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Ten years after Silk Road falls, Variety Jones is sentenced

The sentencing of Silk Road’s Variety Jones, aka Plural of Mongoose, aka cimon, aka Ross Ulbricht’s mentor, aka Roger Thomas Clark was held at 10:00am on July 11, 2023, in courtroom 23A of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse that houses the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

This is going to be a very long post. The most interesting part is when Variety Jones speaks, about half way down, in case you don’t want to read it all.

I had booked, canceled and rebooked flights and accommodation from Australia to New York half a dozen times when this day finally rolled around. I felt compelled to be there, to watch this chapter close.

Created by Midjourney

The sentencing was to be held before Judge Sidney H Stein. He was the third judge to be assigned to the case – in the years since Clark’s arrest, one had retired and one had died.

Inside the court, representatives from the US Government, as well as Roger Clark and his lawyer, were already at the front of the room. At the US Government’s desk were assistant US attorney Michael Neff, FBI Special Agent Scott Stoner, and IRS Special Agent Gary Alford, the man who found the “rossulbricht” gmail address on the bitcointalk forum that was instrumental in the downfall of Silk Road.

Clark, wearing prison khaki, in ankle shackles, and with the recent loss of four front teeth, was accompanied by his lawyer, Evan Lipton. He looked a lot older and even skinnier than the last time I’d seen him, at Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison.

Above, half a dozen lights hung like giant eyeballs looking down on us. Around the edges of the courtroom were security cameras, actually looking down on us.

Only a few people were in attendance. One of those had a bushy beard that I recognized as belonging to Andy Greenberg, senior cybercrime reporter for Wired, and one of the earlier reporters on Silk Road. Andy and I have admired each other’s work for years but never met before. We both referenced the other in our respective books. If you put him, me, and LaMoustache in a room, between us we know more about the story than anyone whose name is not Ross Ulbricht. Or possibly even more than him. Go and buy Andy’s book, Tracers in the Dark, right after you buy mine.

We all rose when Judge Stein entered the room. And it was time for the Variety Jones Show.

Another adjournment?

After opening remarks, Lipton began with an attempt at yet another adjournment. Clark fought extradition to the United States until he was eventually extradited to the United States in June 2018 and pled guilty to narcotics charges carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison in January 2020. Since then, sentencing has been delayed for: COVID lockdowns, prison blackouts, Clark being injured falling from a bunk, Clark having COVID, Clark’s lawyer having COVID, Clark firing his legal team to represent himself, Clark not having access to his files, Clark only allowed a bendy pen instead of a proper pen, and his legal assistant not being available. There have been three judges assigned to the case during that time (before Stein, one retired and one died).

Judge Stein said he was “not surprised” by this request, given the many previous requests.  “His sentencing has gone from judge to judge. I have the sense Mr Clark does not want this sentencing to proceed,” he said “I don’t know why this is so.” He went on to point out that the conditions in the New York Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), where Clark had been held for the last five years, were much more difficult than the permanent federal prison where Clark would eventually end up, especially for prisoners with health needs. “Why wouldn’t he want to be transferred somewhere his health could be looked after?” the judge asked reasonably. He denied the request, saying “The time has come for his sentencing.”

Sentencing submission: Evan Lipton on behalf of Clark

With that out of the way, it was time for each side to put forth their arguments. Lipton went first, moving to the lectern in the middle of the room. He asked for a sentence of time served (around seven-and-a-half years so far with a combination of his time in Bangkok Remand plus time in MDC). He said that given the harsh and unusual conditions suffered by Clark in both Thailand and MDC, including illness, an unresolved rash, violence-induced PTSD, along with the characteristics of Clark being older and frail, those years should be considered “the equivalent of fifteen years” of normal prison time.

“Mr Clark has a reputation of being very difficult,” admitted Lipton, but said this was due to the harshness of his circumstances, and although it was true that “conversations could be difficult,” Clark was “very intelligent and compassionate”. He pointed to the letters written to the court by family and friends, which showed he had a network of support to return to.

“It’s not true that he lacks remorse,” Lipton said, clarifying that while Clark was not remorseful for saying the DEA should be abolished and the War on Drugs is wrong but was remorseful for thinking there was a safe way to run a drug market, and this is why he withdrew his objection to the relevance of the evidence about six people who died when using drugs purchased from Silk Road. “He will not re-offend,” said the lawyer, pointing out that Clark knew just how bad prison was and wouldn’t want to return.

