American Kingpin is the true story of the infamous Silk Road, its founder Ross Ulbricht, and the law enforcement agents of the United States and their hunt to bring down Ulbricht.
In many respects, Silk Road was a revolutionary website and the epitome of the logical ends of technology. Any technology, the internet included, taken to its logical conclusion, can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good. Silk Road was a website on the so-called “Dark Net” that served as a digital black market for drugs, guns, and really anything shady. Drugs ordered on Silk Road would be sent through the mail and, for the most part, delivered to their destination.
Ulbricht was, by all accounts, a failure in his mid-20s. He had a burning desire to change the world, but no real successes to his name. His friends and family considered him to be sweet, but as the story goes, it becomes clear just how dark Ross could go.
A main thread that runs through this story is the inefficiencies of the Federal government when it comes to cross-jurisdictional law enforcement. The tribalism of the different agencies mired the investigation and ultimate take-down of Ulbricht and Silk Road. It was because there were cyber crimes, drugs, firearms, fake IDs, digital currency, and illegal usage of the US Postal System that this fragmentation took place. Author Nick Bilton goes to great lengths to detail the infighting between the US Attorney’s offices, FBI, DEA, HSI, CBP, IRS, US Secret Service, and even the US Postal Inspection Service. Even beyond just this upper-strata of conflict and competition was inner-agency strife between offices in different cities, especially HSI Chicago vs. HSI Baltimore.
What was truly remarkable about the story was how Silk Road tended to infect and corrupt every one who touched it. Ross went from a “sweet” kid in the suburbs, to a ruthless mob boss, ordering (and paying for) murders of competition and traitors. A DEA agent started selling Ulbricht intel on law enforcement activities and tortured a Silk Road employee. A Secret Service agent stole nearly $1M in Bitcoin.
The story is told in vignette style, which makes it very readable. I got through the book quickly and enjoyed every minute of it. Bilton is a skilled journalism and writer. In the end, the government got their man, and Ulbricht was given a sentence commiserate with his crimes not just against the government, but in a very real way, against humanity. People died using the drugs bought off of Silk Road, others became addicted, and those are just the few stories we know.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★