Read: July 2023
Inspiration: Came across on Amazon’s bestseller list; familiar with the Silk Road and wanted to learn about its origin
Written with the help of ChatGPT, below is a brief summary to understand what is covered in the book.
“American Kingpin”, published in 2017 by author and journalist Nick Bilton, is a gripping true-crime tale that unravels the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the notorious online black market, Silk Road. The book delves into Ulbricht’s transformation from a curious idealist to a powerful and dangerous criminal orchestrating a billion-dollar drug empire on the dark web. Bilton takes readers on a thrilling journey through the cat-and-mouse game between Ulbricht and law enforcement agencies, led by the relentless efforts of the FBI and DEA to bring down the Silk Road. The narrative explores the complex web of technologies, cryptocurrencies, and anonymity that enabled Ulbricht to run his illicit operation, as well as the ethical and legal debates surrounding his prosecution. “American Kingpin” is a riveting account of the intersection between technology, crime, and justice, revealing the highs and lows of an audacious criminal endeavor that captured the world’s attention.
Direct from my original book log, below are my unedited notes (abbreviations and misspellings included) to show how I take notes as I read.
Ross Ulbricht founded the Silk Road in 2011, prior was an ultra bright student at Penn State and fervent libertarian, immersed in the libertarian philsophy in clubs—gvt should have no role in individual, particularly advocate on drug laws—legalized all, same as alcohol and big macs, also eccentric—tested self to strip wants/desires, no hot water, only rice and beans diet, etc, 2009 had original idea for anonymous online store for anything (mainly drugs Ross thought should be legal) where gvt can’t track, Tor existed but not until 2010 when here about Bitcoin did Ross have final piece with anonymous currency, had no job but wanted money and also free people, self taught code to build Silk Road on the fly, Ross needed drugs for his site so built his own shrooms farm where made 100 pounds of magic mushrooms to sell, let his girlfriend Julia in on his operation (though kept location secret), Silk Road ready for launch Jan 2011, anonymously promoted on various drug forums to guide people, Ross other job was a books business/nonprofit so did this and shipped drugs as launch, “Amazon for drugs” gain traction and new sellers as well with 300+ kinds of drugs, all shipped via USPS, Julia worried could be traced, Ross had a friend Richard write the code but just for secret project then Richard demand to know and agree to continue helping, Gawker article June 2011 on Silk Road as up to thousands of buyers, immediately get national attention and Schumer and Manchin hold Senate pressers calling for it to be shut down, site blow up in users and still had bugs, Ross incredibly worried and paranoid, Julia increasingly concerned as harder drugs sold and as anonymous guns come online—Ross say all in his spirit of free choice but relationship deteriorate, Nov 2011 Julia’s friend who Julia had drunkenly told about Ross’ site had hospital incident with SR drugs and post to FB about Ross in anger—Ross panic and delete but then decide need to move to Australia in case anyone saw or Julia’s friend Erica told others, just over a year in was doing $500k in drug sales a month, Ross found Variety Jones as friend/confidant to help with site security, Ross take on name Dread Pirate Roberts early 2012 as alibi to say gave up site and not trace, Ross quickly become worth tens of millions, FBI getting interesting/tracking in 2012 as well with publicity, SR expand to selling guns, spyware, passports and more, Ross in favor, Variety Jones not want to sell heroin and think guns a turn off, Variety also soon want 50/50 partnership but Ross liked control and his ideals, Ross moved to San Fran summer 2012, interesting dynamic on SR where certain dealers not like working with others—think others were scum but they were not, certain factions, as well as pushback vs Ross commission changes but still continue huge growth, early 2013 Ross put out first hit on employee who was arrested by FBI (FBI was in on hit so not actually killed), by summer 2013 FBI, DEA, HSI, others all on SR so Ross decide escape plan for new identity for himself, FBI brought in IRS agent to follow the money after 2 years of following the drugs and getting no closer to Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), DEA agent Carl Force posted on drug dealer on SR and got close to DPR (helped stage hit on employee) but walked line between getting too close, VJ had moved to Thailand as keeping working, DPR ordered 6 murders for theft after Curtis Green killing, 1mm users by summer 2013 after only 2 years, secret service agent who got Curtis Green laptop stole $350k—blamed on Curtis, Carl Force also look to enrich self—made up fake FBI informant for DPR but was really just using own secrets he knew for payment—Carl helped DPR stay ahead of FBI for $50k per info donation ($757k in total), May 2013 IRS agent Gary Alford get first eeal lead—decided to search for Silk Road mention before June 2011 Gawker and found Ross’ early various forum posts asking if others had seen it simply as fake outsider, used fake name Altoid but Gary able to extract old email with Ross Ulbricht name—only confusing part was no comp sci background (this was the parking ticket like the one that solved Son of Sam murders in 1977 NYC where Gary grew up), FBI agent Tarbell in NY early 2013 caught slight mistake from DPR where code expose SR server IP (Ross thought he caught without anyone noticing but forums had caught)— located to Iceland, got copy and was able to unencrypt server in June 2013–open door to finding location of DPR and associates, summer 2013 DOJ organize meeting for all agencies to collab and share findings across geographies—lead Jared HSI from Chicago to work with FBI Tarnbell—Jared had been seizing thousands of drug shipment and taking over SR accounts to get closer to DPR, June 2013 at SF airport Homeland Security seized packages that had fake IDs—specifically had 9 fake IDs for Ross all addressed to Andrew Ford his roommate, raise suspicions with 9 but went to wrong address first then July right address but Ross get out of it for the moment, with server Tarbell find cafe in SF where comp was cleaned—this was lone clue lived in SF, key to arrest was getting Ross logged in with laptop open otherwise would be encrypted and no proof Ross as DPR, SWAT want to barge into house which would make him shut laptop, Tarbell and Jared go rogue to catch him at library with open laptop on day of arrest in SF, arrested Oct 1 2013, Ross’ team in trial argue DPR and Ross not same person—DPR was many people even and Ross had sold the site off even though did start it (it spiraled and Ross got out), said FBI desperate to find culprit and using Ross, claim chat logs and evidence all convenient and planted, too sloppy to be real DPR, jury deliberate for 3.5 hrs and guilty on all counts—evidence and $ on computer really was overwhelming, May 29 2015 sentenced to life with no parole by judge—judge emphasis how deliberate his actions were and his education does not make him any better than other drug dealers, judge assert immense collateral damage of Ross’ work and not to mention murders as well, Feds discovered file Ross had with all employee IDs and last arrest in Dec 2015 was Variety Jones in Thailand, Carl and Shaun (DEA and secret service who stole) caught as well and both served 70+ months in jail, Silk Road followers want revenge on Tarbell and company, new Silk Roads kept popping up, many drug users do feel more safe online vs street but deaths skyrocketing all the while