Part 2: How the DEA Brought Down Silk Road and How Silk Road Brought Down Two DEA Agents

In April 2013, Ross Ulbricht encountered DeathfromAbove. Apparently, Force, no doubt inspired by the ease with which he conned Ulbricht out of $80,000 and realizing his newly acquired power over Ulbricht due to the murder-for-hire scheme, had devised another, novel, money-making idea. For this new scam, he created, yet, another persona with the apocalyptic name, DeathfromAbove. It seems Force had received information that the DEA had identified DPR, the owner of the Silk Road. Force (as DeathfromAbove) told Ulbricht he would give him this information for $250,000. No doubt realizing that Ulbricht may balk at such an amount, Force played his trump card. “I know that you had something to do with Curtis Green’s disappearance and death. Just wanted to let you know that I’m coming for you. Tuque. You are a dead man. Don’t think you can elude me. De Oppresso Liber.”

This syntactic style of tossing foreign phrases into his chats is characteristic of Force. He often did this when he was masquerading as Columbian drug dealer, Nob. He would often comment that it was hard for him to switch from Spanish to English, despite the fact that he normally wrote in perfect native speaker English. Unfortunately for poor Mr. Force, Ulbricht didn’t buy into this new ploy, referring to him as a “psycho” and telling him to “go find something else to do”. The attempt may have worked if Force had correctly identified Ulbricht. To prove he knew who DPR (Ulbricht) was, he gave Ulbricht the wrong name but probably one that he had heard mentioned by other agents. This made Ulbricht conclude that “the guy blackmailing me who says he has my ID is bogus.”

At some point, the communications between Force and Ulbricht became encrypted. Force submitted some of the decrypted messages to the DEA but not all. In fact, as time went by, almost all the communication between Force (Nob) and Ulbricht (DPR) was encrypted. During this time, Force began to sell information about the Silk Road investigation to Ulbricht. He told Ulbricht that he had an informant in the DEA named, Kevin. He received two payments from Ulbricht, one in June 2013 and another in August, totaling around $100,000. Though some of this money was sent on to the DEA account in an effort to cover his illegal activities, most went into his own account. He disguised this fact by telling the DEA that Ulbricht failed to pay him the full amount.

So, by the end of August, 2013, Force had just about doubled his yearly salary. Now, you would think most people would be happy with this, but not Carl Mark Force. No, he had another scam up his sleeve. He had inside information that the DEA was going to question Mark Karpeles, Mt Gox Bitcoin exchange owner, about the person who ran Silk Road. At this point, they knew nothing about Ulbricht but felt that Karpeles probably did.

When Force heard about this, he contacted Ulbricht under a new persona he called, ‘French Maid’. Through a series of encrypted chats with Ulbricht, Force (French Maid) claimed he could get the name that Karpeles gave to the DEA for the small fee of $100,000. Ulbricht agreed and paid the money. The DEA subsequently canceled the interview with Karpeles, so it is not clear what name Force gave Ulbricht for the $100k, although it is speculated by some that it was a libertarian blogger named, Anand Athavale. In fact, ‘French Maid’ abruptly disappeared in September, 2013. (It should be noted that any money Force received was laundered through several Bitcoin sites before making it, in smaller payments, into his personal account.)

The U.S. Justice Department, in a filing against Ulbricht with the Southern District of New York, states that Force may have used another alias to squeeze money from Ulbricht. He may have used the identity, ‘alpacino’, to sell Silk Road investigation information. If Force is, indeed, ‘alpacino’, he received a weekly salary of $500 and, thus, with the help of ’French Maid’, had now tripled his yearly salary. But wait. There’s more.

By the end of 2013, Force must have begun to gain confidence in his ability to manipulate Ulbricht and thereby receive a steady stream of income. The last thing Force wanted was to kill the goose that laid the golden Bitcoins, in other words, he had no desire at all to see Ulbricht apprehended. Did he impede the investigation in other ways? I suppose we’ll have to wait for the trial to learn about this. However, at some point, he must have realized that Ulbricht was close to being identified. As any good businessman would, Force needed to diversify. He had, according to recently released documents, already reached out in May and April to Karpelas at Mt Gox for some sort of partnership, but that went nowhere. In November, with more Bitcoins in his pockets, he began to think about other business opportunities.

Force used numerous Bitcoin exchanges to launder his money and one of these was CoinMKT. By the end of November, 2013, Force had moved over $100,000 in Bitcoins into CoinMKT and become one of its top investors. With this leverage and his position in the DEA, he began to negotiate with CoinMKT to become its Chief Compliance Officer. To CoinMKT’s credit, they were unsure if this was the right thing to do as they feared some conflict of interest between themselves and the DEA. Force quelled their fears by saying that he would soon leave the DEA. Later, however, he told them that it might be more useful for them if he stayed on with the DEA for a while longer. He informed them that he had access to certain criminal databases that could help CoinMKT avoid certain suspicious clients.

