My Roommate, the Darknet Drug Lord
I lived with Ross Ulbricht while he was running Silk Road.
Image: Daniel Rehn/Flickr
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.
Both Ross and I were subletters, so we never signed the same lease. In fact, I didn't learn his last name until two months after I'd met him. It's funny it never came up in conversation (does this say more about me than Ross?). The event that disclosed this information was none other than his arrest in October of 2013.
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.
And this is what made up a bulk of the defense: how could such a benign guy be brazen enough to allegedly order murder-for-hires? How could someone intelligent enough to graduate with a master's from Penn State be dumb enough to use his own personal email to advertise an illegal bazaar on a message board as basic as Shroomery.org? Did he think he simply would not get caught? The defense stated Ross could not be Dread Pirate Roberts because Dread Pirate Roberts would have been more careful, more deliberate in his actions. Ross, they said, is just a normal guy.
Kingpins used to be suave and sophisticated with designer clothes and bikini-clad women: summer blockbuster material, rap music material. Drug barons vaunted the fruit of their felonious labor. But Ross's life as a digital drug lord was far from glamorous. He ate salmon, bread made of sprouted wheat, lean cuts of beef, asparagus. His clothes were from Old Navy, Target, American Eagle. He wasn't a drug addict, and he didn't hang out with any. One-night stands, as far as I could tell, were not his cup of tea.
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
He didn't own a cell phone. In regards to an occupation, he said he "built websites" and, once, mentioned "exchanging currency." When I inquired if he ever traded Bitcoin he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, "Yeah, there's a little of that."
The weekend before his arrest, Ross met some friends and me at Ocean Beach. We drank champagne and he played djembe. At the end of the evening a pair of police officers approached the circle we had formed around the bonfire and told us to put it out, to wrap things up. It was, they said, time to leave.
The following Tuesday I came home from work to find a piece of paper on the coffee table:
The search and seizure form accompanying this property receipt was the first time I saw Ross's full name.
Suddenly, Google yielded more facts about my roommate than any conversation we had during the two months of living together. I knew his face, his voice, the brand of toothpaste he used, what he ate on his last night of freedom, but what did he do outside the house on Monterey Boulevard? We had shared a Comcast internet connection. What, via the internet, did he do in that same house?
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 am, to be frank, entertained by the serendipity of this tale. After the shock and paranoia of the arrest subsided, I googled Ross' name hourly—always something new to read. On Reddit one user posted a mailing address to a cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. I sent a letter (How are you? How's the food?) and the short story "The Man of the Crowd" by Poe. Ross responded a couple weeks later thanking me for the story, saying the Poe piece was a nice change of pace from his current reading: the Bible and an organic chemistry textbook. "I liked that the main character simply observed things at the beginning," Ross wrote. "And by the end of the story he was an active participant."
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. He 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.
Bauer's neighbor posted a Facebook status following Ulbricht's arrest, describing him as "creepy."
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.
So here is where I can begin to reconcile the persona of my roommate Ross Ulbricht and the figure of Dread Pirate Roberts into one individual. The more I recognize the divide between an author and his username, the more the evidence points towards not only Ross' guilt but also his naïvete. It's this childish quality, the same wide-eyed belief of an inherent virtue within the world, that makes Ross, for the most part, an honest man and, for a period of time, someone I considered respectable. I don't think Ross intended to hurt anyone with his "economic simulation." But he did lie to us. And although I cannot rationalize his actions, I wish it were the Dread Pirate Roberts, not Ross, sitting in that cell.