Nearly 18 months after the Silk Road online drug market was busted by law enforcement, the criminal charges rippling out from the case have now come full circle: back to two of the law enforcement agents involved in the investigation, one of whom is accused of being the Silk Road’s mole inside the Drug Enforcement Agency.
DEA special agent Carl Force and Secret Service special agent Shaun Bridges were arrested Monday and charged with wire fraud and money laundering. Bridges is accused of placing $800,000 of Silk Road bitcoins he obtained in a personal account on the Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange. But Bridges’ charges pale in comparison with the accusations against the DEA’s Force, who is additionally charged with theft of government property and conflict of interest in his investigation of the Silk Road. Force allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin payments from the Silk Road as part of his undercover investigation and transferred them to a personal account rather than confiscate them as government property. He’s also accused of secretly working for the bitcoin exchange firm CoinMKT, using his DEA powers to seize a customer’s funds from the exchange, and later using a subpoena to the payment firm Venmo to try to unlock his frozen funds there.
But there’s an even more surprising set of accusations against Force: That he acted as a paid informant for Silk Road’s recently convicted administrator Ross Ulbricht, allegedly selling information about the investigation back to Ulbricht under two different pseudonyms. Meanwhile, under a third pseudonym, Force is separately accused of trying to blackmail Ulbricht using other law enforcement data he believed might have been Ulbricht’s identity.
Force, a 46-year-old member of Baltimore’s Silk Road task force, began working in 2012 as an undercover agent on the case, communicating directly with Ulbricht, who was allegedly using the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts. In that role, Force even served as a fictitious criminal named “Nob” who helped arrange a murder of Silk Road employee Curtis Clark Green for Ulbricht. That murder-for-hire didn’t happen; The entire killing was staged by the Baltimore task force. But the attempted murder was allegedly paid for by Ulbricht to silence Green as a potential witness, and it represents the first in a series of six killings prosecutors have accused Ulbricht of commissioning.
But allegedly, those anonymous communications with Ulbricht led Force down an even stranger, more corrupt path. “Force then, without authority, developed additional online personas and engaged in a broad range of illegal activities calculated to bring him personal financial gain,” according to a press statement from the Department of Justice.
The criminal complaint against Force and Bridges includes a detailed affidavit written by IRS agent Tigran Gambaryan. In that account, Force is accused of using his Nob persona and possibly others to sell Ulbricht law enforcement information, telling Ulbricht that a corrupt law enforcement official named “Kevin” was feeding him info. A folder on Ulbricht’s laptop at the time of his arrest, Gambaryan points out, was labeled “LE counterintel” and includes data that appeared to have been based on real internal materials from the federal investigation into Ulbricht’s activities.
At first, Force seems to have given Ulbricht only fraudulent information, according to Gambaryan, and Force kept his superiors aware of the fake informant scheme. But as time passed, more and more of Force’s communications with Ulbricht were encrypted, Gambaryan writes in the affidavit, preventing Force’s superiors and later Gambaryan from determining exactly what Force told Ulbricht. Eventually, Gambaryan writes, Force also asked Ulbricht to send him 525 bitcoins in payment for information about law enforcement’s investigation of the Silk Road—worth about $50,000 at the time—to a secret bitcoin address where he kept personal funds rather than the DEA’s confiscated money.
The revelation of an alleged Silk Road informant inside the DEA follows repeated hints in Ulbricht’s trial of those leaks. Ulbricht’s lawyer Joshua Dratel made multiple references to the Silk Road’s boss paying for counter-intelligence information from law enforcement officials. (He argued, however, that the Silk Road boss wasn’t in fact Ulbricht, but was instead using that leaked information to plan his or her exit from the Silk Road and to frame Ulbricht.) The operators of the Silk Road “had been alerted the walls were closing in,” Dratel said in his opening statement at trial.
Ulbricht’s journal, taken from his seized laptop, also references two pseudonymous individuals named French Maid and Alpacino, whom Ulbricht seems to have used as sources for information about law enforcement activities. At one point Ulbricht writes that he paid French Maid $100,000 for the tip that Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles, who also ran a web-hosting company used by the Silk Road at one point, gave Ulbricht’s name to the Department of Homeland Security.
In his affidavit, Gambaryan writes that he believes Force was in fact French Maid. He points to Force’s knowledge not only of the DHS interview with Mark Karpeles, but also of the versions of PGP both French Maid and Force used and to the financial trail from Ulbricht’s payment to French Maid that eventually ended up in Force’s bitcoin account. He also points out a message where French Maid ends a message “Carl,” perhaps by accident. (Force allegedly “covered” for that error by explaining that French Maid also went by the name “Carla Sophia.”)
From there, the story gets stranger still: Under yet another pseudonym, “Death From Above,” Force is accused of telling Ulbricht he was a Green Beret and a friend of Curtis Green, whose murder Ulbricht allegedly believed he had paid for. “I know that you had something to do with [Green’s] disappearance and death. Just wanted to let you know that I’m coming for you,” Force allegedly wrote as Death From Above. “You are a dead man. Don’t think you can elude me.”
Death From Above later wrote to the Dread Pirate Roberts again and threatened to reveal his real name if Ulbricht didn’t pay him $250,000. According to Gambaryan, a screen-recording program on Force’s DEA computer captured video of him writing as Death From Above.
However, Gambaryan writes that Force was actually blackmailing Ulbricht by threatening to reveal the wrong suspect’s identity. Trying to show the seriousness of his threat, he sent Ulbricht the identifying details of an earlier suspect he believed to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, rather than Ulbricht himself. (That earlier suspect isn’t named in the affidavit.) Writing in his journal, Ulbricht dismissed the threat as “bogus.”
Bridges, for his part, is accused of a more traditional form of corruption: Quietly stealing money by exploiting a suspect’s arrest. Gambaryan describes how Bridges participated in the Baltimore Task Force arrest and questioning of Silk Road employee Curtis Green in Utah, and then used Green’s administrator account on the Silk Road to pull off a “series of sizable thefts” from Silk Road vendors. “The thefts were accomplished through a series of vendor password and pin resets, something that could be accomplished with the administrator access that [Green] had given to the Baltimore Task Force.” Bridges then allegedly moved that money through a series of accounts and eventually into the Fidelity account of a corporation he created as a money laundering vehicle.
It’s not yet clear whether or how all of the alleged corruption in the Baltimore Silk Road investigation might affect Ross Ulbricht’s own legal case. Ulbricht still faces murder-for-hire charges in Maryland as a result of that investigation, a case that could be tainted by the alleged, epic misconduct of these two investigators.
This afternoon, Ulbricht’s lawyer had this to say about the two arrests:
Major Silk Road govt corruption scandal revelation today that we've had to sit on for four months and were not permitted to use at trial.— Joshua Dratel (@JDratel) March 30, 2015
But Ulbricht was already convicted in February of seven felonies including conspiracy to sell drugs and launder money, as well as a “continuing criminal enterprise” charge often known as a kingpin statute. Based on the evidence in Ulbricht’s trial, that case seems to have largely been conducted by the New York division of the FBI and the Chicago Department of Homeland Security.
Given those two separate investigations, Ulbricht’s conviction or upcoming sentencing may not be affected by the charges against Force and Bridges. Instead, those charges merely add two more names to the long list of criminal suspects who allegedly gave in to the temptation of the dark web’s dirty money.
Read the full criminal complaint against both Force and Bridges here.
Also in WIRED: