Accused online drug trafficker ‘not person they say he is’ – lawyer
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 Amazon.com, 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