Silk Road, the popular online marketplace connecting drug dealers with customers since 2011, was taken offline by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after its alleged operator, Ross William Ulbricht, 29, was arrested by FBI agents in San Francisco Tuesday.
The FBI won't say if the bazaar takedown will lead to a bonanza of charges for the more than 100,000 people the bureau says purchased drugs using Silk Road.
FBI spokesperson Kelly Langmesser declined to comment on whether site users are being unmasked as the FBI takes control of Silk Road's servers, but court documents suggest that a large-scale unveiling was almost conducted at least once before.
"With this case we did make what seemed like the invisible visible," Langmesser told U.S. News.
"We are in the process of seizing some of the servers it operated on around the world," Langmesser added. An FBI takedown banner currently appears on the site.
The criminal complaint against Ulbricht, who allegedly operated the site using the name "Dread Pirate Roberts," describes Silk Road as "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet today."
Silk Road's enormous popularly attracted "well over a hundred thousand buyers" and thousands of drug dealers, the complaint says.
"The site has sought to make conducting illegal transactions on the Internet as easy and frictionless as shopping online at mainstream e-commerce websites," according to the complaint.
By all accounts, Silk Road succeeded in that mission, using the anonymous Tor network to grant customers privacy and transacting deals with the digital currency Bitcoin as an added safeguard.
Marijuana was the most popular substance for sale, but users could purchase other drugs and prescriptions. User reviews helped customers shop with peace of mind, knowing that their online dealer was not an undercover agent and that the quality of merchandise was reliable. After an item was purchased, it would be shipped through the mail.
Ulbricht was arrested after FBI agents connected a Google email account – and an associated Google+ account – to one of the earliest online mentions of Silk Road, according the criminal complaint.
The complaint also says Ulbricht's online chat activity indicates he arranged the murder of someone who was "threatening to expose the identities of thousands of my clients" earlier this year.
The alleged blackmailer was threatening to release personal information about customers and dealers – taken by hacking a large vendor's computer – if he wasn't paid $500,000, according to the complaint. The blackmailer provided a sample list to prove the information's authenticity.
Ulbricht reached out to a hit man, the FBI alleges, and after initially balking at the $150,000 to $300,000 quoted price for murder – complaining, "[n]ot long ago, I had a clean hit done for $80K" – he allegedly transferred Bitcoins valued at around $150,000 for the alleged murder attempt..
The apparent executioner assured him on March 31 "[w]e know where he is" and later chatted "[your] problem has been taken care of... he won't be blackmailing anyone again. Ever."
Ulbricht allegedly responded on April 5: "I've received the picture and deleted it. Thank you again for your swift action."
The FBI admits it wasn't able to locate anyone by the name or description of the apparent victim in British Columbia and said Canadian police are not aware of any unsolved murders around March 31.
The murder mystery introduces fresh confusion after the long-mysterious identify of Silk Road's operator was allegedly unveiled.
A civil forfeiture complaint says there were nearly 13,000 listings for illegal drugs on Silk Road as of Sept. 20. An August 2012 study by Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Nicolas Christin pegged illegal drug sales on Silk Road at around $2 million a month. As with some other online marketplaces, the site took a cut of proceeds.
Since November 2011, that complaint says, law enforcement agents made 100 undercover drug purchases via Silk Road. Postal marks showed the vendors were based in 10 countries and sold high-purity ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and LSD.