The alleged mastermind behind the world’s largest drug emporium was more than just a kingpin.
Prosecutors say he was also a businessman who, like any entrepreneur, had employees to hire and spreadsheets to update — he just had to do it all in secret.
As it turns out, Ross Ulbricht — who the government has accused of being Dread Pirate Roberts, the founder and operator of illegal drugs marketplace Silk Road — was not very good at covering his tracks if federal prosecutors are to be believed.
On Wednesday, digital forensics expert and FBI agent Tom Kiernan testified against Ulbricht and cited the many incriminating documents the agency says it found on his laptop.
The files ranged from Ulbricht’s personal journal entries, in which he discussed Silk Road extensively, to chat logs between Ulbricht and his Silk Road employees. Kiernan says he even found an accounting spreadsheet on Ulbricht’s laptop titled “Expense_Report” which listed various Silk Road expenses like “payroll,” “rent,” (referring to the montly cost of renting Silk Road’s servers) and “commissions.”
Other notable expenses included a new laptop and a “420 Grand Prize” of $US4,000 and an all-expenses-paid vacation awarded to one Silk Road user who was instructed to “Roll up a doobie and put your party hat on.”
Also found on Ulbricht’s laptop were identification documents of his alleged employees, who were required to prove their identities to Ulbricht before they could work for Silk Road. It wasn’t easy finding employees for Silk Road. In one chat log, according to the FBI, Ulbricht told an employee that he had to dip into the local Silk Road community looking for applicants after no one from bitcointalk.org expressed any interest.
“Working for a criminal enterprise isn’t exactly attractive to everyone,” Ulbricht allegedly wrote. “But more and more I’m trying to spread the responsibility around.”
But the pay was attractive enough, and there was room for growth. Records show Ulbricht’s employees were paid anywhere from $US500-$US2,000 per week depending on their responsibilities and how long they’d been employed, according to the FBI. There was even a “careers” link at the bottom of the Silk Road homepage.
Potential staff were sometimes hesitant to send Ulbricht the personal information he required of all employees, according to records the FBI obtained. But Ulbricht told them the risk of getting caught was quite small, chat logs show.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the prosecutor trying to build a case against you,” Ulbricht allegedly wrote to a potential employee. “What evidence could they pin on you? Realistically, the only way for them to prove anything would be for them to watch you log in and do your work.”
Ulbricht’s statement turned out to be eerily prophetic. As we now know, law enforcement officers followed Ulbricht to a San Francisco library where he often worked on his laptop, walking up behind him as he unknowingly chatted with an undercover FBI agent while logged on to Silk Road’s servers.
In opening statements, the defence said Ulbricht had created Silk Road as an “economic experiment” but later handed it off to someone else once it became too chaotic. This “someone else,” the real Dread Pirate Roberts, is still out there, Ulbricht’s lawyers argue. The defence says its client was just a “fall guy.”
We have reached out to Ulbricht’s lawyer for comment and will update this post if we hear back.
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