Elite FBI cyber investigators bring viewers inside the takedown of the mastermind behind a website offering drugs, guns — even murders for hire were discussed — in “The FBI Declassified: The Dangerous Journey on the Silk Road” airing Tuesday, November 10 at 10/9c on CBS.
In 2013, 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI for running a website called. On the site, people from around the world could buy and sell illicit drugs, weapons, poisons, and services such as computer hacking. In Silk Road forums, users could even discuss murders-for-hire. In the three years of its existence, Silk Road racked up more than $200 million in total sales revenue, with Ulbricht taking a cut on each sale.
Ulbricht created Silk Road out of a desire to have an open marketplace where people could buy and trade anything they wanted, without government regulation. To maintain users’ and his own anonymity, Ulbricht set up Silk Road on the dark web, a part of the internet invisible to traditional search engines. Silk Road did not accept cash or credit cards; users had to pay with bitcoin, a. All transactions were encrypted and hence untraceable. Those activities put the site on the radar of multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI’s elite New York cyber team.
When Ulbricht created the website, he was dating Julia Vie. They met when she was a freshman at Penn State and he was a graduate student there in materials science and engineering. She says they fell in love fast.
“When Ross and I really started to get to know each other, it was intense,” Vie remembers. “We were always hanging out … always doing these amazing things together.”
When Ulbricht got his master’s degree and moved back to Austin, Vie left school and moved to be with him. In Austin, Ulbricht tried his hand at different jobs, including day trading and running an online bookstore. However, nothing seemed to work out. Then he and Vie each started their own businesses. She opened a photography studio called Vivian’s Muse, while Ulbricht started the Silk Road website.
“I remember when he was coming up with the idea,” recalls Vie. “He said something about … the Silk Road in Asia … and how it was a huge network … And that’s what he wanted to create, so he thought it was the perfect name.”
Vie says at first their relationship was exciting and romantic, but it later changed. Ulbricht began spending more and more time in their bedroom, on his computer “practically 24/7.” According to Vie, she wasn’t sure exactly what Ulbricht was working on.
Their day-to-day relationship was like that of any other 20-something couple: They would walk to coffee shops, do errands, cook meals. And they would argue. “I wanted to have a normal life with him, not have him sit in front of a computer on a beautiful day. I’m a young, beautiful woman in a new city. Take me out to dinner!” At one point Vie says she sneaked a glance at Ulbricht’s journal and saw that he wrote that it was a burden to take her out. Their relationship fell apart soon after Ulbricht launched Silk Road. He eventually moved to San Francisco, telling Vie he’d quit the site. She was skeptical. They started talking again about a year later and Vie went to visit Ulbricht. She was interested in rekindling the relationship and invited him to visit her back in Austin.
“I was begging him to hurry up and come to me, ’cause I just had a very bad feeling,” Vie recalls. “I kept telling him … ‘Push your trip up … Leave your computer at home. Just come to Austin’ … And he was like, ‘No, I’ve got to do some more things here and I’ll see you in a few weeks.'”
But before he had a chance to visit, Ross Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI in the fall of 2013. This followed a lengthy investigation by the FBI and other agencies, including the IRS, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security. Julia Vie believes Ulbricht knew he was a target.
“I think he knew he was going to get caught — and end up being a martyr for his cause,” she said. Ulbricht was charged with seven counts, including narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering, and a kingpin statute usually reserved for mafia dons and cartel leaders.
Vie learned about the arrest from a friend: “She just said, ‘Google Ross Ulbricht.’ And then I did and obviously found ‘Ross Ulbricht arrested,’ the whole thing, and then I just started bawling and falling on the ground … I was so upset.”
“I knew it was something shady, but … I had no idea it was as big as it was,” says Vie.
Still, she insists Ulbricht is nonviolent, kind and smart. “Book smart,” she clarifies, “not street smart. He was not at all a drug kingpin. … He never even used the money he made. … I mean, most kingpins buy furs and jewels and they’re living the life. He didn’t even have a car!”
Vie went to visit Ulbricht at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, while he was awaiting trial. “It was nice to see him,” she remembers. “He wrote to me after that he loved the woman I had become.”
But that would be their last visit. In 2015on all charges and received two life sentences plus 40 years. It is a sentence law enforcement says he deserved, but others feel is too harsh.
“I don’t think he deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life,” says Vie. “I mean, maybe take the best years of his life, at least, but leave him with the last part of his life.”
For the FBI, shutting down Silk Road represented stopping a future wave of crime involving selling illicit and potentially deadly items online. For Vie, Silk Road represented heartbreak for herself and for Ulbricht, who she felt could have had a promising future.