Ac­cused on­line drug traf­ficker ‘not per­son they say he is’ – lawyer

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - GREG FAR­RELL

NEW YORK: The man ac­cused by the FBI of run­ning a bil­lion-dol­lar on­line mar­ket for il­le­gal drugs, who al­legedly also paid hit men to mur­der peo­ple threat­en­ing his busi­ness, was no trig­ger-happy junkie.

He was an Ea­gle Scout who earned an ad­vanced de­gree in physics from Penn State Univer­sity be­fore aban­don­ing academia to pur­sue a ca­reer in fi­nance.

Ross Ul­bricht, 29, who was ar­rested on Oc­to­ber 1 in San Fran­cisco and im­pris­oned in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, ap­peared this week in fed­eral court in Man­hat­tan. US mag­is­trate Judge Ron­ald El­lis or­dered Ul­bricht, who is charged with nar­cotics traf­fick­ing, money laun­der­ing and com­puter hack­ing, to re­main in cus­tody. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Mary­land have charged him with at­tempted mur­der.

Ul­bricht de­nies the charges and will seek bail at a hear­ing set for November 21. Ul­bricht founded Silk Road, a “sprawl­ing, black-mar­ket bazaar”, in early 2011 that he ran un­der the pseu­do­nym Dread Pi­rate Roberts, pros­e­cu­tors al­lege.

“He’s not the per­son they’re say­ing he is,” JoshuaDra­tel said out­side the court­room af­ter Ul­bricht’s brief ap­pear­ance. He is “a regular per­son, a loyal friend”. Friends and fam­ily “ex­press their firm con­vic­tion that he’s not the per­son” pros­e­cu­tors claim, Dra­tel said. The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s 33-page court fil­ing out­lines the op­er­a­tion of the on­line mar­ket­place for il­le­gal drugs and de­tails the ev­i­dence point­ing to Ul­bricht as Dread Pi­rate Roberts, or DPR, af­ter a char­ac­ter in the 1987 film The Princess Bride.

The por­trait of Ul­bricht that emerges from the rec­ol­lec­tions of his friends, pro­fes­sors and class­mates, as well as the so­cial me­dia foot­print he left be­hind, shows the Austin, Texas, na­tive to be some­thing of a re­nais­sance man.

Ul­bricht was a pop­u­lar stu­dent who in­dulged his crav­ing for al­co­hol and con­trolled sub­stances with­out be­com­ing de­pen­dent, a gifted artist who posted his phan­tas­magoric sketches on his Face­book page, and an out­doors­man who en­joyed hik­ing and snow­board­ing and who was dar­ing enough to leap off a 15m cliff into a lake, ac­cord­ing to a video he posted on­line.

He was an Ea­gle Scout, said Charles Mead, the direc­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions at the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school in Austin, he at­tended the Univer­sity of Texas in Dal­las.

“He was a smart guy” who “had a knack for com­put­ers,” said Sean Gaulager, 29, a class­mate from West­lake High School’s class of 2002.

In a 35-minute pod­cast recorded last year with a friend, Rene Pin­nell, Ul­bricht said he led an ac­tive party life dur­ing high school, ex­per­i­ment­ing with al­co­hol and drugs. Gaulager said he didn’t think Ul­bricht’s be­hav­iour was un­usual.

“I think that it’s fairly com­mon in this day and age for kids to ex­per­i­ment,” he said.

Ul­bricht seemed des­tined for big things even in a high school that pro­duced two NFL quar­ter­backs, Drew Brees of the New Or­leans Saints and Nick Foles of the Philadel­phia Ea­gles.

“He was like a nor­mal guy,” Gaulager said. “But he was above av­er­age in terms of in­tel­li­gence, you know, in terms of drive.”

At the Univer­sity of Texas, Ul­bricht ma­jored in physics. He also be­gan a flir­ta­tion with East­ern phi­los­o­phy, ac­cord­ing to the pod­cast. He had an in­tense, two-and-a-hal­fyear re­la­tion­ship with a girl­friend that caused some of his friends to think he would marry, Pin­nell said in the pod­cast that ap­peared on YouTube.

But Ul­bricht said in the pod­cast that he broke off the re­la­tion­ship. He was ad­mit­ted to a se­lec­tive grad­u­ate pro­gramme in physics at Penn State run by pro­fes­sor Dar­rell Schlom.

Dur­ing his three years there, Ul­bricht de­vel­oped a new per­sona. His in­ter­est in East­ern phi­los­o­phy and the spir­i­tual con­cept of “one­ness” was sup­planted by a com­mit­ment to lib­er­tar­ian ideas and an in­cip­i­ent in­ter­est in pol­i­tics.

Ul­bricht sup­ported Texas Repub­li­can Ron Paul’s 2008 bid for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, telling Penn State’s paper, the Daily Col­le­gian, that “there’s a lot to learn from him and his mes­sage of what it means to be a US cit­i­zen and what it means to be a free in­di­vid­ual”. He also im­mersed him­self in the prin­ci­ples of Lud­wig von Mises, an Aus­trian eco­nomic thinker with a fol­low­ing in lib­er­tar­ian cir­cles. Ul­bricht joined a stu­dent group, the Aus­trian Eco­nomic Society at Penn State, ac­cord­ing to a for­mer Penn State stu­dent who was friendly with Ul­bricht at the time.

Ul­bricht put his the­o­ries into ac­tion. Dur­ing an era of easy credit that helped in­flate the hous­ing bub­ble, he in­vested in gold and other cur­ren­cies, reap­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains, ac­cord­ing to the fel­low stu­dent. He bought a three-bed­room, two-bath house just off cam­pus for $174 675, in 2007, putting down a de­posit of 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to county records.

To help pay the bills, Ul­bricht rented out rooms in the house. Two for­mer ten­ants, Greg Wieser­man and Josh Wyka, who live in State Col­lege, said they re­called noth­ing un­usual about Ul­bricht.

“He was very reach­able, and was very cool,” said Wieser­man, who added that the charges against Ul­bricht sur­prised him. Ul­bricht ex­celled in his re­search work, said two of his pro­fes­sors in the school of Ma­te­ri­als, Science and En­gi­neer­ing.

He wrote or col­lab­o­rated on sev­eral pub­lished re­search papers in the area of “spin­tron­ics”, which Penn State’s web­site says in­volves the ori­en­ta­tion of po­larised elec­trons, an area of study af­fect­ing the devel­op­ment of semi-con­duc­tor chips. Ul­bricht com­pleted work for a Mas­ter’s de­gree in 2009. The two pro­fes­sors said he wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in fi­nance in­stead of ad­vanc­ing in the field with a PhD.

Ul­bricht aired his lib­er­tar­ian views on a post­ing at­trib­uted to him on Ama­, where his Mas­ter’s the­sis is of­fered for sale.

In Jan­uary 2011, he started Silk Road, an on­line mar­ket­place where buy­ers and sellers of il­le­gal drugs could in­ter­act us­ing Bit­coin, a dig­i­tal cur­rency that of­fers anonymity to its users, ac­cord­ing to the FBI. Op­er­a­tions re­mained hid­den from the pry­ing eyes of the law on the TOR net­work, which dis­guises the ori­gins of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Over the next twoand-a-half years, the FBI said, the site did $1.2 bil­lion worth of busi­ness. – Wash­ing­ton Post

CHARGED: Ross Ul­bricht

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