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Silk Road founder allegedly admitted site origins to friend

A college friend of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht testifies against him during the trial's second week.

Ross Ulbricht, who went by the online handle "Dread Pirate Roberts," was charged by the FBI for operating the anonymous online drug marketplace Silk Road. Ross Ulbricht/LinkedIn

Does somebody engaged in a harmless "economic experiment" swear a friend to secrecy about how the experiment was conducted? And does he also keep a detailed digital journal of the experience on his hard drive?

Those questions took center stage this week at the criminal trial of Ross Ulbricht, alleged mastermind behind the illicit drug bazaar known as Silk Road. Richard Bates, a software engineer for eBay based in Austin, Texas, testified Thursday he had been giving Ulbricht programming advice since 2010, according to Wired.

"I remember seeing the home page, the [Silk Road logo] green camel for the first time and pictures of drugs," said Bates, who testified to avoid prosecution for his role in helping to build Silk Road's website, reported Wired. "I was shocked and very intrigued. I didn't know how something like this could be possible."

A successful prosecution could give the government greater power to go after the so-called Dark Web, where criminals can buy and sell contraband ranging from narcotics to stolen credit card numbers and even murder for hire. Critics say the trial could pose a threat to political dissidents who rely on anonymity to avoid persecution.

Ulbricht, a former Eagle Scout, has pleaded not guilty to charges including attempting to arrange six murders, computer hacking, money laundering and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. Last week, his defense attorney, Joshua Dratel, said Ulbricht founded and initially oversaw the site.

Bates on Thursday testified he didn't just help build Silk Road. He also bought drugs there. He also alleged Ulbricht handed him psychedelic mushrooms in a black garbage bag.

Bates' testimony potentially contradicts the opening arguments of Dratel, who said Ulbricht had handed over control to someone else by the time prosecutors say crimes were committed. Dratel characterized Ulbricht as a "fall guy" who built an "economic experiment" that became "too stressful" for the now 30-year-old Ulbricht. Around $1.2 billion in contraband transactions had been conducted on Silk Road by the time the federal government shuttered the service in 2013.

The trial started this week with US District Judge Katherine Forrest dismissing much of the defense's cross-examination of an undercover agent for the Department of Homeland Security who worked as a Silk Road customer service agent for at least 10 months.

On Wednesday, Assistant US Attorney Timothy Howard read from an electronic journal on Ulbricht's laptop, seized from his possession at the time of his arrest in a San Francisco public library in October 2013. The journal, which dates to 2010, details varying stages of Ulbricht's plans to build a Silk Road brand of anonymous online tools that would include a currency exchange and instant-messaging software, reported Wired.

"Silk Road chat, Silk Road exchange, Silk Road credit union, Silk Road market, Silk Road everything!" Ulbricht allegedly wrote in 2011.