He arrived wearing a red sweatshirt and blue jeans, his face bearded. He was there for an interview, a sit-down with myself and the married couple I shared a townhouse with in Glen Park. We had a room for rent, and Ross had responded to the classified we posted online.
We did not know, really, what type of person he was, but, as we chatted over lambics and IPAs, I felt relieved: gone was the posturing so obvious in the previous candidates. They worked in advertising, at startups—Twitter employees who talked about how much money they made and the exotic locales where they took their vacations. Ross was a techie, but he didn't act like one. He seemed eloquent, optimistic, down-to-earth. He seemed trustworthy.
Thinking back, I was, to be honest, pretty drunk that night.
He moved into the house. I helped him buy furniture at Ikea in Oakland. We scavenged our neighborhood seeking wood for the fireplace. His sister and parents visited one week, his girlfriend from Texas another. I met his half-brother. I met his childhood best friend. We sat on the blue couches in the living room of the house as sunlight poured in through windows overlooking Balboa Park and Interstate 280. We smoked indica and petted our housemates’ dogs, two lethargic chihuahuas.
It was raining when he showed me his DeviantArt page from his undergrad years at UT Austin (“They’re just doodles, really”). I once heard him watching V for Vendetta in his room with the door closed. Another afternoon, en route to Paco's Tacos near UC Berkeley, Ross said he had deleted his Facebook profile because he was concerned about presenting too much personal information about himself online (it was later reactivated). Later, when I was in the market for a new laptop, Ross suggested a PC running Ubuntu, an open-source operating system whose name comes from the South African philosophy Ubuntu, which, when translated, means "human-ness" and expresses a faith in the interconnectivity of all humanity—ideas not that far removed from Ross's own mentality.
Fifteen months later, on the other side of the country, The United States of America v. Ross William Ulbricht began. At the heart of the trial was the search for the hands that typed Silk Road administrator Dread Pirate Roberts (or DPR) into existence. Evidence linking my one-time housemate to the DPR screenname was damning, to say the least—the personal journals, the Gmail account, the confiscated fake IDs, the chat logs, the forum posts made by faceless personas that were all, apparently, created by the real-life Ross under pseudonyms like altoid, frosty, and, of course, Dread Pirate Roberts.
The defense claimed that while Ross did create the Silk Road marketplace—a fact hidden from both the public and Ulbricht's family until its reveal in court—he gave control of the operation to another user who, in turn, framed Ulbricht as the mastermind behind the website.
This skeleton of an argument seemed to be founded almost solely upon the old cliché that on the internet, no one is who they seem. Yes, they said, Ross was creative enough, idealistic enough to produce an online anonymous marketplace. That much we can admit. But the drugs? That treasure chest of cryptocurrency? The attempted murders-for-hire? It was, the defense argued, all a case of mistaken identity.
Sure, we wanted Ross to go free. We wanted him to be innocent, to be a hero: the poster boy for privacy in the Information Age. His sentencing on May 15th won’t be the end of the story—he still has to stand trial for murder-for-hire charges in Baltimore, Maryland, at an undetermined date. Furthermore, Ulbricht’s lawyer has said they will appeal the guilty ruling, which will add to the already significant sum of time and money being spent by the defendant’s family and supporters.
It’s hard to imagine how Ross is coping with this judicial soap opera. He's a chill guy, an Eagle Scout with a heart of gold. An admirable dude who, while we lived together, was fond of hiking and playing the djembe. He is well-spoken and humble, with as one reporter described, “the kind of haircut you'd find on children in Norman Rockwell paintings.” He is, in all honesty, a bit of a nerd. I once lent him my copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader’s 777-page opus exploring the fundamental concepts that allow the existence of intelligence, symmetry, and mathematics. He ended up reading more of the book than I ever did. He definitely understood it better. It’s needless to say that Ross prefered a quiet night in to an evening at the club.
Then again, what do I know? We had, after all, met via Craigslist.
Our paths would cross every other day: he left the house in the mornings before I awoke and I returned home from my night shifts at the local market (below the public library he would later be arrested at) after he’d gone to bed. When I saw him, he was often lounging shirtless, a habit I found odd and hippie-ish (if not a little vain). Once, after an attempt to retrieve litter in the underbrush of Glen Park Canyon, Ross acquired a nasty case of poison oak. He spent the next week roaming the house, towel loose around his waist, skin red and inflamed.
Suddenly, Google yielded more facts about my roommate than any conversation we had during the two months of living together
Did the feds know all the pop music I torrented? The porn I viewed? The blogs I visited every day? The hours spent checking Facebook and chatting with friends over Skype? Did agents sit in black sedans down the block while I paced in the narrow space between my twin bed and the tiny bedroom's windows facing the street, brooding and biting my nails down to the skin? If every email I ever sent, if every message board post I ever made were viewed by the proper authorities, would narcissism be the most damaging charge I could be found guilty of, or would it be something more serious?
I continued to write. I sent him a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach, hoping to hold onto the remnant of familiarity we once had. No response. One letter, two, three, four… His ex-girlfriend, now in Los Angeles, messaged back and forth with me over Facebook instant messenger before abruptly ceasing her responses. When I email his mom about visiting Ross in prison, she explained the process is complex and lengthy but that she would mention it to her son.
Ross didn't own a cell phone. H
e said he "built websites" and once mentioned "exchanging currency"
At some point, after it became obvious a visit was out of the question, Lyn personally gave me Ross' address, which was different from the one I'd been using. I realized he had been moved within MDC and it was likely that the half dozen letters and the copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach never made it to his cell. When I visited family in Queens over Thanksgiving, I took the R line through Manhattan to Bay Ridge and walked the perimeter of MDC. It was overcast, and the streets were empty.
What would I have said to him? Every question seems either too trite or too incriminating. I suppose we’d chat about San Francisco, about the dogs, about the night on the beach. The tacos. The djembe. All those things we know, mutually, to be fact. Because, let’s face it, I do not really know Ross at all.
It is easier to utter mean things, dirty things, even affectionate things via the internet than it is in the physical world. It's easier to threaten a stranger's life via the internet than it is face-to-face. This was the case with Ross: it is the alleged murder-for-hires that trouble me, my housemates, my family, his family and friends the most. Prosecutors say Ross conspired to have a former Silk Road administrator killed for $80,000 in Bitcoin—but the co-conspirator turned out to be a federal agent who fed Ross falsified images “proving” the murder had taken place.
Even if the murder was fake, this turn to violence that allegedly became characteristic of Dread Pirate Roberts was not an attribute of its creator. It’s as if the screenname gained a mind of its own.
“There is no need to change your life,” Jean Baudrillard once wrote. “All you need is to have two.”
I think Ross could appreciate that.