Silk Road

Silk Road Trial: Friend of Ross Ulbricht's Testifies that Ulbricht Confessed His Silk Road Role


Ross Ulbricht's attorney Joshua Dratel admitted last week that his client did found the Silk Road website, but is nonetheless not the "Dread Pirate Roberts" still running it at the time Ulbricht was arrested and thus not the man who should be found guilty under this indictment.

Today in court a friend of Ulbricht's named Richard Bates testified that Ulbricht admitted the same to him. From a Daily Dot report:

When Bates, a programmer at eBay, moved to Austin in 2010, Ulbricht began to ask him a torrent of programming questions. It came to the point where Bates refused to answer anymore until Ulbricht revealed why he was asking.

"I was suspicious he might be hacking into a website or something," Bates said.

So in February 2011, just after Silk Road launched, Ulbricht told him everything.

"I remember seeing the home page. I saw the green camel for the first time and pictures of drugs," Bates said.

Bates was a recreational drug user himself, although he says he stopped in the summer of 2013. He smoked marijuana, ate psychedelic mushrooms, and took Vicodin, among other illegal substances. In 2011, he began to buy most drugs off of Silk Road..

When Ulbricht was arrested in 2013, police quickly found a long list of GChats between the suspect and Bates. It was clear that Bates provided tech support to Ulbricht both before he knew about Silk Road and for some time afterwards. Bates's testimony is ongoing, and it's not yet clear how long and how deeply he aided the site.

"What did you do when police approached you outside your apartment?" the prosecutors asked.

"I lied to them," Bates said, his head hanging down low. "I said I didn't know Ross ran Silk Road. I was scared."

In exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, Bates is now testifying in order to avoid charges for the drugs he purchased on Silk Road under then name Melee, the tech assistance he provided and, he said, a Bitcoin exchange he was building with Ulbricht.

I confess it isn't clear to me how admitting founding Silk Road, a site that from its beginning facilitated the anonymous purchase of illegal goods, isn't tantamount to a guilty plea; I've asked Dratel via email and received no response yet.

In reverse order, my previous Silk Road trialblogging here, here, and here, and my December print feature on the site and the arrest and prosecution of Ulbricht.

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  1. In a just world, Ulbricht is the subject of Reason articles praising his ingenuity and entrepeneurship, and there certainly wouldn’t be reason to arrest him for that.

    1. In a just world, silk road wouldnt have been necessary, as amazon would have covered it.

      1. True. I’d love to buy marijuana with free Prime shipping.

        1. I wish Amazon sold ammo and firearms.

          1. That would be pretty great. Though I’d probably have a lot more firearms and a lot less money if that happened.

            1. “A man with a gun and no money can always get more money. A man with no money and no guns, well, he’s just shit out of luck.”

              1. If you use the movie Rover as your guide, having a gun greatly increases your price-bargaining position.

    2. In a just world there would be no such thing as “illegal goods”.

  2. This certainly appears to be a shitstorm for Ulbricht’s defense, but I think it’ll be a cautionary tale for the next person that wants to build another Silk Road. It was pretty clear little was learned by the people that built Silk Road 2.

    1. I think it really depends on the crimes he is accused of.

      If those crimes, such as the death threats and embezzling, happened after he left, then a Jury can’t convict him of them- even if the guy was guilty of some other crimes.

      I think this is all desperation by the Defense. Contrary to the claims by many Wired commentators and other people who haven’t actually seen the evidence, I am guessing that the government has a pretty rock solid evidence trail showing that Dread Pirate Roberts was doing all of this stuff. Computer records are often like that. The defense has failed (or realized that they will fail) to invalidate any of that evidence chain, so their only hope is to make people think the evidence leads to someone else.

  3. In exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, Bates is now testifying

    So, a snitch. Let’s hope his credibility is discounted accordingly.

    1. No kidding. He’s a rat trying to save his own skin. I can’t believe people in that situation are even allowed to testify.

      1. Just because you don’t want somebody to testify to something that you don’t like doesn’t make them a rat. It seems pretty clear that Ulbricht created silk road, mainly because the defense already admitted that.

        I’m torn by this case because IMO all drugs should be legal but I’m not down with contract murder.

  4. I am curious about one thing, though:

    What’s the timeline for the crimes committed by “DPR” that are being prosecuted here? At what point in time is evidence that Ulbricht was still DPR a problem for the defense’s theory?

    1. I may not understand your question, but isn’t the government taking the general approach that by founding the site, he’s guilty of a crime– essentially knowingly creating a site which facilitated illegal transactions?

      1. Who owns the roads, man? They like, facilitate illegal actions all the time. Speeding, drunk driving, ummm what was I talking about?
        /some drugged out hippy.

      2. Are they? Not sure.

        The defense seems to built to answer allegations that specific crimes committed at specific times after Ulbricht stopped being DPR. I don’t know why they would admit he founded it, if founding it was the crime being charged.

        Obviously, I am not familiar with the details of the case.

        1. R.C.—Your question is of great importance, and it is weird to me none of the press I’m reading really stresses it. Like I said, I’ve asked Dratel to clarify and he isn’t responding. From my read of the indictment, chockablock with language like “From in or about Jan. 2011…” it seems to me that admitting having EVER been running Silk Road is tantamount to an admission of guilt. The crimes in the indictment are NOT specified as beginning some time after whatever date Ulbricht claims he sold/stopped working with site.

      3. No my understanding is that they have accused him of other crimes, which include trafficking and the like. If he can get people to think that he is not the person who was actually doing the trafficking, many of these crimes might not apply. It is like when someone is accused of 1st degree murder, and they admit to the killing, but try to convince the jury that he did it in a crime of passion or something similar. If the DA sets the bar too high (with an overzealous charge), the defendant merely needs to prove that he wasn’t guilty of that specific charge.

  5. I’m going to assume the judge did his best to exclude all fringe elements from the jury pool and that Ross’ fate is in the hands of “peers.”

  6. In exchange for a non-prosecution agreement, Bates is now testifying in order to avoid charges for the drugs he purchased on Silk Road

    No shit. This is how the American judicial system works, apparently.

  7. I confess it isn’t clear to me how admitting founding Silk Road, a site that from its beginning facilitated the anonymous purchase of illegal goods, isn’t tantamount to a guilty plea; I’ve asked Dratel via email and received no response yet.

    Isn’t that the crux of the case?

    Is creating a web site that facilitates illegal activity a crime?

    What about email?

    Are Yahoo!, Google and any other entity that provides email going down for “facilitating” illegal activities? Is it a matter of degree? Who decides?

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