The Variety Show
On the trail of the man believed to be Variety Jones, one of the architects of the defunct drug marketplace Silk Road.
Illustration: Che Saitta-Zelterman
It was around 6 AM in Europe, and I was packing my bags to go meet one of the alleged architects of the defunct drug marketplace Silk Road somewhere in Southeast Asia. Then I opened an encrypted email that had been sent during the night.
"DO NOT GET ON THE PLANE," read the message from Roger Thomas Clark.
"Mr. Neng," a contact who would meet an editor and me at our first stop in Bangkok, had apparently been arrested. "Not driving down the road and pulled over arrested," Clark continued, "but two truckloads of army pulled up to his house type arrested."
Since late September, I've been exchanging messages and emails with Clark, who the US government believes is Variety Jones, the puppet master behind Silk Road. Last week, a complaint was unsealed charging him with narcotics and money laundering conspiracy.
Clark was described as a "senior adviser" to Ross Ulbricht, the convicted creator of Silk Road, by the US Attorney's Office, and was arrested on December 3.
"Clark is alleged to have been a close confidante of Ulbricht's who advised him on all aspects of Silk Road's operations and helped him grow the site into an extensive criminal enterprise," a press release reads.
"I don't know if this has anything to do with me, or if they'll make anything of your information if they find it," Clark wrote at the time about the arrest of Mr. Neng. "Right now I don't know anything."
Variety Jones was the handle of a vendor who sold marijuana seeds on Silk Road. Publicly he was known as a decent seller, who took the quality of his product seriously.
But behind the scenes, he also acted as the site's in-house hacker and all-around advisor, and was tasked with thwarting any law enforcement investigations into the site.
"[He] was the biggest and strongest willed character I had met through the site thus far," Ulbricht wrote in a 2011 journal entry.
Variety Jones was also the one who encouraged Ulbricht to carry out his first of five alleged murder-for-hires, in order to target an ex-employee. (No one was actually killed, and the plot was instead an elaborate scheme concocted by Carl Mark Force IV, a corrupt US Drug Enforcement Administration agent.)
"[D]ude, we're criminal drug dealers—what line shouldn't we cross?" Variety Jones wrote to Ulbricht, according to the US Attorney Office's press release.
"Plan on being gone at least a week, possibly longer"
These backroom dealings first came to light during Ulbricht's trial earlier this year, when reams of chat logs between the two found on Ulbricht's laptop were released. But before that, very few would have known the true extent of Variety Jones's involvement in Silk Road.
Even then, only tidbits about this character had emerged, and since Ross Ulbricht was arrested in a San Francisco library in October 2013, Variety Jones had all but vanished entirely.
That is, until he started posting on a forum two years later.
Earlier this year, Motherboard published an investigation into the identity of Variety Jones. Building on the previous work of the independent researcher La Moustache, that piece relied on a source who had gained independent access to an email account used by Variety Jones. That information connected the Variety Jones alias to either a Roger or Thomas Clark, and, at the time, efforts to reach Mr. Clark were unsuccessful.
Then, around 12 days after publication, "Plural of Mongoose," another long-dormant alias that others have linked to Variety Jones, came online, and started posting on a cannabis enthusiast forum in his characteristic, whimsical style.
"So I've got this trip planned, to the Big Apple. Golly gee and shucks, I shure am looking forward to seeing the big city 'n stuff," he wrote, before implying he was going to prison. "I'm not sure exactly where I'm gonna be staying when I get there, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be one of them 'state of the art' facilities, if you know what I mean."
Despite his fully public re-emergence, Variety Jones, aka Plural of Mongoose, declined to talk to me. "I'm going to say no, not at this time, " he wrote in a private message. "Thank you very much for asking, though."
Then, to my shock, shortly after he asked instead, "Would you like to come visit me, mebbe join me on my trip to NY?"
