Silk Road agent pleads guilty to corruption

A former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who investigated the Silk Road black market website pleaded guilty in federal court in San Francisco Wednesday to three corruption charges.

Carl Force, 46, of Baltimore, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg to committing extortion, money laundering and obstruction of justice while working as an undercover agent.

He will be sentenced by Seeborg on Oct. 19.

Force was one of two agents accused of corruption in the investigation of Silk Road and its founder, Ross Ulbricht, 31, of San Francisco.

The other agent, former U.S. Secret Service investigator Shaun Bridges, 32, of Laurel, Md., reached an agreement with federal prosecutors last month to plead guilty to wire fraud and money laundering counts. He is scheduled to enter the plea before Seeborg on Aug. 31.

Silk Road, operated by Ulbricht between 2011 and 2013, sold illegal drugs, false identification, computer hacking tools and money laundering services. It was described by the FBI as “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet.” Buyers purchased items with Bitcoin virtual currency.

Ulbricht was arrested while using his laptop computer in the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library on Oct. 1, 2013. He was convicted in federal court in New York earlier this year of seven felonies, including running a continuing criminal enterprise and selling drugs, and was sentenced to life in prison.

In a second case pending in federal court in Baltimore, he is accused of selling cocaine and attempting to arrange a murder for hire.

Force was the lead investigator in the Baltimore probe, according to the plea agreement, and his role was communicating with Ulbricht while posing as a drug smuggler located outside the United States.

Force admitted in the plea to an array of illegal acts, including pocketing about $40,000 in Bitcoin after selling Ulbrich false identification documents, and selling Ulbricht confidential information about the investigation on two occasions for a total of $150,000.

He also admitted to using his authority as a DEA agent to freeze $337,000 in cash and digital currency from an accountholder in a digital currency company. Instead of transferring the money to the DEA, Force kept it for his personal use, according to the plea agreement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement from Washington, D.C.:

“While investigating the Silk Road, former DEA Agent Carl Force crossed the line from enforcing the law to breaking it. … Seduced by the perceived anonymity of virtual currency and the dark web, Force used invented online personas and encrypted messaging to fraudulently obtain Bitcoin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government and investigative targets alike.”

The three charges to which Force pleaded guilty each carry a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison.