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When a journo becomes the story

Last Wednesday I went along to sit in on the plea hearing of the first major Australian ‘Silk Road’ case, expecting to perhaps get a blog post out of it.  I never expected what would come next.

Where's the love SR?
Where’s the love SR?

The court heard evidence of 12 parcels containing drugs that had been intercepted between 27 March and 29 June 2012.  In his opening, the defence barrister said he would be tendering a news article into evidence that he claimed led his client to discover Silk Road. I figured it couldn’t be one of mine, as the first time I had ever written about Silk Road was 27 April 2012.

The prosecution’s case covered:

  • Howard was charged with:
    • Importing a marketable quantity of MDMA (46.9g pure weight) via 9 separate importations;
    • Importing a marketable quantity of cocaine (14.5g pure weight) via 2 separate importations
    • Trafficking of cocaine, MDMA, LSD, marijuana, methamphetamine and speed
    • Possession of 32 prohibited weapons
  • Of the 12 items seized by Sydney and Melbourne Customs, ten came from the Netherlands and two came from Germany and they were packaged in a variety of ways – within greeting cards, DVD cases, baggies within cardboard, inside a thermometer – and the substances varied in purity from 0.3% to 56% pure.
  • On 18 July 2012, the Australian Federal Police raided Howard’s home, finding close to a kilo of marijuana, envelopes from Canada and the Netherlands that ‘got through’, a variety of drugs such as those he was charged with trafficking as well as DMT, $2300 in cash, a money counting machine, scales and baggies.
  • Howard worked as a bouncer and drove a BMW with the numberplate ‘SHADH’
  • The police seized three computers and two phones.
  • The phones contained thousands of messages from apparent customers requesting goods and messages from Howard such as “I’ve got 5 grand worth if you want it,” “promote the LSD” and “I’m at the mercy of Australia post”.
  • The computer housed pictures of drugs sitting on a piece of paper saying ‘shadh1’, kept in a Dropbox folder called ‘SR’.  His Google searches included “Does Australia Post record tracking” and “Silk Road Tor address”.
  • Howard himself showed police how Silk Road worked and his account, registered in the name Shadh1.
  • That account was registered on the Silk Road forums (which have a separate registration process to the sales site) on 20 April 2012.  He started a thread called ‘New Aus vendor , thought i’d say HI’ on that day:

Hey guys , I’m just starting out here. I’m Aus based and only shipping to Aus so as not to roach on anyone’s turf 🙂 . I’ll be basically doing dutch speed and peruvian charlie to start and branch into more as I get coin back in my pocket. I source from both sr and non sr vendors but I prefer the sr system as far as selling securely is concerned ! So yeh that’s me story and I’m keen for any tips or just some chat from you guys as I’m still learning !

  • Many of Shadh1’s forum posts were read out in court.

When a recess was called, I was surprised when the defence barrister shoved a printout of an article under my nose and asked whether I’d written it.  I was surprised to recognise a piece I’d written for literary journal Kill Your Darlings.  “Yes,” I said, and he rushed off again.

“I wrote that in October” I whispered to the court reporter beside me, confused as to what it had to do with the case.

After the recess, the defence barrister tendered the article.  “The author of the article is in court today, Your Honour” he said, pointing at me.  The judge acknowledged me and noted that I blogged at All Things Vice and sometimes wrote for The Age.

I didn’t write down exactly how my article worked it’s way into evidence (the hearing went for 5 hours or so), but it was along the lines of: my client was down to his last cent and his marriage was on the rocks.  He found this article describing how to get on to Silk Road and how cheap drugs could be bought there.

I walked out of that courtroom stunned and bemused.  The next day, a piece appeared in The Age, recounting the events.  It was a straightforward and factual account, so I put it out of my mind.

Later that night, a nasty personal attack containing much hyperbole and few facts emerged at an odd little site I’m not going to give oxygen to at the moment.  Suffice to say, it was vicious and unprovoked, completely inaccurate and used terms like ‘drug death spiral’ whilst somehow trying to link my pro-drug reform views with child abuse.

That's ME they're referring to!
That’s ME they’re referring to!

Since then, the myth that I was somehow responsible for the defendant’s decision to deal drugs has been perpetuated over Twitter, reddit, Wired, Ars Technica and numerous blogs, forums and lesser-known websites.  The typical paragraph is:

“During the trial he said that he had been drawn to the site after reading an article by a journalist called Eileen Ormsby, who regularly covers the Silk Road in Australian newspapers. Since Howard’s conviction, the Silk Road has warned its users via its Twitter account not to follow their feed nor the feed of Ormsby with their real names.”

I realise these articles are just reporting what was in the Age story, but that article did note that I had written the piece in October.  And yep, that really happened in Twitterverse.

Weirder Web seemed to be one of the only places to notice the discrepancies in dates, and subtly pointed them out without editorialising about them.

So, to reiterate:  the offending dated from March 2012.  Shadh1 registered on the Silk Road forums on 20 April 2012.  My first ever article on Silk Road came out on 27 April 2012.  The article tendered to court came out in October 2012.

No doubt the defendant was led to Silk Road by an article, but it wasn’t my article.

This may well have been one of the most surreal weeks in my life.

re-edit:  I’ve posted a response to the nasty little piece that launched a personal attack on me even though they really don’t deserve the hits:

14 Responses

  1. Do most journos and lawyers not check facts? I’m sure they are used to people lying to them. And I thought it would be the first thing taught in school otherwise it could be embarrassing

  2. And here comes fan No2. I’ve been following your blog for a while. Keep up the great work Eileen and don’t let this irritate you. All you’ve done is exceptional journalist work.

  3. All this just goes to show the level of ignorance and ineptitude when trying to have mature conversations about the drug debate. I love my AFL with a passion, but listening to the rubbish coming out of those forums is truly mind-boggling; and i’m talking about people in positions of influence. Thanks for having the courage to at least speak intelligently about this stuff!

    1. No worries. I’m eternally grateful that someone is speaking up. I’m studying to be a teacher so as you can imagine i’m a little hesitant about shouting from the rooftops! So you have my clandestine blessing to shout as loud as you can from any rooftop (or newspaper) that you wish!! all the best,

  4. I wish you had never wrote about the road. Some things are better off unspoken.
    You assist speeding up its eventual demise. Thanks a lot.

    1. I understand that some people think that. But I’m a very small Australian freelance journalist – there were articles before me and after me. I doubt neither my blog nor articles have done anything to speed up Silk Road’s demise. Keep in mind, Silk Road has been written about in some of the biggest newspapers and on the largest gossip sites in the world.

      At least I write balanced articles rather than scaremongering ones. 🙂

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