Catching criminals in the online realm often involves the old-fashioned footwork of tracking them down in real life. But the expended shoe leather still only goes so far in cyberspace, U.S. federal prosecutors may be learning.
Before a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Justice Department prosecutors are making the case that 30 year old Texas native Ross Ulbricht is the mastermind behind the now-shuttered Silk Road online marketplace, which prosecutors estimate may have facilitated over a billion dollars in sales of illegal and unlawful goods.
The case hinges on prosecutors convincing the jury that Ulbricht is, in fact, "Dread Master Roberts," the handle of the otherwise anonymous person, or people, who oversaw Silk Road operations.
At the time of his arrest, Ulbricht was charged with narcotics conspiracy, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and money laundering. Both the charges of narcotics and engaging in a criminal enterprise carry maximum penalties of lifetime imprisonment. Ulbricht has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
On Thursday, Jared DerYeghiayan, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security testified how he and fellow law enforcement agents captured Ulbricht, red-handed managing the Silk Road system. But Ulbricht's lawyer, Joshua Dratel, raised questions about how much of the work done on Silk Road could be safely be assumed was actually Ulbricht's doing.
By September 2013, DerYeghiayan and his team had been tracking Silk Road for over a year. DerYeghiayan himself was working undercover as a Silk Road administrator under the user handle "Cirrus." He was in regular contact with "Dread Pirate Roberts" on the site.
They needed to attach "Dread Pirate Roberts" with a real person in order to make a bust and shut down the site. Luckily, they had gotten a lead from an Internal Revenue Service agent that Ulbricht was the behind the "Dread Pirate Roberts" non de plume, a name taken from the book "Princess Bride."
Ulbricht was living in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco then. Knowing Ulbricht sometimes left his home to work at one of the neighborhood's Internet cafes, a team of law enforcement officers waited for him to appear.
That finally happened during the afternoon of Friday October 1, when Ulbricht walked over from his house and into Bello Coffee and Tea. He immediately left the cafe -- maybe because it was crowded -- and walked to the library next door.
Unbeknownst to Ulbricht, agent DerYeghiayan was across the street, with his laptop. Once Ulbricht set up his laptop in the library, DerYeghiayan, acting as Cirrus, contacted "Dread Pirate Roberts" on secure chat software Silk Road administrators used, called Pidgin, and asked him to check out a trouble ticket on the Silk Road site. Once Ulbricht did, the cops rolled in and busted him, careful not to let him close his laptop.
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