The judge argued Silk Road was run as a profitable criminal enterprise that expanded the market for dangerous drugs
Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road online black market, was on Friday sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole after US government prosecutors asked for an example to be made to discourage those looking to follow in Ulbricht’s footsteps.
Silk Road sold a wide range of illegal drugs, using the Tor anonymisation network and the digital currency Bitcoin to make its transactions difficult to trace. Prosecutors spoke of six drug users who died from overdoses of drugs purchased on the site, and before sentencing the Manhattan court heard from parents of two further individuals whose deaths were connected with Silk Road-purchased drugs.
“I strongly believe that my son would be here today if Silk Road had never existed,” said a man identified only as Richard B., whose 25-year-old son died of a heroin overdose.
The court also heard from Vicky B., the mother of a 16-year-old boy who died after jumping from a second-story roof following his consumption of a powerful Silk Road-purchased synthetic drug given to him at a school party.
Silk Road, created in 2011, was the largest “dark web” marketplace, offering 10,000 items for sale as of March 2013, 7,000 of which were drugs including heroin, MDMA and cannabis. The site generated nearly $213.9 million (£140m) in sales and $13.2m in commissions before being shut down, according to prosecutors.
The site was closed after Ulbricht was arrested in the science fiction section of a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Prosecutors said he was logged into the site’s master account and operating it from his laptop at the time of his arrest
In February Ulbricht was convicted on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a maintaining an “ongoing criminal enterprise”, a charge usually reserved for organised crime kingpins. Ulbricht’s attorneys have promised an appeal.
In a letter to Judge Katherine Forrest of the US district court for the southern district of New York, federal prosecutors wrote that a “lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case”.
‘A naive and costly idea’
Ulbricht himself also addressed the court ahead of the sentencing, arguing that his time in prison had taught him that Silk Road was a “terrible mistake”, a “very naive and costly idea” that he regretted. He spoke of his high-minded intentions in creating the site and asked for “a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker”.
Throughout the trial, Ulbricht’s lawyers had pointed to his idealism and his lack of any previous criminal record, while letters in his support had spoken of his qualities of honesty and kindness.
“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” the 31-year-old Texan physics graduate and former boy scout told the judge, adding, “I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road.” The minimum sentence Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.
Judge Forrest, however, sided with prosecutors in delivering the most severe sentence allowed under the law.
“For those considering stepping into your shoes… they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.
Silk Road’s successors have included Silk Road 2, Agora and Evolution, whose administrators unexpectedly shut it down in March, absconding with £8m in Bitcoins.
‘Carefully planned life’s work’
Forrest argued that while Ulbricht may have good qualities, in creating and operating Silk Road he acted as a ruthless criminal mastermind, citing accusations that he had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges, and while five out of the six appear to have been part of an elaborate scam, with no actual victims, Ulbricht was unaware of this, she pointed out.
“I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said.
Ulbricht’s defence had argued that Silk Road benefited drug users by protecting them from the violence of the street drugs trade, as well as ensuring the purity of the products through reviews and ratings, and hosting discussions on “safe” drugs use. Forrest called this argument “narrow”, noting that it was only the “privileged” final buyers of the drugs who were protected. Meanwhile the site “expands the market”, creating users “who hadn’t tried drugs before”, she said.
She refused to accept Ulbricht’s characterisation of the site as a youthful error. “It was a carefully planned life’s work. It was your opus. You wanted it to be your legacy. And it is,” Forrest said.
In addition to the prison sentence, Forrest ordered Ulbricht to pay a restitution of more than $183m, estimated by prosecutors as the total revenues from sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit identity documents through Silk Road over the course of its existence. Proceeds from the government’s sale of the bitcoins siezed from Silk Road and of Ulbricht’s laptop are to go toward the restitution.
Are you a security pro? Try our quiz!