02.04.2016
policy

Silk Road One Year L8R: How Is Ross Ulbricht Still Behind Bars?

The Silk Road investigation was rotten with corruption at every level.

One year ago, Ross Ulbricht was charged as the mastermind behind the Silk Road. By May of the same year, Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison. The government had the elusive Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) in custody.

What began as “an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force”—language from Ulbricht’s LinkedIn account that authorities would later credit as an early admission of his ambition to operate the dark web marketplace––ended in a manhunt spanning multiple agencies, rife with corruption at every level.

Now, while the defense awaits an appeal, it's logical to ask how Ulbricht is still behind bars when the actions of the agents that put him there tainted the entirety of the investigation.

As evidence of money laundering, extortion, and corruption emerged following Ulbricht’s trial, two agents on the Silk Road Task Force wound up on the receiving end of federal indictments. It seems that the more the government agents learned about the dark web and digital currency, the more they tried to use it to their advantage. 

DEA agent Carl Mark Force IV led the Baltimore Silk Road Task Force through 2014. His role in the investigation that landed Ulbricht behind bars proved crucial. Force became a trusted DPR confidant.

But according to admissions made in Force’s plea agreement, he extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoin from Ulbricht and the Silk Road, using his marketplace aliases “Nob” and “French Maid.” Also, after his account was frozen for suspicious activity, Force tried to leverage his authority to have mobile-payments-processing app Venmo shut down. (The suspicious activity was Force changing stolen bitcoin into American dollars.)

The depth and reach of Bridges's crimes ended up compromising numerous ongoing investigations involving digital currency or bitcoin. 

Agent Force admits to using similar intimidation tactics against online bitcoin companies and exchanges that blocked his accounts under similar circumstances. He accepted a job with one, then stole an alleged $300,000 worth of bitcoin from one customer. Force further admits he entered a $240,000 contract with a major film studio for a film about the ongoing Silk Road investigation without receiving a “that’s chill” from the DEA.

Perhaps what is most egregious about Force's behavior, is that Ulbricht’s defense team was made aware of the corrupt agent's actions during the trial, but was barred from bringing them up until after the jury reached a verdict. 

Force wasn’t alone in his badged fraud.

Secret Service Agent Shaun Bridges was outed as Force’s co-conspirator. On Monday, Wired reported on Bridges's re-arrest after attempting to flee the country the day before he was set to turn himself in and begin a 71-month prison sentence for the crimes he committed throughout the investigation. The depth and reach of Bridges's crimes ended up compromising numerous ongoing investigations involving digital currency or bitcoin. 

Screenshot via Shaun Bridges/Carl M. Force IV criminal complaint

From many points of view Ulbricht’s story is tragic, but it should be universally terrifying.

If media reports had declined the government's invitation to dramatize Ulbricht’s tracking and capture and had instead exposed the corruption of the prosecution, DPR might have been seen less as an online drug lord and more as a politically motivated cyber innovator being scapegoated by a system still clutching to the failing and costly War on Drugs. 

Not all crooks are killers. Not all cops are heroes.

 

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