"Ideally you'd be on a flight to [Bangkok] in 48 hours," Clark wrote to me in September. "Understand that there will be no internet access starting from the arrivals hall at Suvarnabhumi Airport, and any internet capable devices will be taken from you at that time. Expect to be searched, but I'll do my best to ensure that a perky bar girl does that part, or a fit Muey [sic] Thai boxer, if that's yer bent."
"Also, there will be no sight-seeing," he continued. "You will have minders with no sense of humor, so there's no wandering off to an internet cafe or whatnot."
"Plan on being gone at least a week, possibly longer."
(At the time, an FBI spokesperson would not comment on the public posts made by Plural of Mongoose, but she asked if I "would ever want to come in for an informal meeting with our cyber people." I did not reply to her email.)
In order to verify his identity, Clark provided a copy of his passport. Roger Thomas Clark, 54, is a Canadian citizen, and the passport was apparently issued in the United Kingdom. In the accompanying photo, Clark is a strong-jawed, stern-looking man, with a 5 o'clock shadow and bald head.
Clark's weathered face reflects his long history in the online cannabis trade. According to La Moustache's investigation, in 2006 Clark was involved with Planet Ganja, a popular forum for cannabis seed sellers. In 2008, Clark also traveled with an associate to Koh Chang, a Thai island. The pair returned with a specific strain of seed native to the island, and then offered it as freebie on a seed selling site.
In another photo of the usually camera-shy Clark posted to a cannabis enthusiast forum, he is standing on a idyllic beach, surrounded by crystal clear water and a slowly setting pink sky, and has apparently just emerged from a refreshing dip, wearing a life-vest and carrying what appears to be a water ski. Clark's cap, covering his thinning hair, comes complete with a cuddly shark toy, complimenting his cheeky smile, framed in a brown and white goatee.
This beach was likely thousands of miles away from New York, where Clark claimed he was trying to reach.
It's not totally clear why Clark was apparently intent on getting himself to the other side of the world, and into the hands of the authorities.
The reason he has given is that he was supposedly being hunted down by a corrupt FBI agent, using the handle "Diamond." This agent, Clark claimed, wanted to carry out an extortion campaign against Ulbricht's family in order to get a password for a specific bitcoin wallet.
In his forum posts, Clark also claimed that this agent had been providing him with information about investigations into corrupt law enforcement before they became public, as well as the existence of a sealed indictment against him.
It has not been possible to verify Clark's claims, but a source from within the dark web markets said they had also been approached by a supposed FBI agent with similar information to that allegedly provided.
An FBI spokesperson told me that "We are aware of the allegations made by Variety Jones and have forwarded them to the appropriate office for review."
In the trial of Ross Ulbricht earlier this year, mountains of chat logs and files found on his computer, as well as the questionable seizure of the site server were used to convict him of creating Silk Road. But during that trial, evidence of widespread corruption among the very officers investigating Silk Road was suppressed.
"The government's considerable efforts at keeping this monumental scandal from being aired at Ross Ulbricht's trial is itself scandalous," Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht's defense attorney said in a statement to Motherboard in March. "It is clear from this Complaint that fundamentally the government's investigation of Mr. Ulbricht lacked any integrity, and was wholly and fatally compromised from the inside."
On December 7, Shaun Bridges, a former Secret Service agent, was sentenced to 71 months in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin from Silk Road while he was investigating the site. Carl Mark Force IV, an ex-DEA agent who sold details of the Silk Road investigation to Ulbricht was sentenced to 78 months in October. There are indications that there might even be other corrupt agents who investigated Silk Road, but have yet to be caught.
And somehow, among all of this, Clark, who is suspected of being the right-hand man of Silk Road, has been supposedly sitting in Southeast Asia, quite happily enjoying life, even though his identity has been known to the US authorities since 2013. (The criminal complaint against Clark, issued in April of this year, alleges that he provided his passport to Ulbricht as part of his employment on Silk Road.) An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.
Despite the FBI arresting and convicting the owner of Silk Road, it is clear that overall, the various investigations into the marketplace and the other characters that helped run it have been tainted by corruption.
