The crazy tale behind Silk Road’s missing bitcoin

Posted: November 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

News today is reporting that bitcoin worth just shy of $1 billion, believed belonging to Silk Road and dormant since Ross Ulbricht’s arrest in 2013, has just moved address.

(As an aside, the transaction cost $12 in fees)

Several years ago, while researching The Darkest Web, I had reason to visit Roger Thomas Clark, aka “Variety Jones”, mentor and adviser to Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht, in a Bangkok prison. Variety Jones, also known as “Mongoose”, had spun an incredible tale about Silk Road’s missing Bitcoin.

The pic the prison guard took with my phone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below is an extract from The Darkest Web about his story.


Closing in on the puppet-master

Among the identification documents of Silk Road staff found on Ross Ulbricht’s computer was a passport supplied by Variety Jones. Nevertheless, he had somehow avoided arrest during the December 2013 swoop that nabbed Inigo, Libertas and SSBD. Strangely, VJ’s ID had been added only a few weeks before Ulbricht’s arrest, even though he had been mentoring Silk Road’s owner from the beginning. It seemed out of character and particularly incongruous for somebody whose main contribution to Silk Road was identifying security flaws and advising on opsec.

Media speculation about the mysterious Machiavellian puppet-
master was keen, but there appeared little action on the part of law enforcement. They had an ID, according to the court transcripts, although the name had not been made public, and a reference from Variety Jones in one of the chat logs that tied him to the moniker Plural of Mongoose. In a 28 June 2012 chat between Ulbricht and VJ, he said, ‘I was, and am, Plural of Mongoose. Folks who know and love me, it’s Mongoose.’

When discussing whether it would be easy for either of the Silk Road masterminds to de-anonymise the other, in the period before VJ had supplied his ID, Variety Jones threw out a broad hint. ‘You know—I post up, and give you shitloads of info that could if you tried just a bit (fuck, Plural of Mongoose alone should do it!) that you could determine exactly who I am,’ he wrote. ‘I did that to make you feel comfortable.’

‘I know,’ responded DPR.

‘If you can’t find me in 10 days, you’ve not read my shit.’

Both pieces fit directly with what the mysterious ‘Alan’ had written to me, and LaMoustache did not disappoint with his usual intensive research efforts. On 26 February, a couple of weeks after the trial concluded, LaMoustache posted a detailed analysis on his website which joined all the pieces and definitively identified Variety Jones as being Roger Thomas Clark, previously known as Plural of Mongoose, no stranger to the UK prison system and currently residing in Koh Chang, Thailand.

Clark had a long history in the online drug trade that significantly pre-dated Silk Road. Although Silk Road was unprecedented in its design and scope, it was far from the first online drugs market. Long before an accessible dark web, people were buying and selling drugs through chat rooms and Usenet forums, using code words and arranging clandestine meetings to exchange goods for cash.

The millennial generation likes to believe they led the way in online black markets, but there were many people involved in online drug sales while they were still in primary school. There were sites on the clear web that skirted legalities by positioning themselves as informational sites, which did not blatantly make drug sales, but brought like-minded folk together. One in particular, overgrow.com, was the mecca of cannabis-growing websites, the brainchild of a group of cannabis activists who had previously interacted on discussion forums. It was home to a massive collection of articles, pictures and information on cannabis cultivation, with in-depth FAQs about nearly every cannabis strain.

‘Overgrow was the meeting place of an outlawed society, bringing the wisdom of expert growers to novices, and the politics of cannabis activists to recreational users, all in an online world of information and photo galleries,’ wrote journalist Chris Bennett in an exposé in High Times in 2006.

As commercial interests became involved, the Overgrow community became increasingly dysfunctional and split when there was a disagreement over who in the ‘seed biz’ had the legitimate right to run the site. More dysfunctional than any was a character who went by the name Plural of Mongoose, the man Bennett dubbed ‘the Megabyte Megalomaniac’.

Plural of Mongoose—or PoM, or simply Mongoose—delighted in causing havoc. When two key individuals of the UK seed biz, Richard Baghdadlian and Marc Emery, were busted by Canadian authorities, Mongoose took it upon himself to publish a series of posts detailing the busts from inside the circle of those involved. He hurled wild accusations at a number of vendors, breeders and other members of Overgrow, and accused Baghdadlian of working with authorities.

In April 2007 Mongoose got into a dispute with another supplier and former business partner, Gypsy Nirvana. The convoluted mess of accusations and counter-accusations, shady business dealings and sexual infidelities wound up in court, where Mongoose’s identity was revealed to be Thomas Clark, a Canadian living in Surrey in the UK.

