The saga of the Silk Road online black market taken down by US law enforcement in 2013 continues to get nuttier: a still-unidentified rogue government agent may have sold information about the Silk Road investigation to the website's operator and may have later deleted evidence of the arrangement.
On Tuesday, the legal team for Ross Ulbricht, the man convicted of running the marketplace under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts," filed a letter with the US attorney's office in Maryland saying it had found evidence of exactly this bizarre arrangement. Ulbricht's attorneys say the government official, known by the aliases "notwonderful" and "albertpacino" on Silk Road and the Silk Road forums, then deleted evidence of the exchange after the government seized the servers.
This official isn't either former DEA agent Carl Mark Force or former Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges, who were both convicted of a slew of corruption-related charges late last year and are both serving federal prison sentences. That there could be more crooked cops involved with the case has been raised several times—both by prosecutors in the Force and Bridges cases and by Variety Jones, an advisor and "mentor" to Silk Road's founder, Dread Pirate Roberts.
Ulbricht's attorney, Joshua Dratel, says forensics experts working for the legal team have discovered a slew of communications between Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) and a Silk Road forum user called "notwonderful," who claimed they were a government employee willing to sell information about the federal investigation into Silk Road back to DPR. Those communications were deleted from several of the pieces of evidence the government submitted as evidence in the Ulbricht case, and appear to have been deleted only after the government seized them.
"Someone who the government believed was in the law enforcement investigation was selling information to DPR," Ulbricht's attorney Joshua Dratel told reporters at a press conference in his Wall Street offices in Manhattan. "That person made a concerted effort to wipe that evidence from four pieces of [evidence], however there was a fifth piece he wasn't aware of."
Dratel says the discovery "totally undermines the integrity of any of the digital evidence in the case." Ulbricht's legal team has made a discovery demand in Maryland, where a case against Ulbricht is still pending and says it will file a motion if discovery isn't initiated by prosecutors there.
We learned during the various protracted legal sagas (Ulbricht's, Force's, and Bridges's) that several undercover agents from several different branches of the Department of Justice went undercover on both Silk Road and the Silk Road forums. "Deathfromabove," for instance, was one of Force's aliases. During the original Silk Road trial, Dratel repeatedly brought up an undercover DEA or Homeland Security Investigations agent known as "mr. wonderful." We never learned who mr. wonderful is, but the government acknowledged in testimony that they were indeed part of the investigation.
Dratel said the messages were deleted "surgically"
Mr. wonderful doesn't play into this latest thread, but it's important to establish this person as separate from "notwonderful," the forum user who approached DPR in a private message on July 26, 2013. Dratel did not release exact messages exchanged between DPR and notwonderful but paraphrased them for reporters at the press conference. He says notwonderful offered DPR information about the investigation that was later corroborated in Ulbricht's trial in testimony by undercover HSI agent Jared Der-Yeghiayan.
"In the first message he says, 'I'm notwonderful,'" Dratel told reporters. "He says, 'I'm not a field agent, but I'm an analyst in an office with 9-to-5 responsibilities but with access to internal communications.' He offers DPR real-time information on the investigation, and he does provide some of that. Some of it is analytical, some of it matches the status of what we know about the investigation." For example, notwonderful told DPR that there was Tor exit node tracking—something that was corroborated by Der-Yeghiayan at trial.
According to the messages, DPR and notwonderful exchanged roughly 30 pages worth of messages between July 22 and August 15, 2013. DPR agreed to pay notwonderful between $5,000 and $8,000 up front and then a salary of $500 per week for updates into the ongoing case. The payments were to go to a second account, called "albertpacino," that was set up on the Silk Road market.
If you've been following this case closely, "albertpacino" should sound familiar—government prosecutors discovered that DPR was paying albertpacino for information during the Force investigation, but the government could not prove that Force and albertpacino were the same person.
