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American Kingpin

The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road Drugs Empire
Narrated by: Will Damron
Length: 12 hrs and 14 mins
Categories: Non-fiction, True Crime
5 out of 5 stars (499 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Random House presents the unabridged downloadable audiobook edition of American Kingpin by Nick Bilton, read by Will Damron.

From New York Times best-selling author Nick Bilton comes a true-life thriller about the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, the founder of the online black market Silk Road.

In 2011, Ulbricht, a 26-year-old libertarian idealist and former Boy Scout, launched 'a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them'. He called it Silk Road, opened for business on the Dark Web, and christened himself the Dread Pirate Roberts (after the Princess Bride character). The site grew at a tremendous pace, quickly becoming a $1.2 billion enterprise where you could buy or sell drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, guns, grenades, and poisons.

The Silk Road soon caught the attention of the feds, who embarked on an epic two-year manhunt for the site's proprietor. Ulbricht, in the meantime, struggled to maintain control of his double life and his marketplace, which he originally started to prove that legalising drugs could make society safer. He gradually abandoned his libertarian ideals to rule Silk Road with increasingly authoritarian force. At one point he engaged the services of hired hitmen to take out employees he felt had wronged him. Soon some of the federal agents who were supposed to be hunting for Ulbricht were lured into the dark world and switched sides to join him.

This is a true-life thriller about ambition gone awry, spurred on by the defining clash of our time: the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralised web advocates and the old world of government control, order and the rule of law. Bilton's dazzling rendering and gift for narrative make for an endlessly fascinating drama.

©2017 Nick Bilton (P)2017 Random House Audiobooks

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riveting story

learnt so much about the Sill Road, amazing story could not stop listening. excellent narration, highly recommend to everyone out there.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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what a ride!

Pretty amazing story, will make a fantastic movie! Shows corruption along with the battle of percieved good vs evil.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Loved this

I usually listen to a mix of podcasts and an audiobook during any one week, but my podcasts were completely neglected as I listened to this. Kept me listening and was a super interesting story.

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Wonderful Investigative Journalism

A truly brilliant story told in the first person by a talented journalist and writer. Captivating from start to finish, I could not turn it off. It is a story of the internet and how the war of drug prohibition has just met it’s nuclear age in the advent of the internet.

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Addictive, perfect for lovers of true crime

This is a fantastic and very addictive narrative. I hope they make it into a movie!

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Enthralling real life tale of intrigue & capture.

From the opening page (so to speak) Bilton engages and doesn't let attention slide for a moment. If you're aware of the Silk Road saga you know the result going in, but still I was taken aback by the sheer front of the ringmasters. Given the Original founder's intent for the Silk Road, and temporary runaway mission success (100s of millions in turnover), it makes one question if an unregulated, laissez faire society can successfully exist. A thoroughly researched and very well put together story.

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Fantastic

The story was well documented and captured with a story that needed to be told.

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Powerful narrative

Brilliant masterpiece of fact more enthralling than fiction. When does the film version come out?

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Insightful

loved it. A complicated story well researched, written and read. highly recommend if a true crime fan

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Incredibly compelling

This is such an incredibly compelling story. The amount of research that has gone into creating this piece of narrative non-fiction is amazing. It tells the story concurrently for multiple angles...Ross, and numerous different investigators from the DEA, IRS, FBI, HS and more. If you are interested in true crime read this book. Seeing Ross progress from your average guy next door to an international drug kingpin is scary only because it happened so easily from behind a screen. The story is wild enough to be fiction. Very well written and very well read.

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  • yul
  • 07-11-2019

interesting book

the story itself is very interesting, but the book is written in a report style that I didn't like much

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  • Anonymous User
  • 28-03-2019

Simply Amazing

As the title says, this book was simply amazing. The story telling is excellent and no question was left unanswered.

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  • Mike Walker
  • 09-01-2019

great story

fascinating story of modern criminal
very well researched and narrated.
highly recommended listen for all.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-10-2018

Epic listen

Great story line, well thought out and really well told.

Best audible I have heard so far and definitely recommend it.

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  • Klarita
  • 18-08-2018

Gripping, highly detailed and fascinating listen.

I wasn't actually expecting such a brilliant listen when I bought the book. I'd heard about the Silk Road but didn't know too much. Absolutely gripping story, albeit slightly repetitive at times, but truly fascinating, from every aspect. Wonderful!

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  • Ankit R.
  • 26-07-2018

Fast, impactful and addictive!

This has to be in my top reads at audible. The narrator does a great job that you feel you are there with the protagonist at every step along the way. Beautifully describes the depth and complexity of the characters that almost makes you sympathetic to each side by the end. What I loved about American kingpin is the fast paced unfolding of the storyline! Must read!!

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  • A M
  • 15-10-2017

Really good

No matter how good you are if you gamble too many times you will get caught.

Great book.

It just interesting that there is so much going on out there. You dont know what you dont know.

