February 22, 2021 – The Silk Road movie (Lionsgate) came out last Friday, reviving interest in the story of Internet gangster Ross Ulbricht, who in the early 2010s ran the so-called Dark Web as a cyber crime lord and Mark Zuckerberg-gone-haywire overseeing a website called Silk Road devoted to free commerce for illicit items (a gangland E Bay of sorts). Ulbricht was a complete game changer in the direction of the underworld in the 21st Century.
Nick Robinson (Jurassic World, The Kings Of Summer, Love, Simon) plays Ulbricht in the film and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Public Enemies) plays the DEA agent chasing him using old-school tactics. The movie is helmed by Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer, The Seven Five, Operation Odessa), a producer and documentarian transitioning into scripted-drama directing.
Ulbricht, 36, is serving a life prison sentence after a 2013 joint-takedown by the FBI, DEA and IRS, where he was brought into custody in an elaborate sting at the San Francisco Public Library. He was convicted at a high-profile winter 2015 trial in New York City.
Regarding his historical relevance, it can’t be overstated that Ulbricht created what is the new-age gangster, someone able to earn gargantuan profit and influence from wrongdoing with a few simple strokes of a computer keyboard, as easily, if not, easier, than with a gun or a knife. Ulbricht’s billion-dollar Silk Road black market was a reference to a famous ancient Asian trade route conquered by Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan in the 12th century.
Similar to a traditional crime boss, the Texas-born and Masters Degree-educated Ulbricht pocketed a commission or “tribute” on each transaction that took place on Silk Road, a number that the FBI estimates to be a hefty $80 million dollars. The IRS cyber crimes unit traced $425 million dollars of sales commission attributed to site administrators.
Silk Road was launched in February 2011 and active until Ulbricht’s arrest in October of 2013. He was convicted on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering less than two years later and will never see the free world again. Originally, the case against Ulbricht included six attempted murders, five of which were dropped prior to jury selection and one that is sitting uncharged in an indictment out of Maryland.
Ulbricht’s trial began on January 13, 2015. At the trial, he offered a “withdrawal defense,” claiming that although he helped launch the Silk Road website, it was merely an economic experiment that he had abandoned shortly thereafter and he is being framed by a former friend and Silk Road-associate of his named, Mark Karpeles.
The FBI believes Ulbricht tried to have a half-dozen people killed for threatening to reveal the identities of Silk Road account holders. Using the site to hire hit men, he shelled out over $725,000 in fees but failed to get any of his desired murder plots off the ground.
Federal prosecutors told jurors that Silk Road was part of what is referred to as the “dark web,” “deep web,” or “back web.” FBI agents specializing in coding and cyber language, explained in their testimony that the Dark Web was a place on-line where domains aren’t easily found, they run on rogue browser systems and won’t appear using standard search engines. To increase anonymity, people paid for items and services on the site with cryptocurrency.
Karpeles, 35, is a shady French-born internet entrepreneur and financier, who was convicted of fraud and web piracy in France in 2010 and founded the American non-profit group, The Bitcoin Foundation, in early 2012 in an effort to lobby and promote the cryptocurrency’s usage and adoption in the United States. He denied any links to the managing of Silk Road on his Twitter account in the days before Ulbricht’s trial began.
By using a target-specific grassroots marketing campaign, Ulbricht, who describes himself as a libertarian, built Silk Road into a 1.2 billion-dollar criminal empire, virtually by himself, in a matter of 18 months. According to the FBI, Ulbricht started the site for the sole purpose of selling hallucinogenic mushrooms and the business paradigm quickly expanded from there.
The shadowy webmaster of Silk Road went by the on-line alias of Dread Pirate Roberts (a nod to the Cary Elwes character in the 1987 film The Princess Bride). Ulbricht was outed as Dread Pirate Roberts at trial. A collection of FBI and IRS agents testified at Ulbricht’s trial about how their investigation into the Silk Road website led to Ulbricht’s doorstep……or computer, in this particular situation, and how finding him, actually, wasn’t all that difficult.
IRS Agent Gary Alford unearthed Ulbricht’s identity via a basic Google search. Typing in the search terms “Silk Road” and “Bitcoin,” he discovered an on-line chat forum centered around Bitcoin where he saw posts from a username known as “Altoid.” Alford found posts seeking code-writers and programmers and directing those interested to Ulbricht’s personal email address (Rulbricht@Gmail.com). Later posts, showed the Altoid account promoting the Silk Road website to forum browsers, writing “it’s kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com.”
Born and raised in a middle-class family in Austin, Texas, Ulbricht attended college at the University of Texas-Dallas campus and then graduate school out east at Penn State, earning a master’s degree in material sciences and engineering. He moved to California in 2012
“The kid Ulbricht was an evil version of Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder),” said an FBI agent. “His vision for success was the free-market economy on acid.”