Ross had figured that one day it might come to this. That one day he would be faced with this kind of ruthless decision—to “call on my muscle,” as he’d told an associate. When that day came, he’d imagined that maybe he would have to end the life of a dealer gone rogue or someone who threatened the mission of the Silk Road. But not one of his own people. And certainly not Curtis Green from Spanish Fork, Utah.
While this decision was daunting for DPR [Ross’ Silk Road alias, the Dread Pirate Roberts], at least one part of it would be easy: figuring out who would do the job. With so much cash on hand, it turned out there were plenty of people who were willing and able to murder someone—particularly in a barren stretch of Utah. Variety Jones [VJ] had access to a man he simply called “Irish,” who could be dispatched—from Ireland— to Utah, where he would find Curtis and make him disappear. (One slight problem here was that Irish wasn’t very tech savvy, so retrieving the $350,000 in Bitcoins Green had stolen could prove to be a complicated challenge.) Inigo, another Silk Road employee and one of a few people DPR actually trusted implicitly, volunteered to go and take care of the problem himself, but he was way too important to the infrastructure of the site to be a foot soldier. So DPR decided the job would have to be done by Nob, the South American drug dealer he had become so close to.
After all, it was Nob who had lost a kilo of “Colombia’s finest” when Green had been busted by the DEA a week earlier, a salient fact that Ross had discovered by a simple Google search of Curtis Green’s name after he didn’t show up to work one day, which had led him to a Web site that catalogued recent arrests.
There, in all its glory, was the mug shot of his chubby employee.
Ross hadn’t imagined this was what he would be dealing with when he woke on a cold winter’s morning in early 2013. At first when he found out about Green, the only thing he could do was feel sick to his stomach, as he told VJ in a chat. Then, a couple of hours later, the taste of vomit was quickly turning into one of vengeance.
DPR spoke to all of his associates about what to do. There was a real fear that Green would sing to the cops about the Silk Road, telling the Feds about the innards of the site, how it worked, and who was involved with it. That, plus the $350,000, left Ross with essentially three options for how to handle his rogue employee.
The first possibility was the easiest: to simply pay a visit to Green at his home in Spanish Fork, Utah, and scare him into returning the money he had stolen. The second was more difficult—but definitely more just—and involved beating Green for his unscrupulous treason. Maybe one of DPR’s guys would bind Green to a chair, slap him around a bit, break a few fingers, a nose, threaten his family, and scare him into returning that money. But there was a problem with both of these choices: If word got out that it was okay to sing to the cops and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, the Dread Pirate Roberts wouldn’t be the most feared pirate sailing the Dark Web, but rather a weakling pushover. The Silk Road would be known as a place where you could break the rules without reprisal.
This led to the third option for Green: killing him.
How quickly life changes. One minute you’re making $300 a week as a college researcher. You’re sleeping in a basement and your only belongings are two black garbage bags, one full of clean clothes, the other dirty, and your biggest worry in the world is whether the pretty girl with the black curly hair whom you just met at the drum circle will call you back. Then an idea hits you. It starts as just a thought, like a kid’s daydream of a giant invention. But once it becomes lodged there in your mind, it won’t go away. Then something happens, like a bolt of lightning striking a kite, or mold accidentally contaminating an experiment, and you realize this idea is actually possible. You type lines of code into your computer and out comes a world that didn’t exist before. There are no laws here, except your laws. You decide who is given power and who is not. And then you wake up one morning and you’re not you anymore; you’re one of the most notorious drug dealers alive. And now you’re deciding if someone should live or die. You’re the judge in your own court. You’re God.
But God wasn’t ready to end another man’s life. At least not yet. So he issued a directive to Nob to go off and find Green and have him roughed up. “I’d like him beat up. Then force him to send the Bitcoins he stole back,”
DPR wrote to Nob. “Like sit him down at his computer and make him do it.” He then reiterated to Nob that getting the money back “would be amazing.”
Nob said he would send his guys to Utah to do just that.
But while Nob had set off to find Green, and Ross had issued a pardon of sorts, he still wasn’t sure this level of amnesty was the right decision. How could he let someone steal that much money from DPR and get away with a measly beating? The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.
Back at Penn State, a short lifetime ago, while sitting in the Willard Building off Pollock Road, Ross had defended this very topic with Alex and his friends in the College Libertarians Club.
“Yes, but the use of force is completely justified if you have to defend your own rights or personal property,” young Ross had argued while discussing one of the latest Murray Rothbard books he had devoured. Back then it had just been idealistic, hypothetical banter by a group of college students. The conversation had even followed some of the club members to the Corner Room bar on College Avenue, where, amid the sound of sports talk and the clink of pints of Samuel Adams, they had discussed Rothbard’s War, Peace, and the State, which explained why you could use violence against any “individual criminal” trying to harm you or steal your personal property.
Now, as the Dread Pirate Roberts, the more Ross thought about it, the more he wondered if beating Green up would be enough of a punishment to deter others on the site from betrayal. He started to wonder if he might not have a choice but to put his libertarian theories to their ultimate test. Curtis Green had, after all, stolen DPR’s “personal property.” All $350,000 of it.
As Ross weighed the decision, his chief adviser offered an alternate argument. “At what point in time do we decide we’ve had enough of someone’s shit, and terminate them,” Variety Jones asked rhetorically upon hearing about the theft. He no longer referred to Green by his name but simply as the “Organ Donor.” To VJ, heroin was harmful and he wanted no part of it, but murder, well, that was a completely different story.
Given that Green had been arrested, Variety Jones (who knew a bit about actually being arrested) pointed out that the Organ Donor might strike a deal with the “Feebs” to divulge everything he knew about the Silk Road. Or he might skip the country, VJ cautioned, and disappear with DPR’s 350 grand.
Soon other advisers jumped into the fray. “There are certain rules to the underworld,” one wrote to DPR. “And problems can sometimes only be handled one way.”
All these devils on DPR’s shoulder, and the only angel was Ross Ulbricht. (It wasn’t like Ross could call up his best friend René in the real world and ask his opinion. Hey, buddy, got a minute? I’m thinking about having this guy killed for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money from me. You think I should do it?)
Given what everyone was saying to DPR, these arguments had started to make sense. This was not a playground; it was a fucking drug empire, and there had to be consequences to people’s actions. “If this was the Wild West, and it kinda is,” Ross replied to Variety Jones, “you’d get hung just for stealing a horse.”
Exactly! Now you’re talking. VJ stoked the fire further, questioning what it would take before the sheriff of this Wild West did just that. “At what point in time is that the response,” Jones asked.
“It’s a good question I’ve been thinking about the last 24 hours.” Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell. “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said. “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”
Ross, jump off a cliff.
“I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.
And in eight words the hit was put out on Curtis Green. With a few strokes on his keyboard, the creator of the Silk Road had just sanctioned his first murder. Now he just had to find the right person to kill him.
Adapted from American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Nick Bilton, 2017.