All of this played out on the internet forums that Mongoose and Gypsy frequented. During one tirade, Mongoose mentioned visiting a good friend in England called Variety Jones. He clearly held Variety Jones in high regard, saying: ‘I met VJ when I was just a pup, and he had always been my counsel. If I started getting too big for my britches, I could always count on him to take me to task. There is nothing
I knew that I didn’t share with him, and he was a sounding board
and confidante like no other.’

Mongoose spent some time in prison before returning to the seed biz, but lay low until a new forum emerged, where he could once again get in behind the scenes and manipulate those involved. He assumed the name of his former mentor Variety Jones and took to playing a similar role to the young Dread Pirate Roberts.

On 21 April 2015, the US government filed a sealed complaint against Roger Thomas Clark aka ‘Variety Jones’ aka ‘VJ’ aka ‘Plural of Mongoose’, who they said ‘served as a trusted advisor of Ulbricht’. The complaint sought to charge Clark with conspiracy to traffic narcotics and conspiracy to commit money laundering in relation to activities on Silk Road. VJ, the complaint alleged, was a senior adviser to Dread Pirate Roberts, the owner and operator of online illicit black market Silk Road. Clark was alleged to have been a close confidant of Ulbricht’s who advised him on all aspects of Silk Road’s operations and helped him grow the site into an extensive criminal enterprise.

Variety Jones was more of a counsellor or consultant than staff. There were several large payments to him on the Silk Road spreadsheets, but these tended to coincide with payments for specific events.

A couple of weeks later, on 4 May, the US Embassy in Thailand requested the provisional arrest for the purpose of extradition of Roger Thomas Clark from Koh Chang Island, Thailand.

On 29 May 2015, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two life terms in prison, without possibility of parole. Variety Jones had promised him, if it ever came to this, he would do whatever was necessary to break him out. People began to muse whether he would really come roaring in with a helicopter to save his young genius boss.

Mongoose on a virtual rampage

He may have taken a back seat on Silk Road, content to let Dread Pirate Roberts and the customer service representatives be the public face of the website, but it was not in Mongoose’s nature to shrink into the background.

On 11 September 2015, Motherboard—a VICE Media subsidiary dedicated to tech news—published an article entitled, ‘These are the two forgotten architects of Silk Road: Digging through the email account of Variety Jones’, which took LaMoustache’s research, independently verified it via the controversial path of acquiring access to Clark’s private emails with the assistance of a hacker, and published the findings. The second ‘architect’ identified by Motherboard was Mike Wattier, who was Silk Road’s prime coder, ‘Smed’.

Once his name hit the mainstream media, and he realised that the American authorities were serious about bringing him in on myriad drug running, money laundering and hacking charges, Mongoose decided to go public. Roger Thomas Clark was indeed living in Thailand, enjoying the good life. He was invited to most of the parties of the ex-pats because he always had the very best weed. He was socially awkward and somewhat annoying, according to one local source, and it was only the steady supply of quality drugs that kept getting him invited back.

‘So I’ve got this trip planned, to the Big Apple,’ he wrote on
20 September 2015 on seed-growing forum MyPlanetGanja (MPG), reviving an account that had not posted in six years. ‘There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there,’ he wrote. ‘My first instinct is to try and correct all of it, which is why me second instinct is pretty much always to beat my first instinct into fucking submission, and warn it if it ever raises its mangy fucking head again, it had better be prepared to be thoroughly chastised, perhaps even taunted.’

As Mongoose would tell it, when he heard about the warrant for his arrest, he took himself down to a bar near the local police station, a place ‘where the locals go to interact with the local police’. He asked an officer whether they were looking for him. ‘No, we’re not, but immigration is,’ the officer responded. The two proceeded to have a drink. ‘He made a phone call,’ Mongoose claimed, ‘and about 15 minutes later a pickup truck with a couple of immigration police showed up, they sat down and we ordered a bottle of Sangsom Thai whiskey, and
a bucket of ice. This was a serious conversation we were having,
and called for serious drink.’

The immigration officer confirmed that there was a warrant for Mongoose’s arrest, with a corresponding reward of 20,000 Thai baht, approximately $700.

‘I left a bundle of 50,000 THB on the table to cover the tab, said good-bye to the smiling officials divvying up the loot, and headed home,’ Mongoose said.

He had a way with words and a way of drawing out a tale, feeding off the responses and encouragement of others. ‘I didn’t architect anything, I was too busy being in Wandsworth fucking prison,’ he said in response to the media reports that called Variety Jones the hidden architect of Silk Road. He claimed he could not possibly be Variety Jones, because he was incarcerated during much of the requisite time. ‘Folks . . . get a skewed view of an alternate reality. The altered reality said nope, Mongoose was never in prison, it was all a ruse while he was in reality Architecting away at you know which project.’

It wasn’t long until Mongoose’s story took an even more unbelievable twist. He said that somebody contacted him; somebody who mattered a lot in the Silk Road investigation. That somebody had been feeding information to the owner of Silk Road in the time leading up to Ulbricht’s arrest. ‘It started out with things like Atlantis. He had, for a princely sum, kept the management of Atlantis updated with documents that eventually led to them shutting the site down, fearing the feds nipping at their heels,’ Mongoose said.

Atlantis was a rival to Silk Road that had tried its best to gain market share but had never been successful in luring away customers from the incumbent giant. They had accusations of being a honeypot (i.e. a law enforcement sting), scammers and scum thrown at them as they tried to build their business. In the end, they shut down, still scorned. What came out at Ulbricht’s trial, however, was that they had tried to warn Dread Pirate Roberts of an FBI investigation. He, apparently, had ignored them.

In Mongoose’s story, this crooked FBI agent had come into possession of a Bitcoin wallet, with 300,000 Bitcoin in it (worth at the time of the tale some $75 million), which he had liberated from Silk Road, and which nobody else knew existed. Unfortunately, he did not have the passphrase to unlock the Bitcoin within. He did, however, have a plan.

‘He was going to patiently wait for Ross to be convicted, and after he was convicted, he would eventually be transferred to a permanent home in a federal prison,’ Mongoose wrote. ‘Now, this is where I come in. He figured, for whatever far-flung reason, that I could convince Ross to cough up the pass-phrase he needed. He also had a second theory, and that was that Ross only had half the pass-phrase, and I had the other half. Either way, I am critical to his plan.’

Mongoose’s tale rambled on for thousands of words, claiming that the mysterious contact provided him with the news of corrupt agents Force and Bridges long before it hit the media. The corrupt officer, he
claimed, fed him many such pieces of information. ‘And one day,
he did something weird. I mean weird, even for him. He signed off
one of his rants with: –cwt.’

This seemed to be a less-than-subtle attempt by Mongoose to imply that the corrupt cop was Christopher W Tarbell, the FBI special agent who headed the task force that brought down Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht. Mongoose claimed that, when pressed, the agent said cwt stood for ‘carat’ because one of his code names was Diamond. It was Diamond, Mongoose said, who alerted him to the sealed ­indictment and had arranged for his arrest by the Thai authorities. When Mongoose slipped out of the arrest, the story took a sinister, even hysterical turn.

‘Well, you’d think I kicked his puppy! He went fucking mental, and started going on about his backup plan. He would kidnap Ross Ulbricht’s sister, or mother, or ideally both. Get a video capable phone in front of Ross Ulbricht, and he’d give up that fucking passphrase, and Diamond would have them tortured until he did. I had his bonafides by now, and knew him well enough to know he was serious about this. Come Christmas, if I wasn’t well in position exactly where he wanted me to be, I’d be responsible for the results.

‘In this case, biting the bullet was turning myself in, because writing an anonymous postcard wasn’t going to cut it. If I was to keep him from kidnapping those two women, which he’d do if I didn’t turn myself over to him, I was going to have to turn myself over to the DOJ folks, so they could take the appropriate action to protect those people, and maybe even figure out just who this sick fuck was, and stop him.

‘Easiest thing in the world, turning yourself in, you’d think.

‘You’d also be wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.’

In his attempt to turn himself in, Mongoose claimed he had written to Assistant US Attorney Serrin Turner on 9 May 2015, having become aware of the sealed indictment against him. ‘The contents of the email informed Mr. Turner that secret grand jury information, and the existence of a sealed indictment had been passed on to me by Diamond. I also touched on the fact that I was aware the authorities in SE Asia had been requested to detain me for extradition.’

He told Mr Turner he would cooperate and turn himself in.
Mr Turner never responded. So Mongoose doubled down on his efforts to figure out who Diamond might be. He was getting worried now. ‘It wasn’t until he started obsessing on the kidnappings, that I realized I had a fucking lunatic on my hands. A lunatic highly placed in the FBI, with a massive off the books private budget, who thought that kidnapping and torture were the solution to his problems,’ he said. ‘I gave myself four months to see if I could uncover him. If not, I’d have to come up with something else. I spend the next four months, sixteen hours a day, trying to track that fucker down.’

Mongoose wrote a follow-up email to Serrin Turner, again telling his tale of the mysterious and dangerous Diamond. ‘I intend to uncover the identity of Diamond,’ he concluded in the letter. ‘I have a pretty good idea how to go about that, and if you and/or your office are unable or unwilling to assist, perhaps you could pass my information on to someone who can.’

As Mongoose brought his astonishing tale to an end, he finished by addressing the question everyone wanted answered. His ID was in the same folder as that of Inigo, Libertas and SSBD. Thus the FBI presumably had his information at the same time. So why wasn’t he arrested back then?

‘The answer is simple: the folks who should have been trying to put me in jail, didn’t want me in jail.’

What to believe?

It didn’t take long before people started poking holes in Mongoose’s story. Small details didn’t match up to other reports. Many people on the forum had been around during the first great dramas created by Mongoose all those years ago, which had spilled over into real-life violence and arrests. The claims that a highly placed government agent had threatened to kidnap and torture family members of Dread Pirate Roberts bordered on the absurd.

Mongoose claimed that by his calculations, there were over 400,000 Bitcoins from Silk Road unaccounted for, which was a claim backed up by some who put the research into Silk Road. However, Mongoose was possibly simply seizing on reports that the FBI was unsuccessfully struggling to seize a further 600,000 Bitcoins belonging to DPR.

There was no denying that Mongoose was publicly outing himself as the person the authorities had indicted as being Variety Jones. He continued to post on the MPG forum, taunting the authorities and practically begging them to arrest him. He stuck to his story that there was a third, unidentified, rogue agent called Diamond who had stolen Bitcoin and provided intelligence to a number of darknet markets (not just Silk Road). He was sure the authorities were deliberately ignoring the matter, hoping it would go away.

‘Only 2 agents *ever* succumbed to temptation, therefore “Diamond” cannot possibly exist. (Insert “LA-LA-LA-LA I can’t hear you,” here),’ he wrote, imitating law enforcement’s response—or lack thereof—to his wild accusations. ‘So, if all the TLAs [three-­letter agencies] pretend Diamond doesn’t exist, the problem will just go away, right? And they’re doing a damned fine job of pretending that either A) Diamond didn’t *really* break any laws, or B) Diamond isn’t a federal agent, and none of our concern. Also, that Clark guy bothering us to turn himself in, he’ll likely just give up and stop bugging us any day now. Let’s just wait him out, shall we.’

Indeed, it seemed as if they were waiting it out. Mongoose continued posting, not hiding where he was writing from, and musing as to why he was not being arrested. Separating fact from fiction in his stories was always difficult and he knew this and was happy to lead people on a merry chase. His taunting of the authorities became increasingly blatant:

‘My name is Roger Thomas Clark, I can be reached by email at zybose@safe-mail.net, and I wish to make arrangements to safely travel to the United States and turn myself in to be served with any indictments that may be pending. If I have been mis-informed, and there aren’t any sealed indictments waiting for me, well great! Drop me an email and let me know, either way.

‘I really cannot be much clearer and [more] direct than that.’

He liked to play with journalists, too. He contacted Joseph Cox, the author of the Motherboard article, and told him to fly to Thailand, where he would gain an exclusive interview with the man alleged to be Variety Jones. Cox would have to give up his communication devices and allow minders to whisk him between Southeast Asian countries until finally, ‘A helicopter will take you to the airport at your final destination. A limo will take you from there to my hotel, and we’ll play the rest of it by ear.’

‘It was elaborate, it was hard to believe, but as a journalist there was the possibility there was some truth to it,’ Cox said of the plan that took shape over two months of private messages. But it seemed life on the run was taking its toll on Mongoose. ‘Towards the end when we moved to encrypted chat, he sounded exhausted, less of the jokes, less whimsical.’

It did seem all part of an elaborate hoax; as Cox was packing his bags for the trip, he received a message: ‘DO NOT GET ON THE PLANE.’ Mongoose told him that one of the minders had been arrested. ‘Not driving down the road and pulled over arrested, but two truckloads of army pulled up to his house type arrested.’

I also contacted Mongoose via private message and he was happy to chat, though he never invited me on his helicopter. He claimed not to have yet read my book on Silk Road, but knew who I was. ‘Everyone seems to think yer pretty swell, and actual author and not a click-bait factory drone,’ he told me. ‘High words of praise, indeed, from some of the people who have dealt with you.’

‘Are you still in Thailand?’ I asked one day. ‘If, just say, I was going to Thailand to get some nice cushion covers made up by the super-
tailors, would you meet me for a beverage and a chat?’

Mongoose never responded to that message. On 3 December 2015, two years after the arrests of the three Silk Road administrators, Roger Thomas Clark, a 54-year-old Canadian, was arrested through a joint operation of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and local Thai police.

Extracted from The Darkest Web, published by Allen & Unwin 2018

Moving billions in Bitcoin? Always smart to use a VPN. I use IPVanish

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