Ross Ulbricht will spend the rest of his life in prison. The convicted founder and operator of the Silk Road, an online drug market that operated in a hidden corner of the Internet, was sentenced in Manhattan federal court Friday to two life sentences plus 30 years. Ulbricht, who sat stoically through the three-week trial, tearfully apologized for his actions and asked Judge Katherine Forrest of the U.S. Southern District Court of New York to consider leniency before she gave her decision.
“I've essentially ruined my life and broke the heart of every member of my family and all my closest friends,” Ulbricht, clad in a blue jumpsuit, said with a slight Southern accent. “I'm so sorry. Your honor, I wouldn't want to be in your position but I am here and ready for whatever sentence you think is wise.”
But Forrest was unmoved, sentencing him to two life sentences plus 30 years, virtually guaranteeing the 31-year-old will spend the rest of his days in prison. Ulbricht, his family and a handful of supporters looked on in the Manhattan courtroom as prosecution witnesses testified about friends and family members who overdosed on drugs purchased on the Silk Road.
“What you did was unprecedented and in breaking that ground you now sit here and pay the price for that,” Forrest said from the bench. “You're a criminal. This wasn't a game, and you knew that.”
Ulbricht shrugged his shoulders as Forrest announced her decision. Various members of his family, seated in the second row of the courtroom, sighed and hugged one another.
It took a jury less than four hours on Feb. 4 to determine that Ulbricht operated the Silk Road from February 2011 until October 2013 under the screen name Dread Pirate Roberts. Prosecutors portrayed the Texas native as a digital kingpin who oversaw $1.2 billion in drug transactions that took place in a hidden corner of the Internet. He was convicted on two charges of distributing narcotics, operating a continuing criminal enterprise (which alone carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison) and four conspiracy counts.
He pleaded not guilty on all charges and is expected to appeal the ruling after frequent objections about what evidence was allowed into trial.
The judge took particular aim at the notion pushed by Ulbricht's defense and army of supporters that the Silk Road, by removing drug sales from the street corner, fell into the category of “harm deterrence,” and was thus a net positive for society.
“No drug dealer from the Bronx has made this argument in front of this court,” she said. “This is an argument of the privileged, and it is coming from the privileged. You are no better than any other drug dealer.”
Two parents of Silk Road customers testified during the sentencing hearing. The mother of a 16-year-old boy from Perth, Australia, said her son, Preston, took a synthetic purchased on the Silk Road before jumping out of a hotel window to his death. Preston was a happy, popular teenager preparing to attend a school dance on a Friday, she said, and by Monday his family had made the decision to pull his life support.
Before that a man spoke on behalf of his son, Brian, a 26-year-old professional found dead of a heroin overdose with a computer open to the Silk Road nearby. He said the Silk Road, and by extension the anonymous Tor browser, not only hid criminal communication from law enforcement, but addicts' communication from concerned families.
“He was managing to fight these urges until he found Ross Ulbricht's Silk Road,” said the father, Richard, before asking the judge to impose the toughest possible sentence. “Since Ross Ulbricht's arrest, my family and I have endured the persistent drumbeat of his supporters, who have portrayed him as a hero and his crimes as victimless.”
Ulbricht said he initially started the website as a libertarian economic experiment, a project motivated by idealism and a willingness to let people live as they choose. Forrest didn't buy it, citing the level of control Ulbricht held over the Silk Road. Along with setting detailed terms of service, he prohibited the sale of many illicit goods, forced users to transact in bitcoin and took a substantial commission from each sale.
“It wasn't about democracy. You were the captain of the ship,” Forrest said. “It was a ship of rules you created, and there were a lot of rules.”
Ulbricht was arrested on Oct. 1, 2013, in a San Francisco public library with his hands on the keyboard and while logged in to an administrator section of the Silk Road as the Dread Pirate Roberts. During trial the prosecution read from a series of diary entries that Ulbricht kept about his thoughts, frustrations and criminal concerns while operating the Silk Road.
"It's still unclear to me why you ever wrote a journal," Forrest said.
The Dark Net, the Internet's criminal underbelly where the Silk Road thrived, has become synonymous with offering illicit services as depraved as child pornography, contract killers and hacking operations. The Silk Road's terms of service prohibited each of those options, yet prosecutors also accused Ulbricht of orchestrating multiple murders, something he was never charged with.
“Ulbricht's conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched,” the prosecution said in a letter to Forrest this week. “Ulbricht did not merely commit a serious crime in his own right. He developed a blueprint for a new way to use the Internet to undermine the law and facilitate criminal transactions. Using that blueprint, others have followed in Ulbricht's footsteps, establishing new 'dark markets' in the mold of Silk Road, some selling an even broader range of illicit goods and services than Silk Road itself.”
Ulbricht's defense, led by attorney Joshua Dratel, argued that Ulbricht founded the Silk Road as a libertarian marketplace and walked away only to be lured back in and made the scapegoat when bad actors realized the police were closing in. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Secret Service were later indicted for money laundering and wire fraud during their time investigating the Silk Road.
The story is the subject of multiple book and film projects.