A little more than a year ago, Ross William Ulbricht was busy adding Westlake High School classmates to a Facebook group, building momentum and excitement for their upcoming 10-year reunion.
Perhaps from that same laptop computer, federal officials say, he was simultaneously operating a billion-dollar online drug ring and potentially plotting to kill a former employee. The revelations began reaching his hometown late Wednesday, received national attention throughout Thursday, and shocked and puzzled many who know him.
In a brief interview with the Austin American-Statesman, his grandmother said the allegations were stunning and that Ulbricht, 29, was "smart and sweet" growing up. Martha Ulbricht of Georgetown, Texas, said she expected her grandson's life to be filled with success, and that "right now, it's really a tragic situation."
Other family members, including Ulbricht's parents, declined to comment at an Austin home that public records show is their residence.
According to court records, Ulbricht is charged with drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering; a separate indictment in Maryland accuses him in a failed murder-for-hire plot.
Silk Road, the website that agents said he operated, allowed users to anonymously browse nearly 13,000 listings under categories such as "Cannabis," "Psychedelics," and "Stimulants" before making purchases using the electronic currency Bitcoin.
Over the course of its operation, the black market site brokered more than $US1 billion ($A1.06 billion) in transactions for illegal drugs and services, according to court documents.
Federal agents arrested Ulbricht on Tuesday afternoon in a San Francisco public library.
Much about Ulbricht's life growing up in the Austin area remained unknown on Thursday. Many high school classmates didn't return phone calls or emails for comment. Those who did said they had only vague memories of him, but recalled his intelligence.
"I'm totally shocked," said Sarah Evans, executive director of Well Aware, which works to provide water to Africa.
Evans said she met Ulbricht through a mutual friend who volunteered for her agency a couple of years ago and that he was operating a company called Good Wagon Books at that time. She said Ulbricht helped organise a book drive for the nonprofit organisation, collecting books, selling them online and giving the organisation the money.
"He had a big heart, and he was clearly very smart," she said. "Just in conversations with him, he was super-sharp."
Although they declined to comment on Thursday, Ulbricht's parents, Kirk and Lyn, told the Reuters news service in a phone interview that they didn't known what their son was doing in San Francisco, but said he was a bright student who received a master's in material sciences from Pennsylvania State University. He also attended the University of Texas-Dallas, where he studied physics.
Forbes.com reported that Ulbricht's half-brother, Travis, said that Ross Ulbricht was "an exceptionally bright and smart kid. He's always been upstanding and never had any trouble with the law that I knew of".
According to published reports, Ulbricht moved to San Francisco last northern autumn. Technology news website The Verge reported that a close friend, Rene Pinnell, who lived with Ulbricht, was shocked.
"I don't know how they messed it up, and I don't know how they got Ross wrapped into this, but I'm sure it's not him," Pinnell, originally from Austin, told the site.
He declined to comment to the American-Statesman on Thursday.
Public records show the Ulbricht family lived at another Austin home until several years ago, but then moved to Costa Rica for a period.
A rental home website shows the couple advertising property in Costa Rica.
Kirk Ulbricht was described as an Austin green builder and home designer while Lyn is a freelance writer. The property was where the couple "and their children love to gather with friends and family," the website says.