18 months after being arrested in Brisbane, Australian man Peter N. has been sentenced to time served by a United States judge. That means he is a free man.
It must have been disappointing for the prosecution who asked for an extra 10-12 years to add to the 18 months he’s already spent inside.[EDIT: See correction here] In that time he has been placed in protective custody, bashed by prison guards, extradited to the other side of the world, and separated from his family and friends.
His crime? He moderated an internet discussion forum. Now, for the first time, he tells his story
Peter N. went to bed on 19 December 2013 a content man. Holidays had started. Tomorrow he would board a plane to the UK for his first family Christmas in seven years. From there he would head to Paris for New Years Eve, where he would propose to the woman sleeping next to him.
Sitting up in bed at 5am, Pete was dealing with some final matters on the website he helped moderate and at the same time chatting via private message to Cirrus, a fellow moderator whom he had never met but considered a friend. He told Cirrus all about his planned holiday. It was then he heard strange noises coming from within the apartment.
His door burst open and more people than he ever knew could fit in his apartment swarmed in. “Australian Federal Police!” they yelled as one of them snatched the laptop from his hands. “Don’t move!’ Around fifteen police, accompanied by two FBI special agents searched every inch of the apartment while Peter was read his rights. He was allowed to comfort his partner as they ransacked his house. Computers were high on the agenda.
There would be no plane trip that day. There would be no romantic proposal at the Eiffel Tower.
Silk Road by now should need no introduction. It is the most notorious online black market that ever existed. It sold a variety of things, but mostly it sold drugs. Lots of drugs. High quality, reasonably priced cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin and weed, all delivered straight to your door, ready for consumption.
Peter arrived at Silk Road late in 2012. Calling himself Samesamebutdifferent, better known as ‘SSBD’, he quickly became a prolific contributor to the Australian discussion threads and soon after, at his own request, was elevated to Moderator. “I had sent a PM to DPR [Dread Pirate Roberts, owner of Silk Road] asking about supporting the community and he just upgraded me the following day,” he said.
At first a volunteer, he was later paid $500 per week, then by mid-2013 was earning $1000 per week in Bitcoin. The bitcoin never left his account, instead being spent on cocaine, weed and MDMA. “I was just doing it because I enjoyed the camaraderie and social connections I found on the forums”, Pete said. “At that time I was going through an incredibly stressful and challenging period in my career and was I feeling very isolated in my life. The forums became my second home, I was holding down a full time job and then putting in almost the same equivalent amount of hours each day on the forums”.
Given that anonymity was sacrosanct on Silk Road, Pete was surprised when Dread Pirate Roberts (“DPR”) demanded he provide a scan of his drivers licence. But DPR assured him that it was standard for his staff.
“Hindsight is always 20/20 and providing my ID to DPR was obviously reckless and stupid,” Pete said. “You have to remember though that those were different times and no one had been busted back then and I think we were all rather misguided in our perceptions of risk”.
Anyway, Silk Road’s owner preached the importance of opsec (operational security) and anonymity. Pete’s ID would be encrypted, safely tucked away from prying eyes; Pete need only worry if he ever tried to blackmail his boss.
SSBD soon became one of the most popular and hardworking moderators on Silk Road. In his role, Pete had no control over anything that happened on the markets. He had no influence in what the marketplace did. He never sold drugs himself. He had no say in what drugs could be sold, to whom or by whom. His job was to delete spam, help “newbies” with their questions, move posts around if they were put in the wrong forums or delete them if they put someone in danger (such as if a disgruntled member posted identifying details of somebody). Forum moderators also had to immediately remove particularly objectionable posts, such as anything linking to offensive pornography or sites selling other objectionable services.
Pete got along with all the staff, but was closest to fellow moderator Scout, who later renamed herself Cirrus. “We used to exchange messages often and I frequently found myself offering [her] support.” Scout/Cirrus often inadvertently pissed off DPR, and Pete would find himself trying to offer support when things turned pear shaped for her.
As for his boss, Pete said of DPR, “it would not be unusual for him to totally ignore messages from me or others. Occasionally we would have more in-depth exchanges but he never really gave much away and our exchanges were usually rather one-sided.”
He also bought into the ‘multiple DPR’ theory. “I was sure that I was communicating with more than one person,” he said. “I used to joke with Scout/Cirrus that DPR had been replaced sometime mid 2013; it was our private joke and we started calling him ‘New DPR‘.”
Pete was instrumental in cleaning up the infamous “Infowars” posts which purported to reveal hundreds of customers of Silk Road. He also claimed to be the first to spot something fishy about recent activity of Australia’s largest and most popular local vendor, EnterTheMatrix. “My gut instinct was this was an exit scam in full flight and I had to call it,” he said. He posted his suspicions and made them a ‘sticky’, ensuring the notice would remain at the top of the forum, before heading out to dinner one night. “Needless to say I didn’t enjoy my food that night, having just called out one of the largest vendors on the market and not knowing what was going to happen.” His gut instinct, it turns out, was right; EnterTheMatrix pulled one of the largest scams in the site’s history. Pete’s position as moderator was cemented.
Pete had been going through a tough period in his life. The Silk Road forums offered him purpose, friendship and camaraderie. His position of moderator offered him status. He had all the drugs he needed for weekends to be one long party. Life was good.
When Ross Ulbricht was arrested on 2 October 2013, accused of being Silk Road mastermind Dread Pirate Roberts and the marketplace was seized by a host of American three-letter agencies, Pete panicked. He posted some farewell messages on the forums (which, being on a separate server, had not been shut down), cleared his house of drugs, wiped his computers clean and went to ground.
But a few weeks later, with no knock on the door, the fear began to subside. A race had begun to replace the site with a new marketplace, and previous staff were invited to join forces with programmers and developers to recreate Silk Road. When the new site opened with much fanfare just a month after Ulbricht’s arrest, Pete couldn’t resist; he revived SSBD and returned to the place he had called home.
The old faces were there. Money launderer StExo had bestowed upon himself the moniker of DPR; former administrators Libertas and Inigo resumed their roles. Most importantly, Pete’s closest ally Cirrus, was on board as chief moderator of the forums. It was Cirrus to whom Pete was chatting on that fateful day six weeks later.
After the unexpected 5am visit from representatives of both Australian and US federal law enforcement, Pete was taken to the Roma St police station, where he discovered they knew more than he ever could have imagined. Pete was not the only one arrested that day. Simultaneously, Andrew Jones, Silk Road’s second-in-command “Inigo” was arrested in Virginia, USA. Gary Davis, accused of being administrator “Libertas” was picked up in Ireland.
A police officer processing Pete’s paperwork warned him not to talk to anyone no matter what they said to him. “If you talk to these people you will fuck yourself,” the officer said. Pete was introduced to an FBI Special Agent who was there to oversee his arrest. It was suggested several times that there were things he could do right there and then to ‘help himself.’ Pete exercised his right to remain silent.
From there Pete was incarcerated and his nightmare began. The United States government had demanded he be extradited to face charges there. The Australian legal system being what it is, this meant there was virtually no chance of being released on bail whilst the courts determined whether or not to grant the USA’s request.
Pete was remanded in a Brisbane correctional facility. For a while, things were okay; or at least as okay as they could be spending Christmas in prison. But then he woke up one morning to a fellow inmate waving the front page of a local newspaper at him. It said Pete ran Silk Road whilst working in a prison. The same prison he was incarcerated in.
“I initially found it hilarious reading all the inaccuracies and sensationalist hyperbole,” he said. But then he was threatened by a group of inmates and his time in general population was over. He was moved into protective custody.
Pete – a nurse and psychologist – had worked for a service for adults with intellectual disabilities and complex behavioural support needs, including those who were in prison. The same news report stated he was “under investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission for allegedly smuggling a dangerous sex offender out of jail for a meal at Hungry Jack’s”. Pete denies this.
“The ‘incident’ in question related to my having escorted a client to see their doctor and whilst out we got lunch,” he said. “It was that simple, nothing untoward whatsoever and perfectly normal in the context of community rehabilitation as per that clients support plan.” But Pete soon discovered it wasn’t just his fellow prisoners he had to worry about. A while later it was reported he received a vicious bashing at the hands of prison officers. As Pete tells it:
The bashing occurred after the prison was locked down following a roof top protest that was going on somewhere in the prison. We had been locked down since early afternoon and I was alone in my cell watching TV. I became aware of a commotion on somewhere in my unit, lots of screaming and shouting basically then soon after a corrections officer acting in their capacity as the specialist response team (SRT) came onto my tier and announced a verbal warning of physical violence against anyone who called out.
Just as he said that someone made a comment and because I was looking out my cell window at the time the officer looked in my direction. I was ordered to get on the ground and put my hands behind my head. My protests that I hadn’t said anything fell on deaf ears, I am told even the corrections officer who was working our unit that day tried to intervene was disregarded. Soon after my cell door was opened and approximately five officers smashed me to the ground punching and kicking me in the head and ribs yelling at me to “stop resisting!” and to “shut the fuck up!”.
I was then handcuffed and dragged from my cell, before exiting the unit I was pushed up against the wall then my hands which where cuffed behind my back were sharply pulled back so I fell forward in a free fall so my head connected sharply with the metal shelf that ran around the outside of the fish bowl(staff observation area). I was then dragged up to a holding area near the stores and thrown onto the ground and after being uncuffed told to “clean that shit up” which was referring to the blood that was all over the walls and floor, some of it mine and some of it other inmates who had received the same treatment. I was left in the holding area for a couple of hours then taken back to my unit.
At that time I thought my ribs had been broken. I was having trouble breathing and started to hyperventilate which was probably the shock coming out. Another inmate alerted the medical team that I was in distress because they could here my distress. Soon after I had a large number of corrections officers outside my cell demanding to know what was wrong with me. At that time I was only concerned with avoiding another bashing so I told them I was ok and just needed some pain relief.
With life having become a nightmare in Australian prison and his lawyer advising him that, no matter how long it was drawn out, extradition was all but inevitable, Pete gave up the the will to fight. He waived his rights to contest his extradition and agreed to go and face the music in the United States. He was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in New York in June 2014.
Another, far more famous, prisoner was also housed at the MCC. Ross Ulbricht was in another division, awaiting trial for being the Dread Pirate Roberts, Pete’s boss. And a complete stranger.
Life in the MCC
I started corresponding with Pete as soon as I heard he had been incarcerated. I hadn’t yet finished the first draft of my book when the news of all the arrests came. Our letters were carefully worded at first; I “introduced” myself as OzFreelancer (my handle on the Silk Road forums), even though SSBD and I had chatted online many times, he being the only Australian moderator of Silk Road, me being the Aussie journo writing about the site. But by the time he got to the United States and our correspondence moved from handwritten letters to the prison email service, any pretence that he was not SSBD was dropped.
They had evidence – lots of it. Bit-by-bit information came out from evidence and exhibits produced against Ross Ulbricht in the lead up to the trial of Dread Pirate Roberts. Ulbricht had kept the IDs of his staff, including the scan of Pete’s licence, in an unencrypted file on his computer. A backup server, which was housed in Pennsylvania and subjected to a search warrant, contained every single message ever sent from Silk Road. Law enforcement was able to match up things said in private messages with events in Peter’s real life (exactly as they did with Ross Ulbricht). But Pete suspected it went further than that.
“I suspect that the police had also done a ‘sneak and peak’ into my premises at some stage,” he said. “I remember coming home from work one day and my front door key was extremely stiff whereas it normally opened very easily. At that point in time my immediate reaction was that a locksmith had tampered with it. I was told after my arrest it was most likely that the police had installed listening and possibly video surveillance in my home but I have no actual confirmation of that”.
It wasn’t until a year later, when the second incarnation of Silk Road was taken down and its staff arrested, that Pete discovered his closest ally on the site, fellow mod Cirrus, was in fact an undercover Homeland Security agent. Cirrus had been instrumental in bringing down Ross Ulbricht. It’s not immediately clear whether Cirrus had been engaging Pete at the time to ensure that he was logged into Silk Road so that agents could grab his open, unencrypted computer as he had with Ulbricht, but the timing was incredibly coincidental.
By the time the revelation became official knowledge, Pete already had his suspicions. Cirrus was the only still-active moderator of the original Silk Road to have escaped arrest. But he was bewildered to discover the real Cirrus’ account had been taken over as far back as July 2013.
“It seems strange to me now knowing that the Scout/Cirrus account was handed off to a HSI undercover,” Pete said, seemingly unable to decide whether to refer to the username as she or he now, “because they continued to mimic the same personality traits of being quite flaky and overly emotional about some of the shenanigans that used to go down on the forums”.
Many on the dark web forums and Reddit blamed Ross Ulbricht for the arrest of Pete and his co-defendants Jones and Davis. Their photo IDs were held unprotected on Ulbricht’s laptop (the computer itself was encrypted, but Ulbricht was arrested while it was open, having been lured by Cirrus to log in to Silk Road’s mastermind panel in a library where undercover agents waited to pounce). Not only were their IDs not held in separately encrypted files, nor were logs of chats and messages that any dark web employee should have the right to assume were never kept. Pete, however, does not lay the blame at his boss’ feet.
“As for Ross leaving my ID in an easy to find folder on his laptop… well I think that just underscores what I just said before about being stupid and reckless,” he said. “I do not blame Ross for my incarceration though. It was my choice to send him my doxx, no one made me do that. Too often people look to blame others for the consequences (unintended or otherwise) of their actions and I am not about that, I take the responsibility for what I did”. That said, he no longer has the unbridled admiration for Dread Pirate Roberts that he once had, saying, “What has come out subsequent to Ross’ arrest and at trial has conflicted me and changed my perceptions of a few things. The OPSEC issues certainly caused me to question a lot”.
What did concern him was reports that the peace-loving libertarian captain of the website he had come to love had ordered six hits, calling for the murders of recalcitrant staff and Silk Road’s greatest ever scammer, Tony76 among others. But like many, he refused to believe the government’s version of events. “As for the murder for hire stuff, well as abhorrent as that may be I will reserve judgment until those allegations have been tested and proven beyond a reasonable doubt” he said.
Despite them being held in the same facility, they have only crossed paths once. Ulbricht was coming out of an elevator and Pete recognised him immediately, thought it took Ulbricht a little longer. “I held my hand out and introduced myself as ‘Peter’ which I had to follow up with ‘(surname)’ before his eyes went wide and the penny dropped,” Pete said. “I just told him I was pleading out the next day and that was it, we literally just passed each other so there was no time to speak, just exchanged pleasantries really”.
He also did not begrudge his co-defendants’ seemingly much better fortune. Jones (Inigo), a US citizen, was given house arrest and faces sentencing in October. Davis (Libertas) has remained a free man in Ireland, but faces his final extradition hearing in July. “Do I feel I have had the rawest deal of the three of us? Part of me does yes,” he said. “Being the lowest ranked person on the indictment and only having a minor role on the discussion forums I have felt mixed emotions at having been the only person to have spent any time in prison. However it is important to remember that each of us has their own journey to navigate here. Jones agreed to do something I was not prepared to [Jones agreed to testify against Ulbricht, but eventually was not called] and Davis still has a process ahead of him where he could potentially be facing an uncertain future. At least I have got on with the process”.
As he awaited his fate, his life in prison revolved around routines. Exercise and reading became his way of coping with the physical and mental challenges of prison, and his cellmate (a Swedish national who was snatched by the FBI in Moldova on cyber crime charges) has taught him chess.
“Having your life dictated to you by for the most part mediocre human beings on a power trip can take it’s toll on even the most patient and tolerant person” he said. “Coming to terms with petty institutional responses and collective punishments is just something you have to get your head around when you are incarcerated. If you allow yourself to become frustrated by the need to make sense and rationalize what is going on around you it can seriously affect your wellbeing in more ways than one”.
Life after prison
As he awaited his sentencing, reading the books bought by money raised by old Silk Road members who hadn’t forgotten the fate of the staff who weren’t receiving all the publicity, Pete reflected on life and what he was missing.
“What I miss most is obviously my liberty, my fiancee, family, friends and the outdoors being in nature,” he said. “The MCC is devoid of colour unless you are into grey and white. We only get roof recreation once every three days for an hour and a half and I long for the day I can be back in nature and look up at the sky and not see it through a wire mesh. Right now I feel like I am simply wishing my days away until this chapter ends so I can start the long process of rebuilding my life”. That includes planning the wedding that was aborted 18 months ago. Peter has remained positive throughout his ordeal.
“As cliche as it may sound I am determined that this situation will not get the better of me and that I will come out of this ordeal a better and mush wiser person,” he said. “I certainly now know what is truly important in this life and I will have a wonderful appreciation of everything when I am released. Just being able to go to the supermarket to buy some decent food is going to be an amazing experience after this.”
I think that food will taste truly sweet now.
Ross Ulbricht is due to be sentenced this Friday. He faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of his natural life.
Silk Road: the shocking true story of the world’s most notorious online drugs market, is available as an e-book at Amazon, in paperback at Australian/NZ bookstores, or see the sidebar for more purchasing options.