If it hadn’t been for the two hits he allegedly ordered, Ross Ulbricht probably would have gone down a hero. A martyr to the cause of freedom in the same vein as Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, thanks to his libertarian leanings and his role in running the online underground drug bazaar Silk Road. Instead, though, it’s starting to look like he’s nothing more than the next step in the evolution of the corner pusher, willing to use violence and coercion to keep his trade from going under.
Federal agents arrested Ulbricht, 29, earlier this week in a San Francisco public library, alleging he is Dread Pirate Roberts, owner and operator of the Silk Road, a “deep web” site that allows users to anonymously buy and sell illegal goods and services, from PCP and cocaine to fake IDs and hacking kits, using a form of electronic payment called bitcoins. Imagine an anarcho-capitalist version of Amazon.com, and that’s pretty much what it was—right down to the user reviews.
As seems to be clear in his social media profiles, however, Ulbricht was far from a heavy drug user, hell-bent on finding and supplying the next great high. Instead, in viewing his manicured versions of himself, what emerges is an aggregate picture of a man deeply obsessed with economics and money, along with a strong interest in libertarian politics and bitcoin—three things that ultimately would come to define the free market experiment that was the Silk Road.
Interesting, considering that the Texas native was, on paper, a physicist, holding a bachelor’s in the field from University of Texas at Dallas, along with a graduate degree in materials sciences from none other than Penn State, which he attended on a prestigious scholarship. His master’s thesis, Growth of EuO Thin Films by Molecular Beam Epitaxy, is still available on PSU’s servers. Listed as a 2010 grad, and with the Silk Road first popping up in 2011, it’s likely that, despite his scientific focus, Ulbricht first began germinating the ideas for the “economic simulation” he references in his LinkedIn profile that ultimately became the Silk Road right in Happy Valley.
State College, is, it seems, where Ulbricht developed—or at least focused heavily on developing—a political identity that would provide the ideological basis for the founding of Silk Road. A 2010 Facebook note, still publicly available on his page, vaguely explores his thoughts on freedom, saying we could be “freer by creating and acquiring more resources that allow [us] to express [ourselves] in bigger and broader ways.”
It wasn’t just social media posts, though—Ulbricht has at least one appearance in the Daily Collegian as a strident Ron Paul supporter, throwing his ideological support squarely behind his candidate in 2008, even attempting to run as a delegate for Paul:
"The man is eloquent. He speaks very succinctly and straightforwardly and is very insightful and wise," he said. "There's a lot to learn from him and his message of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to be a free individual."
There are other snippets of Ulbricht’s time in State College out there, as well, including one that fingers him as a debater for PSU’s College Libertarians chapter. Ross, it seems, would not be a fan of Obamacare, given that our “massively regulated health care system” would work more efficiently “if deregulation occurred,” as he stated in a 2008 debate. In that same debate, Ulbricht questioned why people believe “control of an industry needs to come from a national level.”
It wasn’t all politics and Ron Paul stumping for Ulbricht at Penn State, though. Turns out he liked himself a little bit of Caribbean music, serving as the drummer for PSU’s NOMMO Performing Arts Company at a 2008 cultural event. At the time, Ross sought to “pump everyone up and raise the energy level,” an interest that apparently continued into his post-grad life—albeit with less steel drum and more free market politics. Aside from the growing interest in undermining the state’s control on our bodies and economy, Ulbricht seemed to be a pretty normal student.
Which, perhaps, would explain the disbelief his family and friends are reporting to news outlets currently. Close friend and former roommate René Pinnell told TheVerge that he doesn’t “know how they got Ross wrapped up into this,” while Ulbricht’s half brother, Travis, called the news “shocking and the first [he’d] heard of it.” Though, to be fair, those statements do sound exactly like what someone would say if their friend or brother got arrested for running a billion-dollar drug ring.
Something from an interview Forbes did with Dread Pirate Roberts early last month, however, does stick out in that sense:
“Roberts isn’t actually the site’s founder, he revealed in our interview. He credits Silk Road’s creation to another, even more secretive entrepreneur whom he declined to tell me anything about and who may have used the ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ nom de guerre before it was assumed by the person I interviewed. The current Roberts discovered the site shortly after its creation in early 2011.”
Sure, it could be a crafty ruse playing on DPR’s namesake character from 1987’s The Princess Bride, who passes his name down from one man to the next as he decides to retire. That, or the real DPR is still out there. Either way, Ulbricht doesn't likely have many "we are's" coming his way anytime soon.