Lipton said Clark “watched people being raped and tortured right next to him” in Thai prison and he himself was victimized (he did not elaborate on what that meant) which resulted in PTSD. He said Clark had been seen by “an incompetent psychiatrist” who diagnosed him with conditions that could never have been diagnosed in the small amount of time they spent together (bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and cannabis-induced psychosis according to another report).

Lipton went on to discuss the circumstances of the MDC, where Clark found himself “trapped and deprived.” He said that while the US Government could not be held accountable for things like the pandemic and the blackout, it should have been more prepared to deal with such occurrences. He noted that when Clark had a fall while trying to get into his top bunk at MDC which broke his pelvis, he was left in agony on the floor overnight. When he asked for the footage of his suffering, there was none. “Everything at MDC is videoed. Not this,” said Lipton.

The rash that Clark showed up with from Thailand was also left untreated, which became agonizing. The OTC hydrocortisone that could have provided relief was not available to him from the commissary and as a result, his sister had to procure it from the black market for him, costing thousands of dollars and having a profound effect on her financial position.

Lipton also addressed Clark’s time in nursing homes, where he was considered a very difficult patient. The lawyer framed this as Clark getting in trouble for raising genuine issues, which were dealt with a lack of professionalism on the part of nursing home staff, leading to arguments. When he made the decision to get rid of his legal team and represent himself, his work would go missing or be destroyed so that he was unable to represent himself in the way he wanted.

“Roger Clark is more than the person he has been portrayed as. He got involved in Silk Road because of his political beliefs. He believed he was doing the right thing,” Lipton finished up. “He is an older man. His medical care has been horrendous.”

US Government response – Clark is worse than the worst

Assistant US attorney Michael Neff acting for the US Government (USG) opened with a request for an amendment to the guideline calculations from level 43 to level 45. Sentencing guidelines are set out in a matrix that matches the severity of the offense with the offender’s criminal record. Each cell of the matrix represents a “guideline range,” which is a range of sentences, measured in months, that is appropriate for a case falling within that cell. Offense levels range from 1 (least severe) to 43 (most severe). Similarly, criminal history categories range from I (least severe) to VI (most severe). The higher the offense level and criminal history category, the longer the recommended sentence.

Level 43 is the highest, but it can be “enhanced” by additional factors that the court should consider in determining the severity of the offense. The enhancements the USG relied upon to raise the guideline level for Clark were his aggravating role in the offense (being an organizer/leader) and obstruction of justice (he lied to the court when fighting extradition from Thailand). They pointed out that Silk Road was his livelihood, basically his job, where he received at least $1.6 million dollars in two years. Neff pointed out the estimated amount Clark earned was “2000 times the minimum wage for the time.”

The Judge agreed and enhanced the sentencing guideline to category 45. The argument seemed purely academic, as both categories carry the same statutory maximum of twenty years.

Neff said that the USG was looking for twenty years as Clark’s crimes were “exceptionally serious” by any and every measure. He said that nearly every charge was aggravated by over a dozen circumstances, including the profitability of the enterprise, the key roles played by Clark, the use of violence and threats, Clark’s attempts at obstruction of justice, and his eagerness in engaging in criminal conduct. “The $183 million worth of illegal drugs sold by Silk Road alone merits a serious sentence,” Neff said. “But Mr Clark’s leadership role and eagerness to commit violent crimes” made it even more serious. He said his nonchalance over committing murder for hire was frightening, and extreme, “even compared to other killers.”

Neff said nowhere was VJ’s influence over Ross Ulbricht more apparent than when he advocated that he carry out a hit on a Silk Road employee. USG said until then, Ross Ulbricht was just concerned with getting his money back. It was Clark who brought up the idea of murder and convinced Ross that it was a necessary step:

Variety Jones (using the name “cimon”) and DPR (“myself”) discuss the murder of Curtis Green

The judge interceded and reminded Neff that Clark had made a submission to the court that the chat logs between “cimon” and Dread Pirate Roberts, where VJ advocated murdering Curtis Green (‘Chronicpain’ on Silk Road) had been doctored by Ross Ulbricht.

Neff responded that this submission had been quickly rescinded by Clark’s lawyer, when it was pointed out that making that submission went against Clark’s plea agreement. Neff also said that it was patently absurd to think that Ross Ulbricht doctored those chat logs in such a way, as they heavily implicated him as well.

However, they said, those chat logs suggested a person who was a cold-blooded killer who would stop at nothing to protect his empire.

Silk Road’s “Variety Jones” aka Mongoose, aka cimon, aka Roger Thomas Clark speaks

The judge then provided Clark with the opportunity to speak on his own behalf, which he did with gusto.

Clark opened with the very dramatic statement, “Everyone in this court should look around, because this is probably the last time you will see me before I get killed.”

He then proceeded to speak at a million miles an hour. The judge had to stop him several times with a request to slow down for the court reporter. Clark would slow down for a few seconds, before ramping it up again. It may have been partly because he might have had a time limit (I don’t know), but he spoke at breakneck speed when I visited him in prison in Bangkok, so it is more likely just the way he speaks all the time.

“I can be difficult, it’s true,” he said, before denying that the many, MANY delays to this day coming were his fault. “I was dressed up ready to come here in 2020,” he said. “Then I got swabbed on my way to point and wham – COVID. That was the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year nightmare.”

n.b. please note that everything Clark says should have the word “allegedly” inserted liberally – these are his words only, with no corroborating evidence or proof.

“I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new when I tell you prison is run by gangs,” he said before launching into details of how the gangs allegedly worked with corrupt Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees to run a contraband racket in the prison. Drugs and phones were the most common items, but he alleged “anything” was available for a price.

It was after this, he said, that “everything went to hell in a handbasket.” It is not clear how the two were related, but it was around this time Clark “had a dizzy spell” and fell from the top bunk, where he was left lying on the floor of his cell “with a broken pelvis and testicles crushed between my legs” for twelve hours, because prison officers thought he was faking it.

“There’s a thing called the 10:00 mandated stand-up count,” he said. “I’ve never known it to be missed before. But that day, it didn’t happen… outside I could hear prisoners getting their contraband back, and I was laying on the floor thinking I was dying.”

He choked up when he spoke of his father dying in a nursing home due to lack of care and he was afraid it was going to happen to him too. When eventually transferred to a hospital, he said he was allowed no family communication for eleven days during which he was sure he was dying. “I wasn’t allowed to see my wife or my minister, couldn’t see my lawyer, wasn’t allowed to write a last will and testament,” he said.

He said that when he came out the other side (otherwise “someone would be responsible for felony murder”) and was finally allowed to see his lawyer, he couldn’t speak freely to her, as there was always a BOP employee present. When his lawyer tried to subpoena the footage of him being left unattended for twelve hours, “there were sixteen cameras there, but guess what? Footage does not exist”

He said when he made the decision to represent himself (and sacked his entire legal team – one of the myriad reasons for sentencing adjournment), he was prevented from doing so properly, as papers would mysteriously go missing. He said one short-term cellmate (a sex offender) went through his stuff and reported back to other prisoners, who were not happy that he was describing how things worked inside. Clark insisted it was privileged information to his paralegal, but those carefully prepared papers disappeared.

He said all this was “the chilling effect of trying to prepare” and he was “just touching the surface of the corruption of the MDC.”

“After today, there is no safe place for me,” he said.

Judge Stein suggested Clark make a formal complaint to the prosecutors. “They will pursue it,” he said. Clark responded that previous attempts to bring things to their attention had not been successful.

He detailed how harsh COVID, blackouts, and lockdowns were for him. Hydrocortisone which should have been available from the commissary had to be acquired by his sister to be delivered through the black market. “She spent $10,000 she didn’t have on $60 worth of cream,” he said.

The next thing Clark wanted the judge to know was, “I wasn’t doing it for the money.” Acknowledging the $1.6 million that could be traced as having been paid to him, transferred from Silk Road wallets, he said that the money went to expenses, and “almost a million dollars on a special project.” He pointed out that he lived relatively simply in Thailand, a very low-cost-of-living country.

Variety Jones’s “Special Project”

So what was this special project? Well, Clark launched into (still at breakneck speed) the story of his friend “Brian” in Ireland, who was five years older than Clark and had been sexually abused by the clergy as a child. In a meeting in Dublin in May 2013, Brian asked Clark, “what can you do about the child predators on the dark web?”

In response, Clark said he made it his mission to bring down pedophiles. He said he purchased two exploits – a Tor exploit and a VM exploit – from Bangkok-based security expert TheGrugq (to which Grugq said in a DM: “lol. Dude is just making shit up”) and used them to deanonymise people who used both on dark web CSAM (child sexabuse materials) forums. He said he provided the information to the UK National Crime Agency, but apparently the UK Govt said they couldn’t use the illegal means of exposing Tor users.

“I was playing sheriff of the dark web,” he said. “I was waiting for a way to break Tor.”

Clark claimed that, coincidentally, a while later the FBI used “identical exploits” to take down, and take over, Playpen, a massive child abuse site. (It’s not clear how Clark knew which exploits were used. The FBI called its method “using a court-approved network investigative technique”)

This story can be taken with a grain of salt, given Clark’s propensity to spin a tall tale, but it was clear that he was claiming responsibility for Playpen’s demise. “I’m proud of that,” he said “[hundreds of] people are in prison because I spent $675,000, and a year writing the software that caught them.”

“That’s how I spent my money,” he declared. He said there were still three other exploits out there that he hadn’t seen used yet, including a Torchat exploit. As Torchat is used by many people carrying out dark web criminal activity, this could have major implications if law enforcement could deanonymize those chats.

Judge Stein interrupted, “So you’re telling me you spent $1.6 million developing software that would deanonymize child predators, and you made that available to the US Government?”

Clark said it was $675,000, not $1.6 million and he had “not intentionally” made his work available to the US government, but that was the effect after he had provided it to the NCA. He was sure that the FBI used his exploits and programming to bring down Playpen in one of the largest dark web CSAM busts in history.

Six deaths, harm reduction, and the trolley problem

“It’s possible to be proud and ashamed of something at the same time,” Clark said. He described the many harm reduction initiatives undertaken by Silk Road. These included the Uber-style star ratings coveted by drugs vendors, the independent testing and reports undertaken by labs such as Energy Control, and the swift actions in banning vendors found to be selling substances that weren’t what was described in their advertisements.

“I used to think we saved thousands of lives,” he told the court.

“How so?” asked the judge

“Nobody was dying from adulterated drugs.”

He mentioned the six individuals whose families had testified at Ulbricht’s trial, claiming their deaths resulted from drugs bought on the Silk Road. He admitted feeling responsible for those fatalities. He likened their deaths to the classic thought experiment, the trolley problem: There’s a full train hurtling towards a cliff. If you pull the switch, you will save thousands of people on board, but will divert the train to a track where six people stand.

“I pulled the switch and 6 people died,” he said. “Would those six people still be alive if it hadn’t been for Silk Road? I would say yes.”

Choking up as he finished his submission, Clark mentioned the letters of support from family and friends. “The person they wrote those letters about, I strive to be that person,” he said. “I used to pray to be that person. I don’t pray any more. I’ve disappointed my family, I’ve lost my god and my freedom. There’s not much more I can screw up here”

Judge Sidney H Stein’s summing up and verdict

Judge Stein didn’t keep anyone in suspense. He said at the beginning of his summing up that he was imposing a sentence of 240 months (twenty years, as I had to confirm to myself several times). He said Clark was to be evaluated as soon as possible as to whether he should be transferred to a medical facility, and in any event that he should be transferred to a permanent facility as soon as possible.

He accepted that Clark had suffered terribly in both Thai prison and the MDC and that his health complaints were real, but also noted that, but for the statutory maximum of twenty years, the sentence would have been Life. The judge read out a potted synopsis of Silk Road, how it worked, and the massive amounts of crypto involved (it is notoriously difficult to put a value on the crypto that went through Silk Road, but the hundreds of millions of dollars mentioned is probably accurate).

The judge said that Clark’s crimes were serious enough in isolation, but they were exacerbated by his obstructive conduct. His role in Silk Road was significant. He was the right-hand man to Ross Ulbricht and even tried to keep his criminal activities going after Ulbricht’s arrest. He said Clark’s remorse was genuine and heartfelt, as were the letters of support. He said he believed Clark was changing his mind about the need to disband the DEA and make all drugs legal as he had withdrawn his objection to the evidence of the six Silk Road-related deaths being included in the USG’s submission.

He said he wasn’t imposing a fine as he did not believe Clark had the means to pay it and had no assets to speak of.

One final comment he made may well have been facetious, a hint that he didn’t believe the story of Clark’s special project: “If he is prepared to assist the US Government to deanonymize anonymous transactions, I’m sure the government would be interested,” the judge said.

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