FBI sting and faked death may have played key role in Silk Road demise

Curtis Green, a 47-year-old Utah resident, was a high-level administrator of the billion-dollar online black market.

Prosecutors say Silk Road, known by its distinctive logo, generated $1.2 billion in sales

Federal investigators caught a high-level employee of Silk Road, the billion-dollar online black market, in a drug sting and then faked his torture and murder as part of a two-year Baltimore-based investigation into the website that culminated in the arrest of its architect last month, according to newly filed court documents.

Curtis Clark Green — known by his Silk Road aliases “chronicpain” and “Flush” — pleaded guilty Thursday in a federal court in Maryland to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, 10 months after a horde of federal agents raided his home in Spanish Fork, Utah, and caught him with a kilogram of the substance, which he had unwittingly ordered from an undercover agent in Maryland.

The revelation that federal authorities had arrested one of Silk Road’s few administrators, a man who had access to the financial accounts of all of the site’s members, including the creator himself, fills in a piece of the mystery behind the fall of one of the 21st century’s most notorious online enterprises. Green’s faked death has given rise, among Silk Road observers and some former participants, to speculation that he may have cooperated with investigators. That would provide a key clue to how the government was able to shut down — at least temporarily — an online marketplace shrouded in secrecy and layers of anonymizing software.

Through Green’s public record and trail of online posts under several aliases, a fuller portrait emerges of a man who had endured federal drug prosecution once before, filed for bankruptcy, abandoned an attempt to start a business and suffered from a debilitating medical condition. His case also shows how one simple misstep — using his home address when he served as a middleman on a Silk Road cocaine purchase — may have helped bring down the entire operation.

The alleged architect of Silk Road, Ross William Ulbricht, was arrested in San Francisco on Oct. 1 and made his first appearance in a federal court in New York City on Wednesday. He faces a variety of charges in Maryland and New York, including attempted witness murder and conspiracy to launder money, distribute drugs and engage in computer hacking. His lawyer, Joshua Dratel, has said Ulbricht is not the man authorities say he is — the Silk Road creator known until recently only by his alias, “Dread Pirate Roberts” — and that he will seek bail at a hearing on Nov. 21.

Green was not the first person to be arrested as a Silk Road drug dealer; Baltimore resident Jacob George has admitted that he told Homeland Security investigators about his sales as early as January 2012. Nor was Green the biggest alleged dealer to end up in custody; Steven Sadler, a Washington state resident who has cooperated with the government since July, was a top dealer known by the alias “nod.” But Green was certainly the most important.

Unfortunate middleman

As an administrator, Green’s plea agreement states, he was paid a salary and given responsibilities that included dealing with buyers’ and sellers’ complaints, resolving their disputes and watching out for possible law enforcement investigations. He could see messages passed between users, details of their transactions, and accounts held by users and administrators alike in the semi-anonymous virtual currency known as bitcoin, the only means of exchange on Silk Road.

Soon after being hired in November 2012, prosecutors say, he was tasked by Ulbricht, whom he had never met, to find a buyer for large quantities of drugs being offered by a Silk Road member who was, in reality, a federal agent working for a Baltimore-based organized crime and drug trafficking task force code-named Marco Polo. The task force had begun investigating Silk Road in September 2011.

On Dec. 9, Green contacted the agent to say he had found a vendor, naming a Silk Road user known to the agent as “an established seller of drugs.” Green decided to serve as an intermediary — a decision that is not explained in the plea agreement — and the vendor provided the agent with Green’s address. On Jan. 17, a U.S. Postal Service inspector, working undercover, delivered the shipment, and soon afterward Green’s home was raided by agents from the Marco Polo task force, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security and the Secret Service, as well as by additional postal inspectors, who found him with the opened package of cocaine.

The agents also seized $18,000 in cash, a MacBook Pro, a Samsung Epic cell phone and an account with an online bitcoin exchange called Mt. Gox.