Asked before his arrest why he wanted to talk, Clark said it was "so everyone knows up front I'm going to walk away from this. Chat logs that are heresay, a server seizure that I'm fucking sure I can have squashed, a bent Fed pulling stings at numerous dark markets even now trying to co-opt me, forchrissake, with stuff that make Force and Bridges look like the powder puff girls [sic]. The odds are better than even money I walk out of the offices of SDNY and hole up in a hotel while this shit plays out. I have my ducks in a row. I'd like to have someone have some of that story before I stick my head in the lions jaws."
"I'm not wandering around with a Canadian passport that identifies me as Mr. Clark, eh"
"Smokebreaks," the administrator of the forum where Clark made his public re-emergence in September, posted on his forum this month that "I thought [Plural of Mongoose] was completely full of shit when I left the bar that night," referring to an evening that he supposedly shared with Clark several years ago.
Despite being a highly wanted fugitive, Clark seemed fairly confident about his plan to make it to New York.
"They're looking for me using the wrong name, and in the wrong country, without a decent picture of what I look like," he wrote to me in September. "I'm not wandering around with a Canadian passport that identifies me as Mr. Clark, eh."
"Had dinner at a really nice restaurant with some friends today, stopped off at a bar for a beer down the street from my place, and am sitting comfortably on a balcony having a smoke and an beer w/ice, the best way to have the local beer."
Judging by Clark's messages, visiting him was going to be a lot more complicated than just hopping on a flight to Thailand.
After arriving in Bangkok, a driver would take Motherboard's editor-in-chief Derek Mead and me to a hotel for the night.
"I'll arrange the hotel, and no, I won't tell you which one now, and yes, it's gonna be a nice hotel," Clark wrote. The entire time throughout the journey, we would be escorted by guards under his control.
"No film of the ones in uniform, period," he wrote. "It would cause them hardship."
"In [Bangkok] the guy with the driver in plainclothes and the guy on the bike in uniform following are riot specialists with the Tourist Police. In spite of the warm and fuzzy sounding name, they are a serious para-military organization."
Early the next morning, we would fly to another country in Southeast Asia, "then off for a long drive to, you guessed it, another country," he added.
From here, things would border on the surreal, at least according to Clark. "A helicopter will take you to the airport at your final destination. A limo will take you from there to my hotel, and we'll play the rest of it by ear."
"Meeting you at the airport in Phnom Penh will be members of the Khmer Palace Guard, and who are, if anything, even more taciturn than their Thai counterparts. Ditto the gents for the last leg, Vietnamese Special Forces."
"It does pay to carry only the best on your payroll, believe me," he wrote.
Grains of salt don't come large enough to match Clark's claims to have special police in multiple countries under his control, but nevertheless he claimed to have plenty of funds: In one of his messages to me, Clark made the rather extraordinary statement that he'd cashed in around 500,000 bitcoins, at an exchange rate of anywhere from $150 to over $1,200 each, over the last two years. If all of that stash was sold at today's rates, it would total around $229,690,000.
Then for his proposed trip to the United States we would apparently be taking another helicopter to Ho Chi Minh City, and then a flight to Hong Kong, where Variety Jones had "some folks to talk to." Then we'd take another couple of flights to New York.
"Y'all have to find your own way home from New York, I'll likely be tied up there for a while, eh," he wrote.
"Are ya' in, or are ya' out?"
We, despite the truly bizarre and perhaps far-fetched plan being laid out, were in. After days of juggling logistics and back and forth between me and Clark, we booked flights to Bangkok, and paid for some of the travel around Southeast Asia.
Clark also insisted, multiple times, that we bring "Planters, Dry Roasted Nuts, in the glass jar. Not BBQ or any crap. Original dry roast. 2 jars, please. No nuts, expect to sleep on the cold, hard, ground in the dungeon."
Then, just as I was preparing to leave, Mr. Neng, our contact to meet at Bangkok airport, was apparently arrested.