Dratel says this is because all evidence suggests that albertpacino (and notwonderful) was neither Force nor Bridges. Documents that were unsealed after the Force trial noted that in November of 2014, "Force [was] also being investigated for leaking investigative information to Ulbricht through a different Silk Road username—'alpacino.'" The government never again mentioned alpacino (or albertpacino) in connection with Force again after that.
In Shaun Bridges's sentencing hearings, Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Haun in the Northern District of California claimed that bitcoins in the case were still unaccounted for, and seemed to imply that Bridges had not admitted to the full extent of his activities. But Dratel claims that the evidence points towards neither Force nor Bridges being alpacino or notwonderful.
"If the government believed it had evidence that Force or Bridges was alpacino, we would have seen it in the hundreds of pages of filings in the [Bridges] and [Force] cases," Dratel said. "Notwonderful did not have the same methodology [as Force or Bridges], which was a combination of extortion and threat … this is from someone else. The personality of this person is so dramatically different from Force, Bridges [or their aliases]. It's a completely different level of avarice and communications altogether."
Any evidence about notwonderful was omitted from Ulbricht's 2015 trial in the Southern District of New York. Dratel says this is because government officials did their best to cover it up.
More bizarrely, it looks like key evidence was tampered with prior to Ulbricht's arrest and the seizure of the Silk Road website. Ulbricht's legal team analyzed four images made of the Silk Road servers (both a backup based in Pennsylvania, and the Icelandic server the site ran from) and found inconsistencies across the images. Portions were wiped or deleted, and those deletions coincided with notwonderful's communications with DPR.
A Pennsylvania server used to store backups to the Silk Road forum database was imaged by its hosting company on September 9, 2013, pursuant to a government warrant. This image was identified as "Item No. 2" in discovery. The same server was imaged on the same day for a second time by the government ("Item No. 3"), and then again on October 2, 2013, the day that Ross Ulbricht was arrested and the site was seized ("Item No. 5").
According to Dratel, each of those three images has had the entire Silk Road forum database wiped from July 22 onward. July 22 is the day that notwonderful contacted DPR for the first time.
The fourth image ("Item No. 16") examined by Ulbricht's legal team was made from an Icelandic server that was hosting the live site, and was imaged on November 22, 2013. This image included all Silk Road forum data from its inception June 18, 2011 through November 22, 2013. On this image, all of the data is available except for communications between notwonderful and DPR.
Dratel said the messages were deleted "surgically," and that "someone, maybe notwonderful, did not want that to be found."
"This amplifies completely our defense that the investigation lacks integrity because of data manipulation"
So how did Dratel find the conversations between notwonderful and the Dread Pirate Roberts, if they were deleted? He says that his forensics team discovered a separate, "administrator copy" of the database in a folder called "Directory S" on the Icelandic server. Directory S was backed up on August 15, 2013 by a Silk Road administrator (the defense team thinks 'S' stands for smedley—one of the forgotten architects of Silk Road). "If you were going and looking to delete something specifically, to cover your tracks, you would not know that this [Directory S] was created by an administrator," Dratel said. The Directory S copy of the database contains the messages between notwonderful and DPR. Dratel says his legal team made the discovery over the summer and has spent the last few months analyzing the data.
"We got six terabytes of information, and they were was no real way we could review all of that data in the time period allowed before trial," he said.
What this means
We've included much of the minutia in this case because a trial and investigation as convoluted and twisting as this one requires it. There is still much we don't know, namely: Who is notwonderful?
Dratel says that if he can prove the government deleted evidence it will further undermine a case that has already been rife with corruption and government malfeasance. Indeed, Ross Ulbricht's pending appeal before the Second Circuit relies heavily on the argument that Ulbricht failed to get a fair trial because of the withholding of key evidence (namely, evidence regarding corrupt law enforcement agents). But questions of fairness aside, there is not an obvious connection between this new evidence and Ross Ulbricht's actual innocence or guilt.
"This amplifies completely our defense that the investigation lacks integrity because of data manipulation," he said. "There was a significant amount of data deleted. Maybe there was other data erased—we don't know."