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Alleged ‘Silk Road’ Drug Mastermind is Penn State Graduate

If you’re like me, the most interesting piece of news to hit the national media yesterday was not Congress bickering, but the story of Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road shutdown.

For those of you not familiar (and hopefully you’re not), Silk Road was an illegal online drug bazaar that operated from February 2011 until, well, yesterday. Thousands of drug dealers across the country could peddle their goods anonymously to hundreds of thousands of buyers. It was basically the Amazon of illegal narcotics, and if it sounds illegal, that’s because it is. The business took off after this Kotaku article went viral in 2011, but the Feds could never break through the website’s sophisticated technology that allowed buyers and sellers to hide their identities.

That is, until yesterday.

Ross William Ulbricht — known by the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” — was arrested yesterday in San Francisco on allegations that he is the creator of Silk Road. He was charged with narcotics trafficking, money laundering, computer hacking, and soliciting a murder-for-hire. It’s alleged that Ulbricht tried to put a hit on a user. The criminal complaint says that Silk Road did approximately $1.2 billion in sales. The Feds say Ulbricht “controlled every aspect of the site, including the programming, maintenance, customer service and the massive profits.”

“Ulbricht has been willing to pursue violent means to maintain his control of the website and the illegal proceeds it generates for him,” court documents say.

For two years, Ulbricht was allegedly able to keep this black market operation going without a trace of his identity. That all came to an end when Ulbricht slipped up and used his real name on a Stack Overflow question for a few seconds, which generated the attention of authorities.

So why are you reading about this here? As you probably deduced from the headline, Ulbricht is a former Penn State student. According to his Linkedin profile, Ulbricht was a graduate research assistant in Penn State’s School of Materials Science and Engineering from 2006 to 2008.

His job entailed “designing and implementing project plans to seek out and verify rare properties in crystalline materials; and collaborating internationally and nationally in multiple sub-projects involving spintronics and ferroic materials.”

The profile also says he completed work for a Master’s of Science at Penn State through 2010. His Master’s thesis — titled Growth of EuO Thin Films by Molecular Beam Epitaxy — was published in 2009 and is available on Penn State’s server. According to Forbes, Ulbricht did earn a Master’s Degree in Materials Science and Engineering from Penn State.

Further, Collegian reports from the time seem to indicate that Ulbricht was fairly involved during his time at Penn State. He was described as a “debater for the College Libertarians,” a wannabe Ron Paul delegate, and a drummer for the NOMMO Performing Arts Company.

With Ulbricht leaving Penn State in 2010 and Silk Road popping up in 2011, it’s quite likely the idea was conceived in some form while Ulbricht was still in State College.

In any case, it looks like Ulbricht will be missing Homecoming this year.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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