FBI agents found him in the science fiction section of a small branch of the San Francisco public library, chatting online.
The man known as Dread Pirate Roberts — 29-year-old Ross William Ulbricht — was on his personal laptop on Tuesday afternoon talking about the vast black market bazaar that is believed to have brokered more than US$1 billion in transactions for illegal drugs and services, authorities said.
When a half-dozen FBI agents burst into the library in a quiet, blue-collar neighborhood, they abruptly ended Ulbricht’s conversation with a cooperating witness, pinned the Austin, Texas, native to a floor-to-ceiling window and then took him off to jail, law enforcement and library spokeswomen said.
Ulbricht was later charged in criminal complaints in federal courts in New York and Maryland.
He is accused of making millions of dollars operating the secret Silk Road Web site and of a failed murder-for-hire scheme, all while living anonymously with two roommates whom he paid US$1,000 to rent a room in a modest neighborhood.
Federal authorities shut down the Web site.
Ulbricht has not entered pleas to any of his charges. His federal public defender in San Francisco declined to comment on Wednesday. Ulbricht was due back in San Francisco federal court yesterday morning to discuss bail and his transfer to New York, where the bulk of the charges have been filed.
He is charged in New York with being the mastermind of Silk Road, where users could browse anonymously through nearly 13,000 listings under categories like “Cannabis,” “Psychedelics” and “Stimulants.”
Ulbricht is also charged in Maryland with ordering first the torture, and then the murder, of an employee from an undercover agent.
He feared the employee would expose his alias as Dread Pirate Roberts, a fictional character.
Court records say he wired the agent US$80,000 after he was shown staged photos of the employee’s faked torture.
His arrest culminated a two-year investigation that painstakingly followed a small trail of computer crumbs Ulbricht carelessly left for the FBI to find, according to court documents.
Ulbricht first came to the attention of federal agents in 2011 when they figured out he was “altoid,” someone who they say was marketing Silk Road on other drug-related Web sites the FBI was watching.
In October 2011, “altoid” posted an advertisement for a computer expert with experience in Bitcoin, an electronic currency, and gave an e-mail address.
From there, investigators began to monitor Ulbricht’s online behavior closely, according to the court records.
Court documents show investigators slowly connected Ulbricht to Silk Road by monitoring his e-mail and picking up on some slipups, including using his real name to ask a programmers’ Web site a highly technical question about connecting to secret sites like Silk Road.
His final mistake, according to the court papers, was ordering fake identification documents from a Silk Road vendor from Canada.
One of the nine documents was a California driver’s license with Ulbricht’s photograph, birthdate, but a different name. The package was intercepted at the border during a routine US Customs search.
On July 26, Homeland Security investigators visited Ulbricht at his San Francisco residence.
He “generally refused to answer questions,” the agents said.