These Are the Two Forgotten Architects of Silk Road
Digging through the email account of Variety Jones.
Koh Chang in Southern Thailand. Photo: David Longstreath/AP
Ross Ulbricht, the convicted creator of the online drug market Silk Road, did not run the site alone.
Over its three year history, Ulbricht hired a small staff of forum moderators and market administrators to help keep the cogs of a multi-million dollar business moving—many of whom have now been apprehended by the authorities.
There were two crucial but lesser-known players involved who have yet to be publicly unmasked, however.
These individuals coded large portions of the site and attempted to expand Silk Road from a single drug market into a cryptographic empire with a range of services.
Through a source, Motherboard has gained access to emails sent and received by one of those characters, who is perhaps best known by the pseudonym Variety Jones. This reporter has seen first hand the contents of this email account, and verified that it is legitimate.
The information in these emails led to two names: Mike Wattier and Thomas Clark.
Variety Jones joined Silk Road in 2011, according to site archives maintained by the security researcher Runa Sandvik. He was known as a vendor of marijuana seeds, and his aversion to the failed War on Drugs was clear from his postings on the site forums.
"I'm here to break the back of prohibition, to make the jack-booted thugs from the DEA roll up their tents and sneak off into the night, and to do what I can to ensure a future where 65 year old MS patients aren't shot by SWAT teams during drug raids because they suspect there was a fucking plant growing in the back room," he wrote.
But in private conversations with Ulbricht, he acted as a penetration tester, financial advisor, and, in the site creator's own words, a "mentor." Variety Jones even suggested the now infamous moniker Dread Pirate Roberts, often shortened to DPR, which Ulbricht adopted.
"[He] was the biggest and strongest willed character I had met through the site thus far," Ulbricht wrote in a 2011 journal entry.
Earlier this year, an independent researcher known as "La Moustache" published an extensive investigation into the history of Variety Jones, tracing digital footprints of the character back to pre-Silk Road cannabis forums.
Based on that research, Motherboard contacted several people who may have known Variety Jones in real life.
One of those contacted provided an email address for the individual suspected of being behind the Variety Jones alias, which, through a search of public online records, led to a website owned by the same person. Linked to this website was another email address, which included the name "varietyjones."
A source independently gained access to this email account. It contained a small cache of documents, files, emails and chat logs explicitly linked to Silk Road and its operations from 2012, as well as information on the account's owner. These records contain the story of these back-room dealings of Silk Road.
"Smed" started working on Silk Road during the site's peak in January of 2012. Gawker had published an article about the marketplace, causing a huge influx of users.
A hard-working coder, Smed, or "Smedley" as he was otherwise known, had completely reworked key elements of the Silk Road infrastructure, and was being paid $2,500 a week for his services, more than any other employee.
Smed worked closely with DPR, and communicated with the site leader more than anyone else, under what evidence suggests is one of his pseudonyms, "Charger", according to TorChat logs released during Ulbricht's trial.
"I have replaced your entire foundation.. i probably have a little bit more efficient approach only because hindsight is 20/20," Smed wrote to DPR in May 2012, according to chat logs found on Ulbricht's computer.
The site overhaul was just the beginning. Other projects detailed in the Variety Jones email account include an encrypted email service and a Bitcoin exchange.
Schematics of the mail service—called CryptoMail—are in a dense, technical and work-in-progress document, dated June 2012. The document makes no explicit mention of Silk Road, but messages between Variety Jones and DPR contained in the accessed email account refer to "Silk Mail" and shed more light on the overarching goal: to create a Silk Road ecosystem, akin to how Google provides many products besides search.
"A big part of the value of this project will not be in direct revenues, but in brand recognition," DPR writes, according to a message found in the email account. "Google makes the vast majority of its revenues from ppc ads, but still maintains world-class free email for everyone because it brings them into their ecosystem. Silk Mail will hopefully do the same for Silk Road, which will likely continue to be our primary revenue source."
The team can "throw $20k/month at this," DPR wrote, before suggesting, "Silk Phone anyone???"
According to his journal, Ulbricht had Variety Jones to thank for this push towards Silk Road's diversification. Variety Jones believed products like Silk Mail could corner the market in secure communication and serve as a loss leader to recruit new users to the Silk Road ecosystem.
Something seems to have happened to Variety Jones on September 5, 2012
"He has helped me see a larger vision," Ulbricht wrote. "A brand that people can come to trust and rally behind. Silk Road chat, Silk Road exchange, Silk Road credit union, Silk Road market, Silk Road everything! And it's been amazing just talking to a guy who is so intelligent and in the same boat as me, to a certain degree at least."
But, although DPR was technically the head of Silk Road, chat logs found in the accessed email account show that Variety Jones and Smed were a real driving force behind the projects and Silk Road more generally. The pair discussed ideas and plans with each other, rather than simply reporting to DPR.
Smed, using his alternate handle, spoke with Variety Jones about developments to the site, such as adding bulk transactions and updates to the forums.
When it came to those discussions, it was as if Variety Jones was Smed's boss, not DPR. "What timeframe do you envision?" Smed asked Variety Jones of one project.
Variety Jones also appears to have funded large parts of Smed's work and expenses. "10k, 36k, 20k, that rounds up nicely to 90, and we'll cover all of your travel expenses for the trip, how does that sound," Variety Jones writes to Smed.
