Daily Dispatches
This artist rendering shows Ross William Ulbricht appearing in Federal Court in San Francisco.
Associated Press/Drawing by Vicki Behringer
This artist rendering shows Ross William Ulbricht appearing in Federal Court in San Francisco.

The Silk Road that leads straight to jail


Reading the messages of “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the administrator for an encrypted black-market website that has generated billions of dollars in revenue, is more like reading the script for a modern suspense film.

“I would like to put a bounty on his head if it’s not too much trouble for you,” he allegedly told one associate in what the FBI said was a murder-for-hire scheme. “What would be an adequate amount to motivate you to find him? Necessities like this do happen from time to time for a person in my position.”

Federal agents said Ross William Ulbricht, 29, is the man who posted as Dread Pirate Roberts, an alias taken from the popular film The Princess Bride. Ulbricht faces multiple charges for drug trafficking, hacking, and money laundering for allegedly running Silk Road, a website where anonymous users could buy and sell illegal and prescription drugs, counterfeit documents, and “services” like hacking and identity theft. Ulbricht’s attorney, public defender Brandon LeBlanc, said in brief remarks after a hearing on Friday that Ulbricht denies all the allegations. Ulbricht could face life in prison.

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But that could be the least of his legal woes. Ulbricht has also been charged in Maryland in a murder-for-hire scheme, in which he allegedly asked an undercover cop to kill a Silk Road user he accused of extortion.

According to a federal criminal complaint filed in New York, Silk Road launched in early 2011 and generated $1.2 billion in revenue. As of June, the site had nearly 1 million registered users. It used an elaborate encryption setup that kept users’ identities anonymous. Users made transactions using Bitcoins, a virtual currency that allows them to remain anonymous.

Federal agents arrested Ulbricht Tuesday in a branch of the San Francisco Public Library while he was talking with an FBI informant. They tracked him down by tracing computer IP addresses, account usernames, a shipment of fake IDs, and information from his social media pages.

Ulbricht graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in physics, then pursued a graduate degree in engineering at Penn State before dropping out. Media outlets have characterized him as a libertarian, but messages left by Dread Pirate Roberts at times align more with anarchism than libertarianism. Forbes, which characterized Dread Pirate Roberts as a “radical libertarian,” has published long excerpts he left on Silk Road’s message forums.

When discussing the U.S. Constitution, Dread Pirate Roberts wrote: “I wonder how things would have happened differently had the constitution been 100 percent voluntary. … If you want to be in the club, you must pay your dues and follow the rules, but if you want to go it alone, or join a different club, we won’t bother you unless you bother us, and you are free to go at any time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Reneau
Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is the assistant managing editor of a newspaper in East Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and two sons. He is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelReneau.


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