Blake Benthall had just pulled his gray Tesla out of the driveway next door to his rented house on Florida Street Wednesday afternoon when some 20 FBI agents, weapons drawn, surrounded him and then arrested him for allegedly running an illegal online marketplace.
“They told us to go inside the house,” said Francisco, who was visiting Benthall’s neighbors.
By Friday, the house at 915 Florida St. had become a local tourist site and neighbors talked about the unassuming man with a beard who had lived there.
“He would invite us to parties at his house,” said Francisco “He was a nice guy. I feel bad for him. The guy was an entrepreneur.”
Nearby residents knew the 26-year-old Benthall as a polite neighbor who occasionally threw loud parties. He also read the bible with his 85-year-old neighbor who rented out her driveway to him.
“He was very polite, he told me ‘let me know whenever you need a ride,’” said his 85-year-old neighbor. “I am really going to miss him.”
The neighbor, who asked that her name not be used, talked to the Texas-native about the bible – he kept a copy inside his Tesla. They also talked his visit with his mother this last summer.
“He told me about his mom who missed him very much,” the neighbor said getting emotional as she spoke. “As a mother I know what that feels like. I was the only person he talked to.”
Added Afi Lindberg, another neighbor, “He looked like just any other techie.”
What neighbors never suspected was that the self-described rocket scientist – he previously worked at Elon Musk’s Space X startup – was maintaining Silk Road 2.0, a black market for drugs and counterfeit documents that was generating $8 million in sales a month, according to New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
If convicted, Benthall faces life in prison on charges that include one count of conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking, one count of conspiring to traffic in fraudulent identification documents, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.
Benthal moved to Florida Street more than a year ago. He lived there with two roommates, but no one at the house answered the door on Friday afternoon.
Silk Road 2.0 opened on November 6, 2013 shortly after the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the original Silk Road. Ulbricht was also a Texas native living and working in San Francisco.
Defcon, the username attached to Benthall according to a court affidavit, took over operation of Silk Road 2.0 in December 2013.
His neighbors said they first knew the house where he lived because of an elaborate cutout of a pirate ship that hung in the apartment’s bay window.
In January, however, it became known as the house where the owner of the new Tesla lived. Bethall bought the $127,000 Tesla in January using $70,000 worth of Bitcoin as a down payment, according to the court affidavit.
“My son was the one who told me about the expensive car,” said Graciela Trasvina.
On Friday morning, two days after the raid, the Tesla was gone, but the house had become a local curiosity.
“I would never think that was a drug house at all,” said Carrie Ryder, a neighbor who was outside taking a photo of the house. “It was hiding in plain sight.”
First posted at 7:50 a.m. Nov. 8, 2014