DEA Special Agent Carl Force wanted his money—real cash, not just numbers on a screen—and he wanted it fast.
It was October 2013, and Force had spent the past couple of years working on a Baltimore-based task force investigating the darknet’s biggest drug site, Silk Road. During that time, he’d also carefully cultivated several lucrative side projects all connected to Bitcoin, the digital currency Force was convinced would make him rich.
One of those schemes had been ripping off the man who ran Silk Road, “Dread Pirate Roberts.” That plan was now falling apart. As it turns out, the largest online drug market in history had been run by a 29-year-old named Ross Ulbricht, who wasn’t as safe behind his screen as he imagined he was. Ulbricht had been arrested earlier that month in the San Francisco Public Library by federal agents who had their guns drawn.
Now government prosecutors were sifting through a mountain of evidence, and Force could only guess at how big it was. The FBI got around the encryption of Ulbricht’s Samsung Z700 laptop with a street-level tactic: two agents distracted him while a third grabbed the open laptop out of his hands as Ulbricht was working. The kingpin had literally been caught red-handed, tapping commands to his Silk Road subordinates up until the moment he was cuffed.
Force had been treating Ulbricht like his personal Bitcoin ATM for several months by this point, attempting to extort DPR one day and wrangling Bitcoin bribes for fake information the next. Force didn’t want to be holding those bitcoins anymore. He opened an account with Bitstamp, a Slovenia-based Bitcoin exchange where he thought he’d be able to turn coins into cash quickly and …