It’s been an arduous process but Ross Ulbricht, creator and alleged mastermind behind the infamous Silk Road website, has been sentenced to life in prison. The Silk Road was essentially an online black market, where users could buy and sell virtually anything with bitcoin – an untraceable digital currency. It exists on what’s known as the ‘dark net’, a realm of the internet that hides a users real IP address and is only accessible through specific networks. Prosecutors claim more than one-million illegal exchanges (ranging from drugs to firearms to hit-men for hire) took place through the Silk Road, which has since been shut down.
Ulbricht, 31, attended the hearing on Friday where he faced a multitude of charges, including: drug trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering, and even hiring assassins to take out members of Silk Road. In the last minutes before the decision was made, Ulbricht tearfully pleaded with the court.
“I’ve changed — I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” Ulbricht said in a shaky tone, “I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble.”
But the judge, Katherine Forrest who had been with the case since it began in January, had already made her decision. “I don’t know that you feel a lot of remorse,” she said to Ulbricht. “I don’t think you know that you hurt a lot of people.”
To this day, Ulbricht denies that he was the one operating the site under the notorious pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts”. He did admit that he was the original creator of the ‘dark’ site but maintains that he has become a fall guy, as he handed off control of the site to another person after its initial creation. The ‘real’ Roberts was the one who made the underground supermarket into a $1.2 billion emporium before the Feds shut it down. In a passionate letter sent to the court this week, Ulbricht asked judge Forrest to spare him life in prison and instead give him the minimum of 20 years.
“Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they individually saw fit,” Ulbricht wrote. “What it turned into, was, in part, a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions… I learned from Silk Road that when you give people freedom, you don’t know what they’ll do with it.”
Regardless of this sentiment, there was simply too much damming evidence. Screenshots of drug listings, thousands of pages of chat logs, and fake identification documentation is just a fraction of the incriminating data a federal task force of multiple agencies seized from Ulbricht’s home after his initial arrest in 2013. This evidence is hard to ignore, but some people are questioning the methods used to find it. The authorities investigating Ulbricht were said to have performed illegal searches and seizure of data from Silk Road’s servers, and two senior DEA agents allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoins during their almost 2-year investigation. Ulbricht is already planning to appeal, with his lawyers saying that there are many grounds on which to do so, the shady practices used to prosecute the culprit being one of them.
However the odds are very much against him. The federal prosecutors also sent a letter to Forrest regarding the case, asking her to give Ulbricht “a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum” for the purpose of sending a “clear message” to others involved in similar dark net practices. With such a prominent illegal platform shut down, there is a now a huge demand left in its place. Ulbricht’s extreme sentence is supposed to be a way of warning others not to try and meet this demand, lest they want to risk the same fate. “Ulbricht’s conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched,” the letter reads, “The Court thus has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example that the operation of these illegal enterprises comes with severe consequences.”
“Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its… creator was better than the laws of this country,” Forrest said in her final verdict. “This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
It’s unknown just how things are going to pan out over the next few weeks, but for now, Ross Ulbricht remains in the Brooklyn, New York, jail. The same one he has spent more than a year in since his arrest.