Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Silk Road Case Steeped in ‘Breaking Bad’ Irony

MANHATTAN (CN) - If a jury clears Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht of heading an Internet narcotics conspiracy, it could be because of the 30-year-old's interest in a TV show whose protagonist is an international methamphetamine kingpin.

Ulbricht had been seated inside San Francisco's Glen Park Library when FBI agents arrested him shortly after 1 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2013. He denies being caught red-handed "masterminding" an underground online drug trade, but instead says that he had been using BitTorrent at the time to transmit comedian Stephen Colbert's interview with Vince Gilligan, the creator of the hit series "Breaking Bad"

The Emmy Award-winning series follows antihero Walter White's trajectory from unassuming high school chemistry professor in New Mexico to a ruthless kingpin whose blue-hued meth stands alone on the drug market for its purity.

Prosecutors say that Ulbricht, an ex-Eagle Scout from Texas, also steered an international drug empire led by a figure known by the online moniker Dread Pirate Roberts.

During the file transfer of the Gilligan interview, Ulbricht's laptop had been logged into the "Dread" account of an encrypted chat with a Department of Homeland Security agent posing as a Silk Road administrator.

FBI Agent Thomas Kiernan took several photographs of Ulbricht's screen in the middle of those chats, and then other agents staged a diversion in the library to swipe his Samsung 700Z before it could be encrypted.

That laptop immediately went to an FBI laboratory for imaging, which uncovered reams of seemingly damning evidence: including detailed journal entries, financial records, encryption keys, web chats and ID papers tying Ulbricht directly to the crimes alleged.

But Ulbricht's attorney, Joshua Dratel, contends that trove found on the computer points to a frame-up.

Last week, Dratel accused Mark Karpeles, the ex-founder of the now-defunct Bitcoin exchange company Mt. Gox, of having "set up" his client to protect an enterprise worth more than $1 billion. The defense attorney named Karpeles and four other men as possible matches for Dread Pirate Roberts.

The true leader of a website trading on encryption would never have been so careless about his security to leave so many incriminating documents on his computer as his client allegedly did, Dratel has suggested.

On Thursday, Dratel hinted in his cross-examination of Kiernan that his client's BitTorrent download of the "Colbert Report" left him vulnerable to hackers over the library's unsecured connection.

There had been seven users on Ulbricht's BitTorrent at the time of the file transfer, evidence showed.

The agent agreed with Dratel that the journal entries and chats had been "small text files" that theoretically could be "quickly transferred."

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest stopped Dratel from asking Kiernan any questions that called for his opinion.

Ulbricht's defense can call its own computer experts to offer their interpretations of the data, but they could not elicit this testimony from a government fact witness, she said.


Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.