His arrest culminated a two-year-investigation that painstakingly followed a small trail of computer crumbs Ulbricht carelessly left for the FBI to find, according to court documents.
Ulbricht first came to the attention of federal agents in 2011 when they figured out he was “altoid,” someone who they say was marketing Silk Road on other drug-related websites the FBI was watching. In October 2011, “altoid” posted an advertisement for a computer expert with experience in Bitcoin, an electronic currency, and gave an email address.
From there, investigators began to monitor Ulbricht’s online behavior closely, according to the court records. Investigators said Ulbricht was living within 500 feet of a San Francisco Internet cafe on June 3, 2013, when someone “logged into a server used to administer the Silk Road website.”
Court documents show investigators slowly connected Ulbricht to Silk Road by monitoring his email and picking up on some slipups, including using his real name to ask a programmers’ website a highly technical question about connecting to secret sites like Silk Road.
His final mistake, according to the court papers, was ordering fake identification documents from a Silk Road vendor from Canada. One of the nine documents was a California driver’s license with Ulbricht’s photograph, birthdate but a different name. The package was intercepted at the border during a routine U.S. Customs search.
On July 26, Homeland Security investigators visited Ulbricht at his San Francisco residence. He “generally refused to answer questions,” the agents said.
The investigators left that day without arresting Ulbricht, who holds a bachelor’s of science degree in physics from the University of Texas at Dallas and a master’s degree from Penn State University.
They returned Tuesday and arrested him at the library. He faces the prospect of life in prison if convicted of all the charges.