Law enforcement officials in the US, UK and Sweden have swooped on eight people suspected of selling illegal drugs on Silk Road.
The arrests have netted popular sellers, including 40-year-old Steven Lloyd Sadler of Bellevue, Washington and his roommate Jenna White. Police allege that Sadler was a top seller who went by the name of “Nod,” and that he dealt cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to hundreds of buyers. White, is alleged to be his accomplice. Two men, who have not been named, were arrested in Sweden for allegedly dealing cannabis. Finally, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) announced the arrests of four (names withheld) for drug-related offenses – bringing the total to eight. The NCA also suggested that further arrests were forthcoming, with NCA director Keith Bristow issuing an ominous warning over the BBC:
These arrests send a clear message to criminals; the hidden Internet isn’t hidden and your anonymous activity isn’t anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you. It is impossible for criminals to completely erase their digital footprint. No matter how technology-savvy the offender, they will always make mistakes.
At present, former sellers and buyers alike have been taking to social media to discuss their apprehension. To them I say this: if you were just a buyer and did not purchase significant weight, then you can most likely sleep easy. The FBI, NCA and the like are not concerned with charging people for drug use, it is not worth the time, money or effort. If you were selling, especially if you sold a lot and sold internationally, then you have every reason to be concerned. At this stage it is not clear how the UK and Swedish sellers were identified – but Cryptome has published a copy of the complaint against Sadler and White.
From an investigative standpoint, investigators really couldn’t ask for more. In capturing the servers, they not only netted sellers, but detailed lists of what they were selling, how much they were selling it for, the amounts that were sold and the names and addresses of their customers. To obtain such evidence in a typical drug arrest would involve a protracted investigation and many, many man-hours of surveillance. Here, there will be records for each and every transaction. As such, sellers who were involved in distributing large amounts of illegal drugs should be very concerned – because charges are affected by the amount that was sold.
A Meat-world Hypothetical
Robert (not a real person) is a teenage pot dealer. He manages to sell 2 ounces of pot a week, allowing him to smoke for free and have enough money left over to not need a part time job. He buys only as much as he can use and sell, and re-ups once a week. He is not a Tony Montana by any stretch of the imagination, but chances are he will screw up somewhere along the way and get arrested. The charges leveled at Robert would depend on when in the week he is arrested. If he is caught at the start of the week, he will be in possession of a greater amount of pot and could find himself in a good deal more trouble. If he is arrested later in the week, he would have very little – he might even be let off with a warning – in spite of the fact that he has sold the same amount of pot week in, week out for the past two years.
A Silk Road Hypothetical
The same Robert (not a real person), this time a little bit more tech-savvy, manages to sell 2 ounces of pot per week… from the comfort of his computer room. He managed this feat week in, week out for two years without incident – until the Silk Road bust. Robert might not have financially enriched himself to any great extent, but he is in serious, serious trouble. An investigation of his seller account would reveal that Robert has in fact sold no less than 108 ounces of pot – a touch over three kilograms. Also, some of Robert’s customers were from different states and he sent a couple of packages overseas. Robert is facing some serious jail time.
Theory in Practice
Let us go back to Sadler, who the police allege was a seller called Nod. The FBI, or whoever arrested him, has a couple of choices. They can charge him the old fashioned way: with charges tempered by the weight of the substances that he had in his home when he was arrested – or they could crawl through all of the transaction records on Silk Road and charge him with all of his completed sales. His charges could be enhanced by sales that were made over state lines and those that were made internationally. Sadler is in a lot of trouble.
Indeed, page 15 of the complaint against Sadler includes a tally of the drugs that he is suspected of having sold: 2629.5 grams of cocaine, 593 grams of heroin and 105 grams of methamphetamine. What is interesting about the Sadler investigation is that the complaint suggests that, once again, it was the result of old fashioned investigative work. Packages were weeded out of the post by drug-sniffing dogs and were searched. Interestingly, one of the packages that was allegedly sent by Sadler and which was indicated by a dog, only contained money. The ICE agent who filed the complaint against Sadler tracked the packages to the sender through some clever detective work – not through anything that came out of the ongoing Silk Road investigation. When the agent was convinced that Sadler was his/her man, he conducted a controlled purchase from the Silk Road account of a confidential informant (presumably a receiver of one of the packages) and watched as Sadler and/or White dropped the package off at a post office.
While authorities were certainly bothered by massive scale of the Silk Road, and while it did represent an ambitious criminal endeavor, there are always bigger fish to fry. While Silk Road no doubt succeeded in attracting a lot of people to TOR, the site had a lot of sellers competing for its ~100,000 customers. Individual sellers were no doubt able to make a lot of money, but the customer-base amounts to little more than a drop in the drug buying bucket – and mid-level dealers are not as sexy as kingpins. Moreover, many of the sellers on the Silk Road would not fit the conventional criminal mold. For a good number of them, this would be their first criminal offense.
The people tasked with investigating these crimes are sensitive to all of those points. While they might be motivated to go after a few of the bigger operators on the Road, the mid-level guys and girls who were only playing at being gangster would serve them much better as informants who can help them get to the people who are further up the supply line. Even Sadler, one of the bigger operators on the Silk Road is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because most of the transactions on Silk Road involved relatively small amounts of product. The agencies involved will be seeking to make examples of people, but at the same time, they will be cognizant of the bigger picture. While the sellers obviously have criminal connections, how many of them have the kind of affiliations that will help them to survive in prison? Case-in-point: check out Steven Sadler in the image above. When the reality of the situation sinks in, how many of them will cooperate?
There is, as of yet, no word on why only two Americans were arrested – but you can probably expect more after the shutdown. The small number of sellers suggests to this author that the investigations that netted them were probably in place before Silk Road was sunk. With Ulbricht’s arrest, the timing was right to bring things to an end. The final thing that this should highlight is that while technology brings certain advantages to the illegal drug trade, it brings significant risks for all concerned – and not just from the data on the servers. The biggest risk for those involved, in this authors opinion, is from enthusiastic amateurs trying to hit the big time – who have a lot less to lose in cooperating with authorities than the men and women who do this sort of thing in the meat world. There are certainly a lot more Silk Road arrests to come in the not too distant future, but make no mistake about it, the biggest repercussions are likely to be felt by the people who supplied the sellers.