Carl Mark Force IV shuffled into the courtroom in an orange sweatshirt and orange track pants, the manacles on his feet clinking loudly.
There are some men who just look unmistakably like cops. Force is one of them—a burly, thickly-built man with blunt features and a shiny shaved head.
Were it not for the orange clothes and orange shoes he wore, he'd blend in perfectly with the other law enforcement in the courtroom that day—each of them as broad-shouldered and gleamingly bald as he was. They congregated on a single bench, whispering to each other as the lawyers lay their case in front of the judge.
They were gathered for Force's sentencing hearing—likely the last time he will be making a public appearance, for a while at least. To nobody's surprise, the prosecution wanted the longest sentence in the range provided by sentencing guidelines (87 months), and Force's defense attorneys wanted the shortest (70 months). In the end, Judge Richard Seeborg split the baby with a mid-range sentence of 78 months, or 6 1/2 years. After release, Force will be under probation for another three years.
In July, Force pled guilty to money laundering, obstruction of justice, and "extortion under color of official right."
The former DEA agent, based in Baltimore, Maryland, had been a member of the Silk Road Task Force, a sprawling multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional law enforcement effort that eventually netted Ross Ulbricht, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts. In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted on all counts after a jury trial in New York. He is currently serving a life sentence.
No mention of Carl Mark Force IV made it into Ulbricht's trial. Neither did any mention of Shaun Bridges, the former Secret Service agent charged alongside him. The spree of crimes they committed as Silk Road investigators was under the seal of grand jury secrecy at the time. Bridges used the credentials of a Silk Road moderator-turned-informant to rob Dread Pirate Roberts, administrator of Silk Road. Force posed as a hitman and took money from DPR to kill the informant. Force and Bridges then faked the brutal murder of the informant.
Between 2012 and 2013, Force alternated between attempting to extort DPR and selling law enforcement intelligence to him. And after Ulbricht's arrest, he continued to seize bitcoins under the aegis of his DEA authority, and then launder it into his own personal accounts, rather than giving it to the government. When he tried to launder money through BitStamp and Venmo, the payment services froze his accounts for suspicious activity. Force then used his status as a DEA agent to try to bully them into unfreezing his accounts, even going as far as to send an invalid administrative subpoena from his personal email account, without his supervisor's knowledge.
These are only the crimes we know about. There's some indication that Force had other personas that the government was not able to tie to him.
"I would just like to publicly apologize to the American people, to the US government, to my friends and family. I'm sorry. I lost it. I don't understand a lot of it."
Force was charged alongside Bridges, who also pled guilty and will be sentenced later this year. The Force/Bridges affair is deeply embarrassing for the government, and while it does not necessarily cast doubt on the fairness of Ulbricht's conviction, it has certainly made the whole affair an even bigger circus than before—a feat that many assumed to be impossible.
In his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Force's lawyer, Baltimore-based criminal defense attorney Ivan Bates, spoke smoothly about Force's troubled childhood, his "broken family," his drinking problem, his mental health issues, the stress of the job (including the stress of "having to learn about the Tor routers"), and the death of his father in April 2013. The death of Carl Force III happened right around the time Force created the account "Death from Above" and attempted to extort DPR. This is the moment, Bates seemed to imply, that Force snapped.
In August Force would try to sell information to DPR under the name French Maid. At one point, Force accidentally signed off as "Carl," then had to follow up with "I am sorry about that. My name is Carla Sophia and I have many boyfriends and girlfriends on the market place." The bizarre mistake is maybe more explicable in the context of a serious drinking problem and a mental health breakdown.
The DEA knew about Force's mental health issues, said Bates. He argued that it was "outrageous government conduct" to put him on another undercover assignment after his previous undercover assignments had ended so disastrously. An assignment in Denver in 2004 had ended with a DUI. A second undercover assignment in Puerto Rico had ended in 2008 with a complete mental breakdown. Force was institutionalized, and did not return to his job until 2010. He was on desk duty until 2012, when he was assigned to investigate the Silk Road. It was an undercover assignment, but he wasn't exactly out and about—as an official government sockpuppet on the Silk Road, he was effectively at his desk every day.
Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Haun argued that there was no outrageous government conduct, saying that it was reasonable for the government to place him undercover on the internet, rather than to put him on the streets of Baltimore "with his gun and his badge."
It didn't seem like she was making any conscious reference to Baltimore's current, very public struggle with questions of police violence. But as serious as the proceedings were, the absurdity of the case still crept in. There are no dead bodies in the Carl Mark Force saga, only some vanished digital currency and a lot of embarrassment all around—it's an unreal, Bizarroworld bubble inside the bigger context of police corruption and the war on drugs. Force's attorney, Ivan Bates, is also representing Sergeant Alicia White, one of the six Baltimore police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray.
When the judge made reference to the "murder" of the Silk Road moderator Curtis Clark Green, faked for the benefit of DPR, he paused to ask, "Which didn't actually happen?"
"Which didn't actually happen," the AUSA responded as fast as she could. They moved on quickly.
The US Attorney's position in the case is fairly straightforward. The Carl Mark Force affair is an astounding instance of corruption, and it very nearly compromised the entire Silk Road investigation. "Had it not been for the New York investigation, the government's ability to prosecute Ulbricht would have been severely impaired," said AUSA Haun. "Many of us who work in government operate under stressful conditions," she said. A lenient sentence would send "an incredibly dangerous message" that the stress of the job could excuse similar behavior.
The judge seemed to agree. "He was the master of his fate in this whole disgraceful episode," he said, early on in the hearing. Later, as he read out his sentence, he excoriated the defendant's greed and "thrill-seeking" and all-around arrogance, even dropping a very quick mention of a Silk Road movie deal as a possible motivation for his crimes.
"The extent and scope of Mr. Force's betrayal of the public trust is quite breath-taking," Judge Seeborg said. He called Force's actions "an extended, complex—one might even say, devious and clever—scheme. You can't blame that on 'I lost my father,' or 'I had a lot of stress.'"
Force will also be required to pay $337,000 in restitution to "R.P.," an individual whose bitcoins he seized unlawfully under the guise of official DEA business. In addition, he will be paying $3,000 in restitution to "C.G.," who is almost certainly Curtis Clark Green, the informant whose death Force helped to fake.
In court, Force gave a brief statement, his chains clinking.
"I would just like to publicly apologize to the American people, to the US government, to my friends and family. I'm sorry. I lost it. I don't understand a lot of it. I apologize." He then added a slightly muddled note about how he had not received his medication in months.
After sentencing, Bates, Force's attorney acknowledged that although "we would have liked to go below the guidelines," 78 months was "a fair sentence," given that the scope of Force's crimes, and his status as a law enforcement agent. "When you're a public official, especially a DEA agent, you have public trust."
Bates was introspective, and a little sad about Force's mental health problems, repeatedly pressing on how many defendants in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness. "I just think that the government has a bigger responsibility to the citizens as well as to Carl," he said. "What if Carl had been in a position where he was carrying a gun, and he had to make a split second decision, and he shot someone? I think there has to be a different system of checks and balances."
He expressed genuine fondness for Force. "I think that Carl is a very intelligent person, and as the investigation began to unfold, he was the only person who had the ability to understand the drug world and the compute world, the internet world. To understand Bitcoin… let me put it like this… Carl was able to get it in a week or so, it took me about four months or so." He laughed.
"You know, Carl played a significant role in bringing down Silk Road. I think they were able to put some of Carl's investigation in understanding Tor routers and all that in the prosecution of Ross Ulbricht."
Prosecutors in New York have repeatedly stressed that Force's investigatory efforts had nothing to do with Ulbricht's conviction, and that no evidence associated with the Maryland investigation was presented to the jury.
Many questions still remain about the actual extent of Force's activities, and the bigger picture of corruption in the Maryland Silk Road investigation. In documents from the Ulbricht trial that were unsealed earlier this year, prosecutors mention screen names associated with Force that ultimately do not appear in the criminal complaint against him and Bridges.
Meanwhile, Ross Ulbricht is currently planning his appeal. His defense has maintained that its inability to bring any evidence of the Force/Bridges affair to trial—due to the seal still on the grand jury proceedings—was unfair. The appeal will be filed later this year—it remains to be seen whether the Second Circuit will actually take it up.