CRF Blog

The Untold Story of Silk Road

by Bill Hayes

In The Untold Story of Silk Road, Wired magazine tells how an idealistic young man built an online black market for selling drugs and developed into a “murderous kingpin.”

Ross [Ulbricht] had grown up in Austin, Texas, and had always been smart and charming. He’d been the kind of kid who was an Eagle Scout — and let his friends give him a mohawk on a whim. He was raised in a tight family. They’d spend summers in Costa Rica; Ross’ parents had built a series of rustic, solar-powered bamboo houses there, near an isolated point break where Ross learned to surf. In high school, “Rossman,” as friends called him, drove an old Volvo, smoked plenty of pot, and still got a 1460 on his SATs. To friends, Ross was carefree but also caring.

Ross earned a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas and majored in physics. From there he landed a graduate scholarship at Penn State, where he excelled as usual. But he wasn’t happy with the drudgery of lab research. Since college he’d been exploring psychedelics and reading Eastern philosophy. At Penn State, Ross talked openly about switching fields. He posted online about his disenchantment with science — and his new interest in economics.

He’d come to see taxation and government as a form of coercion, enforced by the state’s monopoly on violence. His thinking was heavily influenced by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a totem of the modern American libertarian orthodoxy. According to von Mises, a citizen must have economic freedom to be politically or morally free. And Ross wanted to be free.

When he finished his master’s in 2009, he moved back to Austin and bought Julia a plane ticket to join him. She left school, and they got a cheap apartment together. It was cramped, but they were young and dreamy. Both imagined they might get married.

Ross tried day trading, but it didn’t go well. He started a videogame company. That failed too. The setbacks were devastating. He didn’t want to be trying; he wanted to be doing. During this time, his downstairs neighbor, Donny Palmertree, invited Ross to work with him on Good Wagon Books, a business that collected used books and sold them in digital storefronts like Amazon and Books-A-Million. Ross built Good Wagon’s website, learned inventory management, and wrote a custom script that determined a book’s price based on its Amazon ranking.

In his spare time Ross read, hiked, improved his yoga, and, as Julia fondly recalls, had “lots and lots of great sex.” But they also argued, about politics (she was a Democrat), money (what he called “frugal,” she called “cheap”), and their social life (she partied more than he did). Their relationship turned stormy, with frequent breakups. In the summer of 2010, they split up yet again. He was heartbroken, later telling a woman he met on OkCupid how he’d recently been in love and was trying to get over it.

Ross was adrift. “I went through a lot over the year in my personal relationships,” he wrote in a journal on his computer, a kind of self-assessment of life goals. “I had left my promising career as a scientist to be an investment adviser and entrepreneur and came up empty-handed.” Ross felt ashamed, but not long afterward Palmertree got a job in Dallas, leaving Good Wagon to Ross. For years, all he’d wanted was to be in charge of something. Now he was.

In the Good Wagon warehouse, Ross oversaw five part-time college students sorting, logging, and organizing the 50,000 books on shelves he built himself. That December was Good Wagon’s best month, clearing 10 grand.

But by the end of 2010, the new CEO of Good Wagon was looking beyond the book business. During his forays into trading, Ross had discovered bitcoin, the digital cryptocurrency. The value of bitcoin — based only on market factors, unattached to any central bank — aligned with his advancing libertarian philosophy. On his LinkedIn page, Ross wrote that he wanted to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.”

To that end Ross had a flash of insight. “The idea,” he wrote in his journal, “was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them.” He wrote that he’d “been studying the technology for a while but needed a business model and strategy.”

Like most libertarians, Ross believed that drug use was a personal choice. And like all people paying attention, he observed that the war on drugs was a complete failure. The natural merchandise for his new enterprise would be drugs. “I was calling it Underground Brokers,” Ross wrote, “but eventually settled on Silk Road.” [more]

Part II of the story continues in The Untold Story of Silk Road, Part 2: The Fall.