Lawyers for Ross Ulbricht, the man convicted in February of running the dark web site Silk Road under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, hope that newly unsealed criminal charges against two allegedly corrupt federal agents who investigated the online drug emporium will provide key evidence to bolster his legal appeal.
A criminal complaint filed last week in the Northern District of California and revealed on Monday details the alleged misdeeds of former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Carl Force and former Secret Service computer forensics investigator Shaun Bridges. They were senior members of a multi-agency team based in Baltimore, Maryland, that was investigating Ulbricht's involvement in the Tor-encrypted racket — a $1.2 billion black market bazaar that was often described as the Amazon of illegal drugs. Both resigned from their positions after they themselves were placed under investigation.
The agents allegedly used their knowledge of the website's operations and their connection to the investigation to each steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin. Authorities traced some $776,000 in illicit bitcoin transactions to Force's bank accounts, while Bridges was found to have transferred more than $820,000 in bitcoin.
Both were charged with wire fraud and money laundering, while Force was also slapped with theft of government property and conflict of interest owing to his improper collaboration with a digital currency exchange company.
Ulbricht, who was arrested in October 2013 following a near two-year investigation, was found guilty last month of multiple charges, including conspiracy to distribute drugs, money laundering, and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. The 30-year-old faces life in prison, and his sentencing is scheduled for May 15.
Though federal authorities have insisted that Ulbricht's trial and conviction in New York centered on a Manhattan-based investigation that was independent of the one in Baltimore, Ulbricht's lawyers argue that the latter undoubtedly had an impact on proceedings that led to his conviction.
"The Baltimore investigation and agents were inextricably involved in the evolution of the case and the evidence," Joshua Dratel, one of Ulbricht's attorneys, said in a statement, noting that federal prosecutors suppressed key information related to the misconduct of the two agents. "At Mr. Ulbricht's trial, knowing full well the corruption alleged in the Complaint made public today, the government still aggressively precluded much of that evidence, and kept it from the jury."
Dratel went on to say that the government withheld crucial information related to the investigation of the agents through a secret grand jury process in San Francisco, and argued that his client was deprived of a fair trial.
"The government's considerable efforts at keeping this monumental scandal from being aired at Ross Ulbricht's trial is itself scandalous," he said. "Throughout Mr. Ulbricht's trial the government repeatedly used the secret nature of the grand jury investigation as an excuse to preclude valuable defense evidence that was not only produced in discovery, independent of the investigation of Mr. Force, but also which was only at best tenuously related to that investigation."
"In that manner the government deprived the jury of essential facts, and Mr. Ulbricht of due process," Dratel added.
During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Ulbricht attempted to hire a contract killer to murder a Silk Road user he believed was trying extort him. Five murder-for-hire charges against Ulbricht have been filed and are currently pending in a Baltimore court.
There was no proof that anyone was actually killed or hurt as a result of the alleged hit attempts, but the New York district judge allowed evidence related to the crimes to be introduced after the prosecution framed it at the trial as proof that Ulbricht ran the site.
In one of those alleged attempted assassination attempts, Ulbricht contracted Force, a 15-year DEA veteran who was operating under his government-sanctioned pseudonym, "Nob," to commission the murder of a vendor he suspected of stealing from Silk Road.
But while Force was conducting the investigation as Nob, the complaint against him states, he was also allegedly running a parallel scam under the aliases "French maid" and "Death from Above," which he used to steal bitcoin sent to him as part of the ongoing investigation on Ulbricht.
Force then converted the fluctuating cryptocurrency — which currently trades at approximately $245 to one bitcoin — and deposited the funds into personal accounts "rather than turning those bitcoin over to the government," the complaint states.
Ulbricht surprised the public early in his trial by admitting to founding Silk Road, but his lawyers said that he was ultimately set up as the fall guy for the real Dread Pirate Roberts who had continued to operate the site.
The attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on March 6 based on claims that the government failed to provide key exculpatory evidence in a timely manner, and restated allegations that the government violated Ulbricht's privacy by illegally hacking into Silk Road's server and essentially performing a search without a warrant. The evidence against the federal agents was kept from the defense until just five weeks before the trial
"It is clear from this Complaint that fundamentally the government's investigation of Mr. Ulbricht lacked any integrity, and was wholly and fatally compromised from the inside," Dratel said. "Also, it is clear that Mr. Force and others within the government obtained access to the administrative platforms of the Silk Road site, where they were able to commandeer accounts and had the capacity to change PIN numbers and other aspects of the site — all without the government's knowledge of what precisely they did with that access."
Now that the charges have been made public, Ulbricht's lawyers expect to highlight the new evidence in an appeal.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields