The incredible story of the Silk Road, known as “ebay for drugs”
WHEN ROSS ULBRICHT CREATED AN ILLICIT WEBSITE, HE COULD NEVER HAVE IMAGINED HOW BADLY THINGS WOULD GO WRONG
s a child,
Ross Ulbricht was bright and fearless. As a teen, he partied at weekends and worked hard at school in Austin during the week. After earning a scholarship to the University of Texas, then another to Penn State for a Masters, he wrote on social media of being “overwhelmed with the glory of being alive”. But Ulbricht could quickly become disillusioned if things didn’t go his way, and he soon became tired of his studies. Instead, he started up a used-book company, donating proceeds towards youth programmes and giving leftover books to prisons. Again, though, it only took one thing to throw him off. When he arrived at the warehouse to find shelves had collapsed, he turned his back on it and decided on a new path.
Ulbricht had started to adopt certain beliefs, one of which was that there should be minimal intervention by the State in the free market and private lives of citizens. His Linkedin page, which is still visible, says, “I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.” He added, “The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed.” He framed himself as a digital freedom fighter – and that was the beginning of Silk Road, an illicit website that would later become known as “ebay for drugs”.
Ulbricht created the website to allow users to buy illegal drugs without the risk of being traced by the government. Named after the ancient trading routes between India, China and Europe, the site operated on the dark web, the recesses of the internet where bitcoin and anonymous browsers made users untraceable. Ulbricht tested the site by sending himself drugs through the post, and when he was successful, Silk Road was launched in February 2011. The website broke down different offerings into categories, and sellers promised free samples in exchange for reviews, with products arriving innocently packaged up inside decoy parcels of DVDS or lip balm. Buyers could read reviews of different drugs and sellers, alongside tips on how to inject safely.
It wasn’t long before Silk Road took off. Soon, the site was enabling nearly 4,000 dealers worldwide to sell their products to more than 100,000 buyers. The most popular drug was marijuana, but you could buy anything from steroids and heroin, to fentanyl and even, some sources claim, the Devil’s Breath. Nicknamed “the scariest drug in the world”, it reportedly removes any free will while the victim is under the influence, turning them into a zombie.
Ulbricht was very active online. He operated under the screen name Dread Pirate Roberts or DPR, a character taken from the film The Princess Bride, who was known for criticising regulation. He would chat to customers behind his alias about cutting out the State and returning power to the individual. But his attempts at creating a libertarian haven were not going unnoticed. Quietly, the FBI and DEA had begun working to track down Ulbricht, who was running into difficulties himself.
While his friends and family thought Ulbricht was working in finance, he was running his empire alone and beginning to realise he needed help. In 2012, he struck up a friendship with a customer named Curtis Green. Green began brokering sales, but was arrested in January 2013, after receiving over a kilogram of cocaine in the post.
Ulbricht was terrified Green would reveal what he knew about Silk Road , and that wasn’t all. Ulbricht confided in another Silk Road user that Green had stolen $350,000 of bitcoin. Ulbricht told the user he wanted Green beaten up, which the user agreed to arrange. Then Ulbricht decided Green knew too much – he needed to be killed, instead. He wrote to the seller, “Can you change the order to execute rather than torture?” He justified his actions by saying that, although he hadn’t killed before, “It is the right move in this case”. He agreed to pay $80,000 and allegedly received photos of Green’s body to show it had been carried out. But things were not getting any better for Ulbricht.
A user known as Friendlychemist was demanding $500,000 to pay a Silk Road drug dealer he claimed had scammed him. Friendlychemist threatened that, if Ulbricht didn’t pay, he’d reveal information about his dealers and customers. When Ulbricht contacted the supposed scammer, a person using the name Redandwhite and claiming to be connected to the Hell’s Angels responded – and Ulbricht saw an opportunity to solve the new problem. He told Redandwhite he “wouldn’t mind” if Friendlychemist was killed. In a transcript later read out in court, Ulbricht wrote, “In my eyes,
‘GREEN KNEW TOO MUCH – HE HAD TO BE KILLED’
Friendlychemist is a liability and I wouldn’t mind if he was executed”. A hit was arranged and – to Ulbricht’s knowledge – carried out, but not before Friendlychemist pointed the finger at yet another dealer he claimed was set to blackmail Ulbricht. Ulbricht agreed a fee to also have that drug dealer, known as Tony76, and his roommates killed, paying another $500,000 to take care of the latest problem. Later, police couldn’t prove the murders took place, or even locate records for anyone with those names. But the conversations did occur, showing Ulbricht had moved far beyond the realms of enabling the sales of drugs, to having those he saw as his enemies destroyed. By now, a number of deaths from drug overdoses had been linked to products bought from Silk Road, and law enforcement were keen to catch the man behind it.
Yet, Ulbricht’s downfall was to