The Secret Web: Where Drugs, Porn and Murder Live Online

Ten years ago the government built a totally private, anonymous network. Now it's a haven for criminals

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Illustration by Justin Metz for TIME

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Ulbricht had left more clues for the feds. His Google+ account linked to some of the same sites and videos--including some from the Ludwig von Mises Institute--that the Dread Pirate Roberts mentioned. The FBI obtained records from Google that showed Ulbricht was accessing his Gmail account from San Francisco; the server through which Roberts accessed Silk Road showed an IP address corresponding to a San Francisco café. Ulbricht also posted a request for help with some computer code on a website for programmers, again under his own name. He hastily changed his user ID (to "frosty"), but the damage was done: that same code later turned up as part of the Silk Road site.

From there the thread becomes darker and more tangled. In January 2013, a Silk Road employee apparently stole bitcoins from users, then managed to get arrested on another charge. Roberts, displaying a side investigators hadn't seen before, allegedly contracted with a Silk Road customer to have the employee tortured until he or she returned the bitcoins, then killed. This was the work not of a libertarian idealist but of a sociopath. Roberts was unaware that the hit man he was dealing with was an undercover FBI agent who had bought drugs on Silk Road as part of a sting operation. The agent sent Roberts faked photographic proof of the murder. Satisfied, Roberts wired $80,000 from an Australian money-transfer exchange.

According to the testimony of FBI agent Christopher Tarbell, who led the investigation, a Silk Road user in Canada began to blackmail Roberts, threatening to leak information about the site's clientele. Roberts responded by paying someone known online as "redandwhite" the sum of $150,000 in bitcoins to kill the blackmailer. (Roberts received photos of that killing too, but the Canadian police can't match it to any murder they're aware of.) In June 2013, Roberts ordered a set of fake IDs from redandwhite. Later that month, U.S. Customs opened a package from Canada containing nine fake IDs bearing Ulbricht's photo and birth date. The package also gave them Ulbricht's address.

The net was closing fast. By July, FBI hackers had tracked down one of Silk Road's servers, in a foreign country whose name has not yet been revealed, which gave them copies of all Roberts' e-mail plus transaction records dating to the site's launch. On July 26, agents from Homeland Security knocked on Ulbricht's door. He admitted that he'd been living under a false name.

The authorities got another break on July 31, when they raided the condo of a Seattle-area dealer who sold meth, coke and heroin through Silk Road under the handle Nod; they quickly flipped him as an informant. On Oct. 1, two years after they first spotted him, federal agents followed Ulbricht to the Glen Park library and arrested him. The FBI says it caught him red-handed with evidence on his laptop screen.


Many in Washington are troubled by the fact that it took so much time and effort just to close one illegal website run by a would-be Walter White.

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