Elite FBI cyber investigators bring viewers in the takedown of the mastermind behind a dark web market offering drugs, firearms – even murders for hire were discussed – in “The FBI Declassified: The Dangerous Journey on the Silk Road” airing Tuesday, November 10 at 10/9c on CBS.
In 2013, 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht was detained by the FBI for conducting a dark web market named Silk Road. On the market, people from all over the globe could buy and sell illegal drugs, weapons, poisons, and services such as computer hacking. In Silk Road forums, users may even discuss murders-for-hire. Silk Road earned more than $200 million in total sales revenue in the three decades of its existence, with Ulbricht taking a cut on every sale.
Ulbricht created Silk Road from a desire to have an open market where people can buy and trade whatever they desired, without government regulation. To keep users’ and his very own anonymity, Ulbricht set up Silk Road on the dark web, a portion of the net invisible to traditional search engines. Silk Road didn’t accept cash or credit cards; consumers had to cover with bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. All trades were encrypted and, therefore, untraceable. Those activities set the website on numerous law enforcement agencies’ radar, including the FBI’s elite New York cyber group.
When Ulbricht created the website, he had been dating Julia Vie. They met when she was a freshman at Penn State and he was a graduate student there in materials science and technology. She says that they fell in love quickly.
When Ross and I really started to get to know each other, it was extreme,” Vie recalls. “We’re always hanging out… always doing these remarkable things together.
When Ulbricht got his master’s degree and moved back to Austin, Vie left college and moved to be with him. In Austin, Ulbricht tried his hand at several jobs, including day trading and conducting an internet bookstore. But, nothing seemed to work out. He then and Vie each started their own companies. She started a photography studio named Vivian’s Muse, while Ulbricht began the Silk Road website.
I remember when he was coming up with the idea,” remembers Vie. “He said something about… the Silk Road in Asia… and how it was an enormous network… And that is what he wanted to make, so he believed it was the perfect name.
Vie says at first their relationship was romantic and exciting, but it later changed. Ulbricht started spending more and more time in their bedroom, on his personal computer “practically 24/7.” Based on Vie, she was not sure precisely what Ulbricht was working on.
Their daily relationship was similar to that of any other 20-something couple: They’d walk to coffee shops, do errands, cook foods. And they would argue. “I wanted to have a normal life with him, not have him sit before a computer on a gorgeous day. I am a young, beautiful woman in a brand new city. Take me out to supper!” At one stage, Vie says she sneaked a glance at Ulbricht’s diary and saw he wrote that it was a burden to take her out. Their relationship fell apart shortly after Ulbricht launched Silk Road. He finally moved to San Francisco, telling Vie he would quit the website. She was skeptical. They began talking again about a year later and Vie went to see Ulbricht. She had been interested in rekindling the relationship and encouraged him to go to her back in Austin.
I was begging him to hurry up and come to me, ’cause I just had a horrible feeling,” Vie recalls. “I kept telling him… ‘Push your journey up … Leave your pc at home. Just visit Austin’ … And he was like, ‘No, I have to do some more things here and I will see you in a couple of weeks.’
But before he had the opportunity to go, Ross Ulbricht was detained by the FBI in the fall of 2013. This followed a lengthy investigation by the FBI and other agencies, including the IRS, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security. Julia Vie considers Ulbricht knew he was a target.
“I think he knew he was going to get caught – and wind up being a martyr for his cause,” she said. Ulbricht was charged with seven counts, including drugs trafficking, pc hacking, money laundering, and a kingpin statute usually reserved for mafia dons and cartel leaders.
Vie learned about the arrest from a friend: “She just said, ‘Search Ross Ulbricht on Google.’ And then I did and clearly found ‘Ross Ulbricht detained,’ the whole thing, and I just started bawling and falling on the floor… I was so angry.”
“I knew it was something unethical, but… I had no idea it had been as large as it was,” says Vie.
However, she insists Ulbricht is nonviolent, smart and kind. “Book clever,” she explains, “not street smart. He wasn’t in any respect a drug kingpin. … He never even used the money he made. … I mean, most kingpins purchase furs and jewels and they are living the life. He did not even have a car!”
Vie went to see Ulbricht in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, while he was awaiting trial. “It was nice to see him,” she recalls. “He wrote to me then he loved the girl I had become.”
But that would be their last trip. In 2015 Ross Ulbricht was found guilty on all fees and received two life sentences plus 40 years. It’s a sentence law enforcement says that he deserved, but others believe it is overly harsh.
I don’t believe he deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life,” says Vie. “I mean, maybe take the best years of his life, at least, however, leave him with the final portion of his life.
For the FBI, shutting down Silk Road represented stopping a future crime wave involving selling illicit and possibly deadly items online. For Vie, Silk Road represented heartbreak for herself and for Ulbricht, who she felt could have had a promising future.
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