He added, "I'm gonna go for a while, don't know when the power is gonna be back, and I want to ensure I have a few hours to talk to DPR."
Silk Road's coder
The Bitcoin wallet found in Variety Jones's email account, dated 05-09-2012, includes a series of transactions labeled by the user.
Some are indicated as being received from a Bitcoin mining pool, some are apparently for "iphone topup," and others are sent to a wallet associated with the email address that Motherboard originally uncovered.
The file also includes payments labeled as being sent to "Chgr" and "smed," made over the latter half of 2012, for hundreds of bitcoins at a time. (It is worth noting that Bitcoin did not skyrocket in value until 2013, when it crossed the $200 mark and later hit $1,000.)
Through an analysis of the blockchain, many of these payments were connected to an account at Mt. Gox, the failed Bitcoin exchange that was shut down in 2014. By referring to several leaked databases from Mt. Gox, it is possible to link specific deposits with individual users of the service.
The first Mt. Gox dump, from March 2014, contained information on trades as far back as 2011. The second, released in February 2015, was a redacted version of the exchange's userbase. It included the names used by customers to sign up, as well as partial email addresses.
By cross-referencing transactions detailed in Variety Jones's Bitcoin wallet with these two leaks, it is revealed that a large number of payments made to "Chgr" and "smed" eventually arrive in a Mt. Gox account registered in the name "Mike Wattier." An email in the Variety Jones account is also forwarded to an address with the name "mwattier."
On multiple social media and freelance developer sites, a Mike Wattier connected to the same email address found in the Variety Jones account identifies himself as an American with 20 years of open source ecommerce experience who is adept with a wide variety of programming languages.
The same Wattier also appears to have a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Github. Judging by his Facebook activity, he was in Pattaya, Thailand, as of March 2015. Some of his profiles list him as living on the Thai island of Koh Chang.
Otherwise known as Elephant Island, the remote Koh Chang is covered in jungles, boasts a lively party scene, and in recent years has seen a steady rise of foreign visitors and expats. Many places on the island turn their electricity off at night.
Interestingly, this is the same location that previous investigations have linked to the man believed to be Variety Jones.
According to online records found by La Moustache, the man suspected of being Variety Jones and an associate from a marijuana seed selling business travelled to the island in 2008. From here, the pair brought back a strain of seed only found on, and named after, Koh Chang, and it was advertised as a freebie by the seed selling business.
Later, in chat logs found on Ulbricht's computer, Variety Jones told DPR that "I love thailand for the weather, the people, and the weed ain't bad either."
Although he did, perhaps foolishly, keep records of some of his conversations, Variety Jones was security conscious. He made notes on transferring money for different purposes with specific devices, in an attempt to separate his illegal activity into distinct cells. In a chat log with Smed, he says he'll only stay logged into his chat programme if he is in the same room as the computer.
He had also saved announcements of new versions of the Tor Browser Bundle, and dozens of other archived pages are to do with cryptography and online anonymity in a bookmark file in his email. Curiously, the Drug Enforcement Administration's web tipline is also bookmarked in the file.
Something also seems to have happened to Variety Jones on September 5, 2012. He emailed copies of valuable information—the Bitcoin wallet, chat logs, and the Silk Road expansion plans—to himself on this date: from the "varietyjones" email account to the same account.
"I'm gonna go for a while, don't know when the power is gonna be back, and I want to ensure I have a few hours to talk to DPR."
It is unclear what spurred him to do this, but this day is over a full year before Silk Road would be shut down by the FBI, and its creator arrested in a San Francisco library. Federal investigations into the site started in 2011.
The research conducted by La Moustache determined that Variety Jones is likely Thomas Clark, a Canadian born man in his mid-fifties who has lived in the UK and on the island of Koh Chang, Thailand. This was the information that led to Motherboard's identification of an email account belonging to Variety Jones.
Inside that account, the emails are predominately addressed to Thomas Clark, or simply Mr. Clark. The Bitcoin wallet file also details several transactions converted into Baht, the currency for Thailand. On top of this, a large amount of spam emails are from Bangkok Airways, a Thai airline company.
A source independently gained access to Mr. Clark's Bangkok Airways account, which contains records of previous flights made from locations in South East Asia to Thailand's capital, Bangkok, in 2013. The account is held under the name Roger Clark.
Motherboard cannot confirm whether Roger or Thomas is the birth name of Mr. Clark, or if either of those names is a pseudonym. Regardless, a man who appears to identify under both of those names was in control of an email account undeniably associated with Silk Road and the alias Variety Jones.
Similarly, while Motherboard cannot confirm that Mike Wattier is Smed beyond circumstantial evidence—and it's possible that name could also be a pseudonym—it seems clear that Clark did business with Wattier. Unrelated and prior to this analysis, a source in Thailand who knew Clark had said that someone called "Mike" was Clark's "erstwhile business partner."
Multiple attempts to reach this Wattier through email, social media, and his social media contacts were unsuccessful. Attempts to reach Mr. Clark by phone, email, and through an associate were unsuccessful.
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declined to comment.
As of this writing, it is still unknown what became of Variety Jones and Smed—but it's clear they were undoubtedly two of the main architects of Silk Road.
Know Mike Wattier or Thomas Clark? Contact Motherboard at firstname.lastname@example.org.