An old college friend of Ross Ulbricht, the man accused of creating and running underground internet market Silk Road, gave emotional testimony in court on Thursday, adding to the host of evidence being stacked up against the alleged mastermind.
Richard Bates, who met Ulbricht in 2002 while they were both attending the University of Texas, testified against his friend as part of a non-prosecution deal with the government. In exchange for his testimony, Bates will avoid charges associated with his tech assistance on Silk Road, his time working with Ulbricht to create a Bitcoin exchange, and his purchasing of drugs on Silk Road for personal use.
Bates shuffled to the stand in an oversized black suit. His voice cracked as he read his name aloud for the record. Throughout his testimony, he spoke with trepidation, repeatedly asking to see documents to "refresh" his memory.
"I'm working on a website where people can buy drugs"
Slowly, he unraveled the story of how he inadvertently, and then knowingly, helped Ulbricht build the website that grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise over the course of two years. Bates, who has a computer science degree, said in late 2010 and early 2011, Ulbricht was asking him programming questions "very frequently," but when asked what they were for, Ulbricht would only say a "top secret project."
On February 28, 2011, Bates gave Ulbricht an ultimatum, saying over Gchat messages read aloud in court, "I'm forbidding you from asking me about your secret project unless you are going to reveal it." Shortly after that, Ulbricht caved in, showing Bates the Silk Road site in an Austin apartment.
"I'm working on a website where people can buy drugs," Bates recounted Ulbricht told him.
"I was shocked but also very intrigued by it because I didn't know how this was even possible," Bates said.
Bates continued helping Ulbricht with coding issues on the site after that, continuing his assistance throughout the summer. For a short time, the two also worked to create a Bitcoin exchange, which never became operational. Ulbricht repeatedly expressed worry about anyone finding out about the projects. On March 17, 2011, Ulbricht wrote to Bates on Gchat:
"My site had a 40 minute spot on a national radio program. Friggin crazy—you gotta keep my secret, buddy," Ulbricht said.
"I haven't told anyone and I don't intend to," Bates replied.
"I know I can trust you," Ulbricht said.
When asked during the cross-examination why he helped Ulbricht code the site, Bates answered, simply, "because he was my friend." "Did he offer you money in exchange for your services?" defense attorney Joshua Dratel asked. "No, nothing but friendship," he replied.
According to Thursday's testimony, only four people total knew about the site: Ulbricht, Ulbricht's ex-girlfriend Julia, Bates, and a fourth woman Bates apparently told about the site while he was drunk in an Austin bar.
Bates testified Ulbricht showed up early to a party he was holding at his apartment on November 11, 2011. Panicked, Ulbricht asked Bates if he had told anyone else about the site. He said a friend of his ex-girlfriend Julia had posted a message referencing Silk Road to his personal Facebook wall. "I'm sure the authorities would be interested in your drug-running site," the post said.
At that point, Bates encouraged Ulbricht to get out, saying, "This is not worth going to jail for," but Ulbricht said he couldn't shut down the site because he had already sold it to someone else.
"I believed him," Bates testified.
Shortly after that, Ulbricht went to Australia, where he began to lose touch with Bates. When they communicated later, Ulbricht said he was "chillin'," and said he was happy to not be running Silk Road anymore. In one encrypted chat between Ulbricht and Bates on February 5, 2013, Bates referenced an article about Silk Road.
"I'm glad that's not my problem anymore :)" Ulbricht wrote. "I have regrets, don't get me wrong…but that shit was stressful. Still our secret though, eh?"
However, right before the case closed, the prosecution read a chat from December 2011 that told a very different story. The encrypted chat, found on Ulbricht's computer, showed a conversation allegedly between the defendant and his mentor, an anonymous hacker who went by Variety Jones, who asked Ulbricht if anyone knew about his past:
Variety Jones: IRL, is there anyone with a clue at all? A girlfriend, boyfriend, buddy you talk to, etc?
myself: Unfortunately yes, there are two but they think I sold the site and got out, and they're quite convinced of it.
Ulbricht then said he had moved far away and planned to fade those who knew about Silk Road out of his life. Jones said as an additional precaution, he should change his name on the website.
"Have you seen 'The Princess Bride?" Variety Jones asked, explaining the legend behind the Dread Pirate Roberts.
"You need to change your name from admin to The Dread Pirate Roberts," he wrote. "Start the legend now."