No record of Green’s arrest could be found on the Utah County sheriff’s website that keeps such information, but according to the Utah County Jail, he was booked in Spanish Fork, where public records show he had maintained a home since 1993, and charged with possession of cocaine. He was released the following day under a $2,500 bail and does not appear to have faced any charges or appeared in court until Oct. 28, when federal prosecutors in Maryland first filed an information against him. He is currently out of custody and will be sentenced in February, the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office said. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a potential maximum of 40 years.

Witness to a "murder"

Ulbricht, prosecutors allege in a separate indictment against him, became concerned after Green’s arrest. He told the undercover agent posing as the cocaine seller that Green, whom Ulbricht knew only by an alias, had stolen funds from other Silk Road users and been arrested. On Jan. 26, he asked the agent to find Green and beat him until he returned the stolen bitcoins. The next day he changed his mind, asking the agent if he could kill Green, according to the indictment.

Ulbricht and the agent negotiated the hit for 20 days, prosecutors say, before the agent sent Ulbricht “staged photographs” of Green being tortured. Three days later, on Feb. 19, the agent emailed to say that Green had been killed; two days after that, he sent a “staged photograph that purported to depict (Green’s) dead body,” explaining that Green had died of “’asphyxiation/heart rupture’ while being tortured.” The agent later claimed that Green’s body had been “completely destroyed to eliminate evidence.”

Though he is not identified by name as the “dead” administrator in the indictment against Ulbricht, and the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office would not confirm that the two were the same person, Green has reportedly confirmed his role as the Silk Road administrator in the staged photographs. In a statement to Joshua Davis, a co-founder of Epic magazine who has sold movie rights to a story about Silk Road, he said that “the agents took photos as they faked my murder.”

Green denied ever stealing funds from Ulbricht or any Silk Road user and said he had started paying attention to the black market because of its reliance on bitcoins, which interested him.

“Initially I just chatted on the forum, and that led to DPR hiring me to work for SR,” he wrote, referring to Ulbricht’s alias and the initials for Silk Road. “I never used illegal drugs and I never intended to be directly involved in illegal drug deals.”

Multiple phone numbers listed in public records for Green’s Spanish Fork house and his business, Anytime Airport Shuttle, could not be reached or have been disconnected, and his Salt Lake City-based attorney, Mary Corporon, declined to comment on Thursday.

A history of "chronicpain"

Before his name was revealed in court filings, Green had been linked to Silk Road in recent days by an anonymous close observer of the Silk Road case who was intrigued by the staged killing and published a compilation of public Internet records that connected the incident to Silk Road administrator chronicpain and, after some sleuthing, to Green. The observer posted their findings on the popular Internet forum Reddit under the username “lamoustache.”

“From all the indictments and complaints this case was one of the most interesting,” lamoustache wrote in an email to Al Jazeera, explaining that to it appeared “something really dodgy” had occurred.

According to public records, Green and his wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Utah in 1995, two years after moving to their new house. Writing on the Silk Road forums as chronicpain, he said he had once been in nursing school but did not finish his studies “due to an accident,” though he had worked as a paramedic for 20 years.

His airport shuttle business, which mostly delivered lost luggage, “could barely make a profit,” he wrote, and he eventually began working for his father’s company. He also competed, with a small amount of success, in some World Series of Poker events, and an online record of several winnings between $1,000 and $2,000 exists under his real name. Davis wrote that Green currently works “at a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with learning disabilities.”

In his writings, Green evinced an intimate knowledge of painkillers, and though his medical problem became a theme of his posts, he never fully explained it. Three email addresses registered to his shuttle company employ versions of the username “indolor,” an apparent reference to the Spanish word for pain.

"Technically, an 80mg oxycontin is equal to 40mg of opana ER. TAKEN ORALLY!! Now, if you snort them, 40mg of opana is 2 or 3 times the strength vs a snorted 80mg oxy,” he once wrote as chronicpain.

