British journalist Nick Bilton is set to release a book this month about the hunt for the elusive “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the founder of Silk Road, the Internet black market that traded in guns, drugs, poison, and murder-for-hire. When the identity of Roberts was finally uncovered in 2013 after the founder was embroiled in his own murder-for-hire plot, it turned out that the billion-dollar illegal marketplace was the brainchild of Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old University of Texas at Dallas alum.
Vanity Fair has published a magazine-sized adapted version of Bilton’s book in its May issue that is well worth a read. Ulbricht, who was convicted of narcotics conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise in 2015, never got to enjoy the success of his wildly successful illegal Internet startup. Instead, like many other 20-somethings in Silicon Valley, he lived an anonymous, if perpetually paranoid, normal life.
Here’s a taste:
Ulbricht’s quick pivot may seem remarkable, but for some inside the Valley, it fit into a larger paradigm. Once a shy kid from Texas, he had created a platform that was now being used across the world. But unlike Kalanick or, say, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, Ulbricht was never going to be on the cover of Fast Company or Forbes. As his business grew, in fact, he was forced to become more reclusive. While Dread Pirate Roberts became the subject of stories in Forbes, Gawker, Techcrunch, and many other sites, Ulbricht operated the Silk Road anonymously from coffee shops and libraries throughout San Francisco. He hung out around Internet cafés, used dating Web sites to meet girls, and mostly kept to himself. He lived modestly in an apartment that he had found on Craigslist; he paid in cash and told his roommates that his name was “Josh,” not Ross. When family and friends wondered what he did on his computer all day, he told some he was trading currency or working on a secret project.
In a way, Ulbricht’s anonymity forced him to double down on his alter ego, Dread Pirate Roberts. The decision to murder Curtis Green was the most chilling example. Not only did Ulbricht willingly commission an $80,000 hit, but he also kept an image of Green, his jowl hanging to the side, in a folder on his computer.