SAN FRANCISCO—Federal prosecutors successfully argued Wednesday that Carl Mark Force, the former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who allegedly went rogue during the investigation of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, should not be granted bail.
"I am not prepared to release him today," United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte said during the Wednesday hearing.
She heard 90 minutes of argument from government lawyers and from one of Force’s defense attorneys. After the hearing, Force was transferred from Santa Rita Jail in nearby Alameda County to San Francisco County Jail.
The government also presented new evidence suggesting that Force is a flight risk: he had a "go bag" (including a firearm) when he was arrested, he knows how to create fake identities as part of his undercover law enforcement job, he had multiple guns stashed throughout his home, and he sent $235,000 from a bank account in Panama to BTC-e.com, an offshore Bitcoin site that claims to be governed by the laws of Cyprus. (The site's origins are mysterious, and it may also be based in Bulgaria and/or Russia.)
In March 2015, after the conclusion of the Ulbricht trial in New York, the government unsealed criminal charges against Force, who is accused of stealing from Silk Road, among others. He faces four charges, including wire fraud and money laundering. Force resigned from his post at the DEA in May 2014.
Just a month before leaving the DEA, Force created a Bitcoin speculation company called Engedi, LLC—a Biblical reference to a particular oasis. Force seems to have a predilection for nods to the Bible: he created the online persona "Nob," who became a confidante of Ulbricht. Nob is the location in ancient Israel where David receives the sword of Goliath.
His short-lived Twitter account has just four tweets, including this one:
(Curiously, Force's Twitter profile picture is the logo of the Penn State University Bitcoin Club—his alma mater from over 20 years ago. Patrick Cines, the club's president, told Ars that he was not aware of any connection between Force and the club. Cines added he had only heard about Force through news accounts.)
As Ars reported earlier, during the investigation, Force also worked for a "digital currency exchange company" called CoinMKT. Force used his position as a DEA agent to help the company do criminal background checks. At one point, he froze $297,000 in the account of a CoinMKT customer and transferred some of that money to his own personal account in Panama. With the money garnered from these illicit transactions, Force also made investments in real estate and businesses, paid off his mortgage, "and wrote several very large checks for tens of thousands of dollars," according to investigators.
Authorities also claim that Force created another, unauthorized Silk Road identity called "French Maid" and offered to sell Ulbricht, as Dread Pirate Roberts, information about the government's investigation into Silk Road for another $100,000 in bitcoins. According to the criminal complaint, DPR paid up, and Force deposited the money in his personal account.
Force, 46, did not speak during the hearing and showed no emotion, turning toward three women seated in attendance only once. He was dressed in red prison uniform labeled "Alameda County Jail," and orange Crocs, which apparently have become standard issue in many jails and prisons nationwide. The middle-aged man has a shaved head and a long illustrated tattoo on his left arm that was partly visible.
Last month, another journalist found Force’s (since-deleted) LinkedIn profile, in which he boasted about having bagged Ulbricht.
“Would he shoot his way out of the situation?”
Richard Evans, an attorney with the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section of its Criminal Division, led the prosecution and provided new details about the circumstances of Force’s arrest in Baltimore on March 30, 2015.
"The defendant was arrested as he returned home when he was at his personal vehicle, outside his home," Evans told the court. "He was found to be in possession of a ‘go bag.’ He had a fully loaded handgun, a 9mm, [and] did not have a concealed carry permit for that weapon. He had additional ammunition, a passport which may have been expired, and 10 blank $500 money orders. So he had ID, money, and weapon in his possession."
The DOJ lawyer also mentioned that when the government interviewed Force’s wife, Amy Force, she told investigators that she had recently received a tax refund of $150,000.
A few minutes later, Judge Laporte said, "I don't know what that shows, if anything, but it just seems a little odd."
Evans agreed: "I will note that the defendant is a [Certified Public Accountant], and he filed his taxes some time ago. This is the first we've heard about this tax return. This is unusual, to say the least."
The government lawyer also explained that while the passport that Force had in his possession had expired, DOJ investigators were able to determine that Force has a second outstanding passport with an expiration date of 2017.
"Our understanding is that when the defendant was arrested, apparently it was expired," he said. "Upon a check [with the Department of State] there was another outstanding; it was good for 2017. We have not seen it. Whether it is in a safe deposit box, we do not know where it is. I can tell the court that state said there is an outstanding passport good for the next couple years."
But beyond the issue of the passport, Evans revealed that Force had armed himself to the teeth.
"A search of the house revealed no fewer than four fully loaded firearms hidden throughout the house," he said, noting that authorities also found 650 rounds of ammunition.
The judge interjected, "The guns I'm not sure about—would he shoot his way out of the situation?"
Evans replied, "I'm not sure, Your Honor. Those guns have since been turned over by his wife, but they were there at the time of his arrest."
He added that Force has three minor children living at his home, aged 16, 14, and 12.
"The guns were not secured: they were under a bed, in a desk drawer, on a shelf in a closet," Evans noted. "They were stationed throughout the house in places that somebody could access them whether it was the defendant or anyone else in the house. That in and of itself is cause for concern."
Red vs. Blue
Force’s attorney provided little in the way of clear explanations to counter the government’s assertions.
With respect to the gun that was found as part of what the government called Force’s "go bag," one of his Baltimore-based lawyers, Ivan Bates, told the court that this was merely a "red herring."
"I found out that these checks were not in this bag, they were in a separate section related to his business," he said toward the end of the hearing.
"Under Maryland state law, if you’re going from the bank to your house, it is not necessarily illegal to have a gun in your vehicle provided that you can show under Maryland state law that this is for business purposes. But there has never been a charge with this handgun, and for the government to assume that this is a ‘go bag’ is very wrong. [Force] got out and told the officers that he had a weapon so that they were as comfortable as possible. What I’m saying is that if you're doing business purposes, only from point A to point B—the checks were for GMPro, his business. He has a janitorial business. What i'm saying is that the gun is a red herring, it doesn't matter, he did nothing illegal in terms of that gun."
And the second passport?
Bates said that his client remains "adamant" that the second passport is not a regular civilian blue passport but rather a government-issued "red passport" that was provided by the DEA. The lawyer did not address the other firearms found in Force’s home.
Under the judge’s instruction, Evans said he would confirm with a contact at the Department of State that Force’s second passport was indeed blue rather than red.
And how did Bates explain the $235,000 that had been transferred to BTC-e.com? The government said he had not accounted for this money at all. The Pretrial Services officer, Josh Libby, confirmed to the court that Force had not disclosed that during his Wednesday interview.
But Bates countered that Force had indeed told prosecutors about that sum and moreover claimed that it belonged to the government.
"I have e-mails that's not his money; that's the government’s money. We're fine to give it back to the government," Bates said.
"We would be more than happy to give the government the thumb drives with that information," he added. "This is complicated. It has a series of codes and things like this."
A few minutes later, Evans, the DOJ lawyer, countered, "This is the first time that anyone has ever discussed that these funds that were wired out of United States are the property of the United States."
Bates attempted to argue that his client should be treated like former Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges, who worked with Force as part of his alleged fraud scheme. The attorney argued that Bridges, who has not been charged with a crime, was given more deference than Force was.
But the government drew a clear distinction.
"We can account for all the funds that Mr. Bridges is accused of stealing; we cannot do that for Mr. Force," Eva