The Sweet Little Criminal Next Door
Whenever a criminal mastermind is arrested, reporters interview the neighbors who say, “but he seemed so nice.” With the Dread Pirate Roberts, we don’t need neighbors. We have the Internet.
The most puzzling and fantastic real crime story of the year went public yesterday. The FBI arrested the man known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” founder of Silk Road, accusing him of drug conspiracy, money laundering and hacking. A few hours later, they tacked on solicitation of murder. Silk Road is the world’s most notorious “DarkNet” website where, until today, anonymous buyers and sellers exchanged Bitcoins for everything from books and electronics to drugs and hit jobs (listed under “services”). While the Dread Pirate shrouded himself in secrecy, the man behind the Pirate comes off as a soul-baring utopian-libertarian nerd that really loves his best friend and still hasn’t gotten over the heartbreak of his first love. How do I know this?
At 2:21 pm yesterday, I saw this tweet:
Whoah! Juicy! If NPR News’ Elise Hu had federal sources that confirmed this was our man, well, I wanted to hear what he had to say. I clicked the link, expecting something like old video of Charles Manson: wild, drug-fueled eyes; messianic grandeur; a wild sense of humor. Instead, I got to watch the mumblecore version of reality TV.
You’re cooler, No you’re cooler
Picture this: San Francisco, December 6, 2012. Two long-time best friends sit down for an hour at the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum to tell their stories for an oral history project. They bare their souls to each other, to the Library of Congress, and, as it turns out, to the FBI agent that is searching for the real-world identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts, the founder and architect of Silk Road.
For those that are not familiar with StoryCorps, it is a nonprofit oral history project where people are brought together to record, share, and preserve their stories. Usually one friend or family member interviews the other, and the topics are as diverse as human narrative. They post the stories to their website, and share them on NPR. Here, the storytellers were René Pinnell and Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, aka DPR, aka SilkRoad. But to René he was just Ross. Their story began with a discussion of how the two ended up coming to San Francisco from Austin, Texas, where they had grown up. René said he had to move because he’s “a start-up guy,” and that’s where he had to be. “San Francisco is the mecca of startups…Whereas, Austin is just the ‘meh’ of start-ups.” Ross recounted that he followed his friend to San Francisco, and immediately agreed. It was just where he had to be.
Ross shared the fact that he hadn’t gotten over his first love, with whom he had spent his first night high off some experimental Chinese chemicals, gazing into each other’s eyes all night. They’d waited to have sex for three months, because he was seeking true oneness with another. According to Ross, his first love and he did a lot of psychedelics together, and his DeviantArt page suggests as much.
Ross expressed humble plans for his new life in San Francisco. He wanted to work for his best friend’s start-up, and focus on building trusting, loving connections with the people in his life. What did he want most of all? “I wanna start a family in the next 5 years.” His 20-year plan? “I want to have had a substantial positive impact on humanity.” This, from a man that allegedly coordinated the sale of billions of dollars in hard drugs and hired hit men to kill one or two snitches that were getting in his way.
His best friend René sounded more like the kind of nihilist I would have expected running a criminal enterprise — he was none too optimistic about the type of impact they would have: “You’re going to die and be smudged out of history, besides this recording, which will last forever.” But Ross was not convinced. “I honestly think I might live forever,” he declared, with a confident smile. “Technology’s changing so fast.”
Or you can go watch an Andrew Bujalski movie. Your pick. And then read about what this guy has done, below, and tell me what you think.
I just wish people had some integrity.
Now, picture this. December 7, 2012, one day after interviewing his best friend. Ross gets word from an employee of Silk Road that someone wants to move larger quantities of drugs than most of their sellers provide. He coordinates the sale, the dealer sends a kilo of cocaine to the employee’s house to be distributed to a vendor, and everything seems fine. Except it isn’t: the dealer is actually a Fed.
Fast forward six weeks, to January 26. Ross writes the dealer that his employee has not only been arrested, but had stolen money from other Bitcoin users. He asks the dealer to arrange a beating, to convince his employee to man up and do the right thing. The next day, on January 27, he changes his mind, tells the dealer to scratch “beat” and replace it with “kill.”
Unbeknownst to him, the dealer is the same Fed that put his employee in jail. Yes, he is that big a mark. After learning that his target had been killed, Ross wrote: “I just wish people had some integrity.”
While Ross’s first attempt to kill is all included in Ross’s Maryland indictment, this complaint is the FBI agent’s version of everything else that happened. While the New York Times did a decent job outlining the story, nothing can top that complaint. Nothing. It leaves more questions than answers and leaves my head spinning with its contradictions, but it is one hell of a fast read. Read it.
Now, having read it, the first question on your mind might be: how did this dumbass let himself get caught? I have my theories on that based on the name of the agent (spoiler alert: he’s the spook that took down Sabu), so my first question was “what kind of dumbass would hire an anonymous drug dealer online to kill his recently arrested employee and an Internet troll?” (You can view the bitcoin transaction details for the second killing, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
A world without systemic use of force.
I consulted the Google oracle, and within moments found Ross’s LinkedIn profile. There, he presents a clean-shaven, White, libertarian good guy, just waiting to solve your problems. He promises the world better living through Austrian economics (an ethos he espoused on Silk Road). He lists his graduate education (Penn State — solar technology), and his previous job picking up used books.
Where most of us place billboards that scream HIRE ME, Ross placed his worldview, and described his vision for the Silk Road:
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. …. To that end… I am creating an economic simulation to give people first-hand experience of a world without systemic use of force.
“I am creating an economic simulation to give people first-hand experience of a world without systemic use of force.” — Ross Ulbricht.
According to Ross, a website that allows anonymous transactions for every addictive drug under the sun is a glimpse into a world without systemic use of force. Ross-as-Dread Pirate Roberts explains more to Andy Greenberg in Forbes:
Unlike other Bitcoin-based underground sites, Silk Road bans all but what Roberts defines as victimless contraband. He won’t permit the sale of child pornography, stolen goods or weapons, though the latter is a gray area. The site has experimented with selling guns and may yet reintroduce them, Roberts says.
However, either Ross or his predecessor as Dread Pirate Roberts ran a sister site, The Armory, which sold guns and ammunition, until shutting down due to lack of demand. Also, the line between stolen goods and forged documents is blurry, at best, and Ross never explains how he vets his sellers. He’s a true libertarian: let the market be free, and the people will be free. Drugs and guns as the new nonviolence movement. He’s that kind of dumbass.
From LinkedIn, I went to Ross’s YouTube profile. Among the Ron Paul videos, VICE channel subscription and home movies of his vacation, Ross had this gem, saved for future viewing:
Probably should have watched that one. Instead, he posted a video of his car for sale, where he listed his telephone number and never thought to take it down. The same number is on the ad for his djembe (Nigerian drum), which he tried to sell when he left Austin. I am resisting the urge to call and just yell into the phone “what White dude plays a djembe???”
IMPORTANT UPDATE: He still has the djembe, and played it while jamming with his roommate, Jef, just last weekend! Here is a photo Jef took that night of Ross with a puppy around his neck:
In an ironic twist, agents arrested Ross at a San Francisco public library. I can think of few places I feel more safe and anonymous than the library. He was online, probably trying to pass the baton to the next DPR before he high-tailed it out of the country with his six fake IDs. It will make a poignant scene in the inevitable Silk Road movie, but I prefer the movie he made before he was famous. He probably won’t have kids or the impact on humanity he had hoped, and he definitely won’t live forever. But we’ll always have that memory, of two friends innocently reminiscing, right before the shit hit the fan.