First brush with the law

Green also appears to have joined other drug information forums, such as Opiophile.org, under the username “pokergooch,” which also appears as an email address (pokergooch1966@yahoo.com) registered to Green’s shuttle business. Pokergooch and chronicpain shared a number of similarities: both once lived in Spain, recommended a specific cocktail of painkillers, noted that they did not smoke, and said they needed testosterone injections to compensate for a lack of libido caused by using opiates. Opiophile’s administrators banned the pokergooch account earlier this month, after lamoustache’s Reddit post linked Green to the Silk Road investigation.

Writing as pokergooch on Opiophile in 2009, Green described how he had seen a doctor six years earlier to help address his pain. Unable to find a specialist nearby, he sought one out in Las Vegas, where he traveled regularly. He did not tell his regular doctor that he was seeing the specialist, though he gave the specialist his doctor’s information and prescribing history. Not realizing that it was illegal to “prescription shop” without informing both doctors — and later discovering that his specialist might have broken the law himself — Green said he eventually came under investigation for insurance fraud by the FBI, which had been contacted by his insurance company.

He entered a plea in abeyance, which allowed the judge to dismiss his charges if he satisfied the demands of the court. But his wife, who he wrote had a “checkered past,” was made to plead guilty to two felonies and become an informant for the FBI and DEA.

A Utah news channel covered the case against Green and his wife in 2006, reporting that they had filled $25,000 in prescriptions in less than a year.

Green also appears to be on Twitter. A search for Curtis Green and Utah on Google brings up Silk Road’s distinctive image — a green-hued man riding a camel — and a link to an account called “ilovepoker” under Green’s full name. That account now lists its name as “cg,” and its most recent entry, written two days after the Reddit post connected Green to Silk Road, says, “Wow, I guess there are a lot of people that must have taken their tin foil hats off. Good grief ...”

End of the Silk Road?

On Oct. 6, after Ulbricht was arrested and the site shut down, a Silk Road vendor named “googleyed1,” who had been advertising the impending sale of “pure uncut Peruvian cocaine” two days before Green’s arrest, joined a thread discussing the investigation and claimed that he was the buyer who had arranged the cocaine deal with the federal agent and that chronicpain was the administrator named in the Maryland indictment who had helped arrange it. He said he believed that chronicpain had “turned informer.”

“The vendor … was indeed (an) undercover agent, and i knew this, but for some reason DPR tells me to make a purchase from him,” he wrote, using alias initials for Dread Pirate Roberts. “So (chronicpain) offered to be my reshipper and the sting ensued.”

Ulbricht, googleyed1 speculated, had been enticed by the commission he could earn on such a large shipment of cocaine, which federal authorities say was worth $27,000 in bitcoins.

In the months following Green’s arrest, federal authorities began to tighten the noose around Silk Road. Meanwhile, Ulbricht allegedly made errors of his own: He attempted to hire another hit man to murder a separate user who had threatened to expose some of the site’s sellers and buyers, according to investigators. He also posted Silk Road-related programming questions on a public message board using an account that contained information featuring his real name.

In early July, Customs and Border Protection agents seized a package of fake identification documents as it entered the United States from Canada, bound for Ulbricht’s address in San Francisco and bearing his photo. Later that month, the FBI obtained an “image” — a complete copy — of Silk Road’s server after discovering its location in a foreign country that belongs to a mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States. Court documents do not state whether Green provided any information leading to these discoveries, and in his letter to Davis, he wrote that his attorney had advised him not to give further details, “as I still face serious federal charges.”

On Wednesday morning, roughly a month after the Silk Road site was taken offline, another Silk Road appeared. Like the original, it is accessible only with the anonymizing browser known as Tor and uses only bitcoins as its currency. Its creator, like the original, employs the alias Dread Pirate Roberts.

“#SilkRoad does not represent drugs, it represents freedom,” he or she tweeted, adding, “The only war I am starting is one of the intellect.”

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