Its a must read. I finished it in 3 days

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark Horwell
  • 08-09-2017

A real insight in to a criminal mastermind

It's extremely well written and level detail is amazing. I want to listen again. :-)

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • S. Bramble
  • 23-12-2017

Absolutely gripping

What made the experience of listening to American Kingpin the most enjoyable?

This story is told like the author was alongside Ross Ulbricht for his entire life which makes me believe some of the smaller details of the book are just entered for the sake of making the story complete. However, because of this, the story flows extremely well and paints a detailed picture of Ross's life

Any additional comments?

This book is absolutely gripping. This book starts off slowly, but soon gets completely riveting. It describes how The Silk Road grew from a small site selling magic mushrooms to the world's biggest online drug store, netting millions for Ross Ulbricht. Although the minor details could be fabricated, Bilton has pieced together the key points of the growth of the Silk Road and takes you on an epic journey from the start to the end of the Silk Road leaving you in no doubt as to Ross's guilt. An excellent book.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • A. Smythe
  • 13-12-2017

Thought provoking and addictive listen!

I wasn't enamoured with the writing or narration for this book. It doesn't flow well in places and so many phrases and sentences are repeated, I found myself rolling my eyes and tutting in the same way I do when watching a poorly presented documentary on TV.
The narration sounds a little robotic to begin with, but you do get used to it as the story unfolds.

With my criticisms out the way, it's important to note that I was fascinated from beginning to end. I had heard of the Silk Road, but knew little about it all.
What is clear, is that the author Nick Bilton has done his research (as mentioned at the start and end of the book); the meticulous details and chronological presentation shows how carefully Bilton worked to piece the facts together.
It is an incredible and enthralling true story and despite some misgivings regarding writing and narration, I could not wait to hear the next installment on my daily commute.
Recommend.

18 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Kirstine
  • 27-01-2018

Enthralling insight into the dark web

I didn’t know what to expect when I downloaded this book, but I’m very glad I did for it is a gripping and astonishing story about the creation of a massive world-wide online business facilitating the sale of drugs, guns and even body parts using the hidden world of the dark web aided by the employment untraceable bitcoin currency. The pacy writing style and the exciting cat and mouse tussle between those running the illicit website and the powers of law and order make this enthralling listen.

The narrator is excellent and helps create the feeling that one is experiencing the thrill of the chase.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Midnight Chance
  • 07-01-2018

excellent story

I loved this book. The narration is excellent and keeps the listener engaged. The story is fairly fast paced and fascinating. I also found it pretty shocking in places.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Simon Caldwell
  • 18-11-2017

Can't believe it's not fiction!

Really loved this. The story is well told with a performance from the narrator that does this story justice. It was fascinating to see both sides of the story and shows that both criminals and law enforcement are just people. Could not recommend this more.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Judy Corstjens
  • 05-02-2018

Gripping, thought-provoking, wonderful

I could not stop listening - I had to audio-walk so much this w/e that I eventually had to leave the dog at home as she was exhausted.

This is real-life Breaking Bad. A pretty normal, suburban, white, educated young man in Texas gets an idea to make it easy to buy and sell weed on-line, noticing that Bitcoin and the Dark Web have combined to make this proposition a real possibility. Hey-presto Ross Ulbricht finds himself running Amazon's evil twin from his laptop. The book reads like Breaking Bad, but is claimed to be close to reality. It is rather in the style (and brilliance) of Michael Lewis, perhaps a touch more racy, but maybe that is the material. There are plot twists here that are mind boggling.

The story is deeper than a simple crime thriller. It touches on the toxic distrust and loathing some Americans feel for their government, while at the same time providing a morality tale which shows why humans need a state - Ross gets robbed and scammed by the criminal elements he now frequents. It points at the cost and disfunction of the law and order infrastructure of the US (though there are also some real heroes). Highlights the problem of drugs - that there is so much demand out there, people desperate to buy drugs and pay large sums of money for them. How a criminal master-mind is born : Ulbricht really does order murders, but he is also just a stressed 28 year old, with a big problem he really needs to solve. There is also the business aspect - some of the challenges are similar to other 'unicorn' internet startups such as Facebook or Twitter. Less problems related to sales tax but more on the laundering side.

Narration. Perfect. Soft American voice is so unobtrusive you hardly notice it. Gentle inflexion for quotes from female and other characters without obvious accents and voices - very subtle, keeps you on track without intruding on what is meant to be a factual (non-fiction) account.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Jordan
  • 07-09-2019

Brilliantly-written mean-spirited garbage

I really enjoyed this book. It was exceptionally well written, it was paced perfectly, personalities were well-rounded and the story was well researched to some extent. However, there's something extremely alarming about this book which hits you as soon as it's finished - the author has hold of the establishment narrative on drugs and drug laws, and the key concepts of why Ross Ulbricht did what he did, are absolutely strangled out of existence with an overbearing ignorance of Ross' views, and also, an extremely mean-spirited view of Ross' life.

The author speaks with a laughably self-conscious commentary as though he is a billionaire philanderer who fell face-first into a bucket of success and cash, and who wrote the book in-between his quest as the modern day Alexander The Great. He sneers at almost every aspect of Ross' life and never fails to write mean-spirited quips about his appearance, his love-life, his lack of success in business ventures (which is somewhat dubious).

Many of these extremely negative and personal attacks on Ross are immediately contradicted as soon as we get into the remainder of the story - at first he describes Ross as a loser who should have just clung to the sidewalk like a pile of excrement, who was cheated on and a complete loser at life - but as this book continues with this commentary, something becomes extremely apparent: the author seemingly despises the average man and his foibles.

And it's very obvious - the author has spent so much time with his lips welded to the rear of the wealthy, that his hatred of working-class folks like Ross; with loves and losses, an average life, struggling to escape a life as a highly-educated barista or retail worker in an economy rapidly becoming degrading for most.

Ross is absolutely emblematic of most working people in America - trying and struggling to remain above water, and yet every aspect of what is extremely common in this broken world, is a major point of contention to Bilton. Ulbricht's characteristics of thrift, passion and action in a political world of apathy, dedication to learning and reading in the age of BuzzFeed and low-attention-spans, refusal to spend his riches on anything ostentatious or gaudy (except $1 million for assassinations), are all thrown underneath Bilton's establishment juggernaut.

Ulbricht's parents have derided this book as being a public hanging, and essentially they are correct. It is absolutely a salient point in this book to discuss that Ross was an idealistically-driven person who undoubtedly was corrupted by his consigliere into becoming a mere criminal with ideals and ultimately the commissioner of several murders, but there is absolutely ZERO discussion of Ross' position, or even any acknowledgment that despite Ross' awful and extremely immoral behaviour, it is far preferable to have places where harm is reduced, and in which people can buy drugs, than to simply stick with what has gone before, and continue to allow harm.

It was estimated that 20% of purchases were going through the Silk Road; that's 20% of deals which occurred with arguably far less violence and harm. The model that Ulbricht had of simply "everything is permitted" was absurd and an artefact of libertarian views, but again - any discussion of this, extremely salient fact, the very reason for the creation of the website - is resolutely ignored.

Not only this, but the perspective of the purveyors of the war on drugs is reflected as a breathless and non-stop fawning, in a world in which, aside from these two "bad apples", law enforcement and drug agencies are the most devoted, unbiased, and wonderful human beings to ever grace the earth. Any criticism of them, or even Ross' criticisms of them, is also bulldozed by Bilton's cast-iron desire to pay hardcore homage to the establishment, to the extent it makes you wonder if he went to biblical lengths of rending his garments every time they failed to capture Ulbricht.

It's not to be said that Ulbricht's failures shouldn't be put out for all to see, and they are. He was responsible for harm, albeit FAR LESS than the harm that occurs right now without the use of drug markets, several of which offer testing kits with drugs to help reduce harm and also which offers safety information. Regardless of that fact, those who died did die as a consequence, and Ross was involved with violent people and commissioned violent acts. But even in reporting these, Bilton worships heavily at the altar of "just say no" (which since that point he has, in interviews, very disingenuously argued for the war on drugs being a disaster) and neoliberal nonsense - and essentially writes the entire story in favour of the DEA, FBI and CIA, and of course the NSA.

There are some huge questions simply left out about how Ross was caught, and even worse, about the consequences to democracy and harm reduction felt right now due to resolute ignorance of a view of harm reduction.

The obvious nonsense about "CAPTCHA leaking" the IP address made it clear to many that the FBI had turned to the anti-democratic agency du-jour, the NSA, to illegally capture where his server was. And it's extremely clear that was the case, others have suggested, that - the FBI and others struggled, and turned to the NSA. And then with a hey-presto and a hoop-te-doo and massive invasion of rights, they found where the server was.

And this is the failure of the book. None of the salient ideology that Ross discussed is addressed, none of the MANY criticisms of the FBI, CIA, NSA and DEA are present in any way whatsoever. And it's a shame because it was thoroughly entertaining, but at the same time extremely gauling because Bilton could not have pressed his lips closer to the rear of the establishment if he tried.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Beatrice
  • 14-02-2018

Can’t put it away

I learned about the story though the podcast “Case files” and found it so interesting, I immediately purchased the audiobook and can’t stop listening. I constantly have to remind myself that this really happened.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Shoaib
  • 28-07-2017

Absolutely superb

Excellently researched, written and narrated. The author takes you into the complex mind of a criminal. Just as in "Batman Begins" rather than lazily depict the him as an evil criminal mastermind, the psychology and mind of "Ra's al Ghul" is explored and ultimately enables the viewer to understand why some people are motivated to do things. It is the easiest thing in the world to place labels on people. This book makes no apologies for the protagonist's crimes but at the same time takes the effort to dig deep and tell a fascinating story.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Kidster
  • 09-08-2018

Brilliant book well read about history of our time

I knew nothing of this book before i pressed play on my phone and since then I’ve not been able to put it down. fascinatingly read left me googling facts and people as Nick takes us through the life of DPR, a story so well written it had me gripped.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful