American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

Nick Bilton (Hatching Twitter) describes the rise and fall of a very different Internet start-up in American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road. The titular subject is Ross Ulbricht, an idealistic millennial who often seems less like a criminal mastermind and more like a kid way in over his head. An ardent libertarian, Ross put his beliefs into practice by starting the Silk Road, a site on the anonymizing Dark Web where people could buy and sell drugs using a recently invented (and supposedly untraceable) digital currency called Bitcoin. By the time the website was closed down in 2013, global sales had reached $1.2 billion.

As the Silk Road takes off, Bilton flits between Ulbricht and the eccentric civil servants across the FBI, CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and IRS who took the lead in unmasking the "Dread Pirate Roberts"--Ulbricht's online handle, a reference to The Princess Bride. Bilton does a lot of work to understand the characters, but he's ultimately upstaged by the astonishing events themselves. Ulbricht, with a minimum of soul-searching, approves expanding the websites' wares to include guns, poisons, hacking tools and even human organs. His ethical lapses are almost matched by a few bad actors on the law enforcement side who attempt to steal huge amounts from the website and cover their tracks with torture and a faked contract killing. Fictional shows like Breaking Bad have nothing on Bilton's wild true story. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

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