The man known as the Dread Pirate Roberts was sentenced to life in prison for running a $214 million online drug bazaar called Silk Road, despite pleas for leniency for the 31-year-old from friends and family who claimed he was naive in creating the website.
Ross William Ulbricht was convicted of conspiracy and drug trafficking through the cyber-bazaar, where anonymous users used bitcoins to buy drugs, hacking tools and fake identification.
The government warned that Silk Road has been used as a blueprint for a new era of online criminal conduct, where corner dealers are replaced by laptops. Ulbricht admitted he founded Silk Road, but said he later turned the site over to others who developed it into the criminal enterprise it became.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan rejected Ulbricht’s claim that he was naive and impulsive when he started Silk Road as an economic experiment.
“It was a carefully planned life’s work,” Forrest said, as Ulbricht, wearing blue prison garb, fidgeted with his hands under the table during the judge’s comments, which lasted almost an hour. “You wanted it to be your legacy. And it is.”
The judge had to choose between two vastly different pictures of Ulbricht in deciding the sentence.
“You’re a complicated person and you don’t fit the typical criminal profile,” she said.
Defense lawyers, parents and friends painted him as an idealistic, naive young man who set up the online marketplace and quickly found himself in over his head.
Prosecutors said he was more like a drug kingpin, profiting from cyberspace sales of illegal wares, and that he tried to arrange at least five murders to protect his business. The government said it didn’t believe any were carried out. Forrest said there was “ample and unambiguous evidence” of the plots.
During the sentencing hearing, Forrest heard from the father of a 25-year-old Boston man who died of a heroin overdose and the mother of a 16-year-old Australian who took a drug designed to mimic LSD at a post-prom party and then jumped off a balcony to his death. Prosecutors said the two victims were among at least six who died after taking drugs that were bought through Silk Road.
Peter Skinner, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor, said before the sentencing that the government’s decision not to ask for a life sentence reflected a Justice Department decision that some leniency was warranted.
Ulbricht’s lawyer, called the sentence “unreasonable, unjust, unfair.”
“This was mainly about appeals to emotion,” Joshua Dratel said.
Dratel said Ulbricht will appeal the conviction and sentence, based on rulings Forrest made before and during the trial. Dratel also pointed to charges that two former federal agents involved in the Silk Road investigation stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoins.
Lyn Ulbricht, Ross’s mother, said she was “shocked” by the life sentence. She said she fears for her son’s life if he’s assigned to serve his time in a maximum-security prison.
Forrest ordered Ulbricht to forfeit $184 million, the total of drug and fake ID sales documented in Silk Road records.
Ulbricht claimed Silk Road provided a safer alternative to users who would otherwise buy drugs from street dealers. The ability to rate sellers on the site helped guarantee quality and consistency, reducing the harm to users, he said. It was a claim the judge rejected.
Forrest said Silk Road expanded the market for drugs, increasing violence that’s typical in the drug trade in places like Afghanistan and Mexico.
She also read excerpts from Ulbricht’s e-mails, citing them as examples of his disregard of the welfare of others.
“First one’s free, little Johnny,” the judge read from one of the messages.
Just weeks after Ulbricht’s arrest, an almost identical online market called “Silk Road 2.0” was launched. Blake Benthall, the alleged operator, was arrested in November and, like Ulbricht, was charged with enabling users to buy and sell drugs and other illegal products.
Since then, other dark web marketplaces have popped up, including OpenBazaar, a decentralized market that lets people buy and sell goods directly to each other, without an operator like Ulbricht at the helm. That makes it tougher for law enforcement which has to go after the buyers and sellers instead of an administrator.
Ulbricht apologized to the victims’ families and said he wasn’t greedy or vain, and doesn’t care for status symbols or luxury.
“I was taught to be humble and live a modest lifestyle,” he told the judge, holding back tears during his statement.
Ulbricht’s lack of sophistication helped lead to his downfall, said Austin Berglas, former Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Branch in New York. He supervised the team that investigated Silk Road.
Berglas said Ulbricht had some understanding of running an online marketplace, but needed help. Some of the know-how came from his friend Richard Bates, a computer programmer.
Bates, frowning and reluctant, testified against Ulbricht at trial as part of an agreement to avoid prosecution.
“When you’re running a site for so long, you’re going to leave digital breadcrumbs,” said Berglas, now the head of cyber investigations and incident response for K2 Intelligence.
He said he had expected Ulbricht to plead guilty in a bid to win a more lenient sentence.
“I think it’s very sad,” Berglas said. “Ross is a young, highly intelligent, motivated individual.”
The Ulbricht case is U.S. v. Ulbricht, 14-cr-00068, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).