in San Francisco's West Portal suburbs. Ulbricht that frequently visited the library when he was back in Texas because of its quiet environment and free Wi-Fi, applied on Craigslists under the name "Josh", a "good-natured and clean/tidy" man.
"Joss" chose to pay cash, and what his housemates knew about his was nothing more than Josh had just moved from Sydney, Australia.
"Joss" Ulbricht stayed for two months, being friendly and polite to whoever he met. His belongings were nothing more than a laptop and few set of clothes. In the house, he stayed mostly in the master bedroom on his computer, claiming to be a currency trader. He rarely walked out of the house, spending holidays indoors and cooking steak dinners alone.
Ulbricht is low-profiled with able to control his emotion in front of others, and this has come in handy as he frequently use fake IDs to hide his real identity. He never show how or what he is (was) to others. After his arrest, people who knew Ulbricht personally couldn't believe that he was the primary suspect of the online drug empire. His grandmother, when she first heard about his arrest, seemed disbelieved. His half-brother, Travis, called him "an exceptionally bright and smart kid". Even his close friend, Rene Pinnell, told that the police had messed up. "I'm sure it's not him."
No one close to Ulbricht seemed to believe that he was the pirate scientist of the massive Silk Road online marketplace.
Ulbricht's work on the Silk Road isn't at all in the same way as other technologists or founders at Silicon Valley. But his method did took the right algorithm programming and the right software, to spark a social change. Similar to many "common" founders. Ulbricht is a hacker at heart, and what he did was creating lines of codes to become an entire system that changed the thoughts end economic structure. Furthermore, he took his skills along the internet's anti-hierarchical tendencies with his libertarian notion.
The Silk Road community was the one that kept Ulbricht in confidence going throughout its time. The people likened The Dread Pirate Roberts to Che Guevara, calling him a "job creator" and declaring that his name would live on "among the greatest men and women in history." Silk Road had become a brand cult with fanatical users.
The FBI alleges he earned $20,000 in Bitcoin commissions from sales on Silk Road each day, and made $3.4 million in total. "By far the largest balance held by any Silk Road user at the time," wrote the FBI in its indictment.
In his spare times, Ulbricht likes to read, hike, and do yoga, and, as Julia fondly recalls, had "lots and lots of great sex."
Ulbricht has been sentenced to life in prison for running Silk Road. The sentence by U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest followed an emotional three-hour hearing. She gave Ulbricht the harshest punishment allowed under the law, saying Silk Road was "an assault on the public health of our communities" by making it easy for people around the world to buy illegal drugs. In a passionate speech, she detailed the ways drug addiction can tear families apart.
Ulbricht took the stand at the sentencing, and asked judge to give him a second chance. He said he didn't create Silk Road out of greed and vanity, as the government contested, but because he wanted to "empower people to make choices" in their own lives with privacy and anonymity.
"I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path," he told Judge Katherine Forrest. "If given the chance, I would never breach the law again." In the courtroom he battled as a man seen by some as a drug lord and by others as a hero
Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment on 29 May 2015. He resides in the Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn as of June 2015.