By increments, Force became an active member of the CoinMKT staff. His photo was featured in its promotional material. However, it is not clear if or what he was paid for his services. As it turned out, pay would not be important because Force discovered another method of using CoinMKT to increase his wealth. In February, 2014, CoinMKT management contacted him about some suspicious activity by a client referred to as R.P. Seizing the opportunity, Force claimed he had run a background check on R.P. and found that he was being investigated by the FBI. Force would do CoinMKT a favor. He would seize R.P.’s account and do all the paperwork. The action made CoinMKT uncomfortable but they did not want to incur the wrath of the federal government. With some doubts remaining and a written statement from Force, they transferred R.P.’s money into a new account which Force later transferred into his own account, claiming he had moved it into an official DEA account. R.P., by the way, was completely innocent of any crimes and was now simply another name on Force’s ever-growing list of victims. Force was, by mid-April, 2014, $300,000 richer. A few days after Force received the final transfer of R.P’s money, Force opened his own digital currency business, Engedi LLC.

Yet, as is often the case, just as Force was beginning to enjoy the fruits of his deception, behind the scenes, events were transpiring which threatened to dismantle all he had worked for. This all began innocently enough. In February, Force had opened an account with a small fund-transferring company called, Venmo. On the same day, he opened another account in the same company under a different name, R.R. However, when Force tried to transfer money from the R.R. account into his own, Venmo blocked the transaction, claiming it looked suspicious. They subsequently blocked both Force’s and R.R.’s account.

Force was furious that such a small company should stand in his way and demanded they unblock his account. He claimed that R.R. was under federal investigation and that he, Force, was in charge of the case. To prove this, he sent Venmo a copy of his badge and credentials. Bizarrely, he also mentioned that he was interested in working for Venmo. I have little doubt that Force thought this would be the end of the story. However, days went by and Venmo still had not unblocked his account. Force ramped up the pressure. He concocted a subpoena seemingly from the DOJ that demanded that Venmo “lift ‘the freeze’ on the account of Carl Force effective immediately”.

Venmo didn’t buy it. They couldn’t believe that the government would use an official subpoena to unfreeze someone’s personal account. In fact, instead of unfreezing the account, they contacted Force’s superiors at the DEA to find out what was going on. Somehow, Force became aware of Venmo’s actions and sent them an email telling them to disregard the subpoena. This was at the end of February at the same time Force was gaining control over R.P.’s account at CoinMKT.

Force was certainly miffed at Venmo’s audacity and he wanted revenge. To this end, he contacted an agent he knew in Baltimore and asked him to get information on “a suspicious money remitter, Venmo, Inc.” His purpose was to find a reason to seize Venmo’s accounts. That, of course, would be perfect revenge. Until this could happen, Force contacted Venmo through his personal email telling them he was filing a lawsuit against them for freezing his account. He also told them to never contact the DEA again. One reason for this, in addition to the chance his scheme would be uncovered, was that he had apparently forged his superior’s signature on the original subpoena.

It is unclear when precisely Force realized his position had become tenuous. He must have realized that the Venmo fiasco could have exposed him. His search for positions with CoinMKT and Venmo plus his eventual opening of his own company makes it clear that Force had been considering leaving the DEA for some time. On May 4, 2014, Force submitted his letter of resignation. Around this time, he tried to destroy boxes of documents, but they were seized. On May 8th, he wired $235,000 into an offshore account in Panama. At the end of May, realizing he had few options remaining and the walls were closing in, he tried to strike a deal with investigators. Unfortunately, he did not tell them the full story as was required in the agreement.

Silk Road closed at the end of 2013. Two weeks later, Silk Road 2.0 opened. It was met with paranoia by some members who thought it was a honeypot of the FBI and DEA. This would be interesting, if true, because someone tried to arrange getting paid for inside DEA information in the same manner that Force did with the first Silk Road ($500/week). Actually, some suggest that this was, in fact, Force, who missed the extra income he was getting from his first Silk Road arrangement. Nonetheless, Silk Road 2.0 eventually closed down. Other sites came and went and none has since equaled the size of Silk Road. It is more difficult to find market sites in the deep web now, but some do exist. They are, however, rather small. The latest attempt to form a market is TheRealDeal. It is based on a somewhat different business model and the owners claim they want to focus more on cyber exploits than drugs, but, that said, drugs and other illicit items are still on sale there. For the moment, their biggest problem seems to be paranoia management.

Ross Ulbricht was convicted for his Silk Road activities in February, 2015. He has appealed this conviction. Carl Mark Force was arrested at his Baltimore home on March 27, 2015. Agents searched his car and found a hidden, fully loaded hand gun with extra ammunition, a passport, and 10 blank $500 money orders. He had four fully loaded guns positioned around his house and one unloaded shotgun. He also had about 650 rounds of ammunition. It is unclear what Force was preparing to defend himself against. In addition to the above, Force had apparently crafted an intricate plan that would eventually lead to his escape to Algeria. He is now in jail. My attempts to contact him through his business email were, to no surprise, unsuccessful. Neither he nor his lawyer is making any statements. However, you may be able to see all of the above characters and their stories on the big screen as 20th Century Fox has bought the movie rights to this story. Expect more, perhaps even more startling, revelations to emerge from the trial.

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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