"Mr. Neng is in custody of the army," another of Clark's messages started.
"They were asking him about me before they took him away. They were asking him who he was picking up for me, and where he was taking them. I have no idea what he may have answered to any of those things. I have no idea if they found his notes on you and your flight."
"Seriously, don't get on the plane."
Later, Clark hypothesised that Mr. Neng may have been the cause of the leak. "We figure he told someone he was working for me—you know, braggin' over a beer kinda thing, and someone figured they'd see if there was some cash in bringing it to the attention of the authorities," he told me over encrypted chat.
Perhaps ironically, Variety Jones once advised Ulbricht to limit the number of people who knew about his ownership of Silk Road. "Remember—someday it would be very valuable information who started SR, and the person who knows the guy who sold it on could sell that info," Variety Jones wrote in a December 2011 message, according to the complaint filed against Clark.
Days after Mr. Neng's arrest, Clark wrote to me that "I'm 'mobile' right now, have been for a while; yeah, plans have changed, again."
"However, it looks like me getting into the US unsullied is not going to be possible. The situation in SE asia and connecting countries has them on high alert for me, and I'm exploring other options now," he said.
Late on Friday, December 4, the US Attorney's Office announced the arrest of Roger Thomas Clark. He had been picked up in Thailand, according to the government's press release.
"As alleged, Clark was paid at least hundreds of thousands of dollars to act as a counselor to Ross Ulbricht's black-market bazaar, Silk Road," said FBI Assistant Director Diego Rodriguez in the press release. "Clark may have thought residing in Thailand would keep him out of reach of US authorities, but our international partnerships have proven him wrong."
"I have reviewed the contents of a decrypted version of the image file entitled 'cimon.jpg'" found on Ulbricht's computer, wrote Gary L. Alford, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in the complaint. Cimon was one of Variety Jones's other aliases.
It "contains a passport issued by Canada for ROGER THOMAS CLARK, lists his date of birth as September 13, 1961, and indicates that it was issued in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ("UK")."
An unnamed collaborating witness is also mentioned in the complaint, who told law enforcement in April that "Roger Clark" is the individual behind the Variety Jones persona, as well as a host of other aliases. That collaborating witness has already been charged with crimes for his participation in Silk Road, and is cooperating with law enforcement in the hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Finally, the skin of wit, jokes, and deflections around Clark started to peel away
Throughout our exchanges, Clark did very little to incriminate himself. When questions would stir toward the Silk Road, he would deflect or simply ignore them, and he claimed to have not read any articles about his supposed involvement in the drug marketplace. He never said that he was Variety Jones.
Days before he was arrested, Clark told me he was holed up in a remote area, where anybody coming to bust or harm him would have to pass by the houses of local residents, as well as a myriad of guard dogs. He was still adamant that "Diamond," the supposed handle of the corrupt FBI agent, was hunting him.
Apart from that, life was "boring" at that moment, he said. After recovering from a flu, he said he had gotten drunk for a few days and watched The Martian at an IMAX cinema.
Finally, the skin of wit, jokes, and deflections around Clark started to peel away. He said that all of this running from the police wasn't as fun as he made it out to be.
On the same day that the US Attorney's Office announced Clark's arrest, his spokesperson contacted me, apparently at the request of his client. "He is currently in Klong Praem remand prison," Kem Kang told me in an email, and at the time of writing, Clark is still awaiting extradition to the United States.
While in prison this week, Clark, under the moniker Plural of Mongoose, somehow made several posts to the cannabis enthusiast forum that he used for his public emergence, supposedly from a hidden mobile phone.
"Well, so far, this is fun," he wrote on Sunday.
"Like the guy falling off of the Empire State Building, when asked at the 50th floor how it was going? Responded 'So far, so good.' And I have to say the same."
Although I only got a glimpse of what one of the most infamous characters of the dark web is really like, it was clear that for him, this was all just part of his life.
"Anyways, as any member of the old guard can tell you, I live for this shit!"