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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A Utah man who once was persuaded by federal agents to undergo fake torture — and even his own fake death — is finally telling his amazing story.
It’s a made-for-the-movies drama of how he became entangled with a notorious website called Silk Road run by a mysterious figure who called himself “Dread Pirate Roberts.”
“I feel terrible,” said Utah County resident Curtis Green. “There’s terrible guilt. I really wish I hadn’t gone to the Silk Road.”
Once called “the Amazon of illegal drugs,” Silk Road was among the first and certainly the best-known of the so-called darknet drug-dealing sites. Green’s personal involvement led to a nightmarish set of events that is so bizarre and dramatic that he was able to sell his movie rights years ago.
In fact, the Silk Road saga has already been turned into a screenplay by the movie-making Coen Brothers.
Green’s exclusive movie contract silenced him for years, but he’s free to talk now in conjunction with the publication of his new book, “Silk Road Takedown.” In a blurb on the back cover, the book is billed as the story of a “Mormon grandfather,” in this case a grandfather who stumbled down an electronic pathway into a criminal empire that was all but invisible to most people.
Green is not proud of what happened.
“The embarrassment that I brought to my family,” Green said in an interview. “It was a terrible ordeal that I don’t wish upon anybody.”
His involvement began in 2011 as an off-shoot of his interest in a new digital currency called bitcoin. With sophisticated computer gear in his Utah County home, Green began generating bitcoins through a process called “bitcoin mining.” That eventually led him to Silk Road, a website that was something like Amazon.com except that buyers and sellers could remain anonymous and use supposedly untraceable bitcoins instead of money.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Green said recently.
Some items offered for sale on Silk Road were legal, some were definitely not. It became a perfect business address in the so-called darknet for drug dealers.
“The things that were illegal on the site were actually a minority,” Green said. But some Silk Road customers were not only buying and selling illegal drugs and weapons, some were even offering themselves as “hit men” willing to kill for bitcoins.
Green claims he started innocently in Silk Road chat forums, helping with technical and drug-related medical questions. Later, because of his computer expertise, he was actually hired as a salaried Silk Road administrator. He managed password accounts for customers, even some who were buying and selling drugs.
“The way I rationalized it is that I wasn’t dealing in that,” Green said. “I wasn’t selling or receiving those items.”
The anonymous founder of Silk Road — later revealed to be Texas college grad Ross Ulbricht — called himself Dread Pirate Roberts or D.P.R. after a character in the movie “The Princess Bride.” He was pocketing millions of dollars while portraying Silk Road as a model of libertarian ideals.
Green knew his boss only by exchanging texts with him on the computer. “The D.P.R. that I knew was a benevolent, intelligent, smart human being,” Green said.
When publicity about Silk Road generated heat in Congress, several federal agencies launched investigations, trying to figure out who Dread Pirate Roberts actually was. In January of 2013, the investigation landed almost literally on Green’s doorstep.
It happened because Dread Pirate Roberts fell into a trap set by a federal undercover agent posing as a drug dealer on Silk Road. After D.P.R. revealed Green’s address in Utah County to the undercover agent, investigators arranged to deliver a kilo of cocaine to Green’s house. Green claims he was not knowingly involved in a drug transaction and never knew the cocaine was coming. But he took the package inside his house.
“Well as I opened it, it plumed out,” dusting his face with cocaine, Green said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what the heck is this?’ and literally within three seconds I heard banging and whatnot.”
The banging was the SWAT team breaking through his front door. Green was arrested and briefly held in the Utah County Jail. During the investigation, he said he told federal agents everything he knew about Silk Road and gave them all of his usernames and passwords. A few days later, someone using those passwords logged into Silk Road and stole bitcoins from buyers and sellers.
“Roughly a half million dollars in bitcoins,”Green said. “Using my credentials. And so it made it, he physically made it look like I did it.”
Dread Pirate Roberts was angry about the theft. He sent word to the undercover federal agent that he wanted Green “beat up” for stealing. So the federal agents played along. At the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek hotel, federal agents faked Green’s torture and took photos for Dread Pirate Roberts.
“They decided to waterboard me, fake waterboarding, ” Green recalled. “Dunk me in the water and kind of look like I was beat up. And it was very realistic. It was a little too realistic.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. Dread Pirate Roberts apparently wasn’t satisfied, according to the agents.
“The next day they said, ‘Oh, by the way, the order changed from 'beat up' to 'kill.'”
The agents told Green and his wife to fake a death picture. They did it in their own home, producing a photo that shows a seemingly lifeless Green lying on the floor with what appeared to be vomit on his face. Green and his wife simulated the effect by splattering his face with Campbell’s soup.
After the agents sent the gruesome photo to Dread Pirate Roberts, they told Green to stay hidden in his home while the investigation continued. He did so for nearly a year, he said, “having to crawl on my knees from my bedroom to the kitchen so nobody would spot me. I was supposed to be dead.”
Eventually, the feds tracked down Dread Pirate Roberts — Ross Ulbricht — and spotted him using his laptop computer at a public library in San Francisco. The situation led to another movie-worthy twist.
The agents feared that if Ulbricht closed his laptop during the arrest, it would encrypt all of his data forever behind unbreakable passwords. So they improvised a novel plan of action for the arrest.
Undercover agents in the library staged a fight behind Ulbricht’s back to distract him. When he looked away from his laptop, another undercover agent snatched it away, with a connection still open to the Silk Road website.
Ulbricht is now serving two life sentences plus 40 years.
And the truth finally came out.
Additional investigation revealed that two federal agents had themselves been corrupted by the lure of bitcoins. The two agents were the ones who had used Green’s credentials to rip off Silk Road.
“Two people that are deceitful criminals,” Green said, “and here they were part of the government.”
Carl Force, an agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and Shaun Bridges of the U.S. Secret Service are now serving several years in prison.
Green himself pleaded guilty to knowingly receiving the package of cocaine as part of a drug deal. But he claims it wasn’t true and that he actually didn’t know the cocaine was coming; he said he pleaded guilty only because he wanted to bring his nightmare to an end.
Federal officials went easy on him in the end. Green was allowed to go free without a prison sentence because he cooperated with the investigation and because he was the victim of two rogue federal agents who horribly mistreated him.
“The bad agents were my get-out-of-jail card, to be honest,” Green said. “They put me through a year’s worth of — ‘hell’ is not even a term befitting what they did.”
For Green, his wife and the grandchild they’re raising, life goes on after an all-too-close brush with death, on a back alley, off the information highway.
“I can’t go back and change it,” he said. “You know, if I could I would. All I can do is apologize, make sure I don’t make the same mistakes twice, and move forward.”