Exclusive: Our Thai prison interview with the alleged top advisor to Silk Road

Is Roger Thomas Clark really the notorious "Variety Jones"?

Published in Ars Technica on Sept. 7, 2016

BANGKOK, Thailand—Few people were watching when the prison truck doors swung open at Ratchada Criminal Court to reveal a 55-year-old Canadian inmate. But there he was: Roger Thomas Clark, the man accused of being “Variety Jones,” notorious dope dealer and top advisor to Silk Road founder Ross “Dread Pirate Roberts” Ulbricht.

Clark did the perp-walk, shuffling unchained and unnoticed past the Bangkok press brigade, which was focused that day on the trial of an accused Spanish murderer. Accompanied by a lone Thai corrections officer in a sand-coloured uniform, Clark was led to the eighth floor and was greeted by his team of lawyers and interpreters.

Clark was here to battle extradition to America and a possible life sentence on charges of narcotics conspiracy and conspiracy to commit money laundering. But face to face, whether in a Thai court or a prison, Clark appeared unfazed by the powerful forces seeking him for a trial on the other side of the planet.

Though acknowledging that his odds of beating extradition are slim, Clark remained in high spirits during his July day-trip to the courthouse. He even slipped in a brag or two on the way.

“Normally a senior person signs an extradition order, but my order was signed and stamped by John Kerry,” he said, adding that the order came with a blue silk ribbon. “Very few people ever have an extradition signed by John Kerry.”

(In the past, Clark has proven to be an eccentric interviewee who has made bold, unsubstantiated claims, such as having access to helicopters and being guarded by members of the Thai Tourist Police, the Khmer Palace Guard, and the Vietnamese Special Forces.)

Clark is fighting for his life any way he knows how. But one thing he’s sure of: he won’t go down like Ulbricht, laptop open and unencrypted. During a series of recent interviews from prison, Clark bragged about how his machines, when seized by Thai police last year, were all cryptographically secured.

"They found my three notebooks closed and encrypted"

Silk Road functioned for years as a sort of “Amazon.com for drugs.” Equipped with the proper software, users around the world could log in to Silk Road and cruise through hundreds of drug listings, read reviews, and decide to purchase a kilogram of heroin off someone named “BigDaddy24”—all without leaving their bedrooms. During its lifetime, from 2011 to 2013, Silk Road’s user base exploded. Ulbricht eventually had to hire administrators to keep things running smoothly—and Clark is believed to have been one of the most important.

In 2013, Ulbricht was captured red-handed in a San Francisco library with his laptop open and logged in to Silk Road—and on that laptop was a photograph of Clark. (To this day, the photograph functions as one of the few public pieces of evidence linking Clark to the “Variety Jones” name.) Also on Ulbricht’s computer was a 2011 journal entry paying tribute to Variety Jones’ influence on Silk Road.

“He has helped me better interact with the community around Silk Road, delivering proclamations, handling troublesome characters, running a sale, changing my name, devising rules, and on and on,” Ulbricht wrote. “He also helped me get my head straight regarding legal protection, cover stories, devising a will, finding a successor, and so on. He’s been a real mentor.”

This evidence, in part, led investigators to suggest that Clark was in fact Variety Jones and that he had advised Ulbricht “on all aspects of the [Silk Road], including how to maximize profits and use threats of violence to thwart law enforcement,” according to a press release issued after Clark’s arrest in Thailand.

On the Internet, Variety Jones came across as a bit of a tough guy. According to seized chat logs, Jones may have been instrumental to Ulbricht’s decision to commission the killing of one of his workers whom he believed had defected. (The “killing” was actually faked by a corrupt—and now-convicted—DEA agent.)

That toughness came through in prison, where Clark periodically receives visitors. When the buzzers rang at the visitation segment of Bangkok Remand Prison this June, Clark took a seat at a row of telephones to discuss his predicament during a series of interviews with co-author Sam Cooley. (Disclosure: Cooley purchased two containers of Pringles and three cartons of soy milk for Clark before one interview.)

“Guilt is a technical term,” Clark said, adding that he won’t be taken by the FBI the same way Ulbricht was in 2013. “They don’t have shit on me. I’m not going [to the US]. It’s an impossible circumstance.”

“They might have caught Ross with his notebook opened, as they claim, but they found my three notebooks closed and encrypted,” Clark added, claiming his home was raided without a warrant on the Thai island of Koh Chang in December 2015.

“Forensics could spend 30 years trying to decrypt those hard drives and still not get anywhere; so in a way, those hard disks are a headache,” he said. “The longer they need to open them, the longer I can relax here in Bangkok. They would rather deny that they seized all this evidence.”

For the past 20 years, Clark says he’s been living internationally—though most recently on the concrete floor of the jail, where he’s been held for the past nine months.

Clark shook his head when asked if he was mistreated. He laughed, saying the only people who complain about the conditions are foreigners—and that he wasn’t about to do so over a jail telephone.

“My chances of survival are zero if I go to the US,” he added.

Clark also repeated a previous claim to have knowledge about a so-far undiscovered dirty FBI agent—information that he said he’s keeping “under (his) hat” until the right opportunity presents itself.

"39 words exactly"

During Clark's July appearance at Ratchada court, an officer of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs functioned as a liaison between the US government and its Thai counterparts.

Discussion in court that day—all of it in Thai, which was interpreted into English by co-author Akbar Khan—revolved around domain registration and whether the prosecution could provide information about the official registrant of the Silk Road domain name. Given the complexities of Silk Road’s operations, which formerly existed in the semi-public darknet, prosecutors were forced to concede they did not have a copy of the domain registry.

Clark’s defence team responded by launching a barrage of strategic questions which could, at the least, prolong the extradition process. Shortly afterwards, the court session concluded and Clark was shuffled back to prison. (The hearing was attended by only one other person, a slick-looking Chinese man who described himself as a law student.)

As for Clark's newest gambit to save himself from extradition, it comes right out of a spy movie. He said that he recently requested a meeting with an intelligence official close to Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, because Clark has “top secret information” for the military government.

“I am going to write (the information) on a piece of paper for them and hand it to them to read. It’s not even going to be 40 words; it’s just going to be 39 words. 39 words exactly,” he said. “The deal can only be done within six days after the verdict has been read, and I have no idea how long this is going to drag on for.”

Freelance journalist Sam Cooley tweets at @samcooley.