Ross W. Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, a notorious online marketplace for the sale of heroin, cocaine, LSD and other illegal drugs, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Prosecutors did not ask for Ulbricht to get life in prison – the sentence recommended by the Probation Department – but they did ask for a sentence significantly longer than the 20-year mandatory minimum.
As one of our staff reported some 18 months ago, the arrest had little if anything to do with the technology, but everything to do with personality of Ross Ulbricht, and his actions in perverting that. For a while, though the way the case developed for Ulbricht made things look bleak for him, details of possible corruption among agents involved the investigations offered a ray of hope at a possible hung jury- or later at an appeal. But this scenario did not play out for the rogue entrepreneur who was cast as simply a greedy man interested in accumulating Bitcoin.
Mr. Ulbricht was convicted in February on charges that included engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and distributing narcotics on the Internet, each of which carried potential life terms. The government had also alleged that he had solicited the murders of people he saw as threats to his operation, and that at least six deaths were attributable to drugs bought on the site.
“Make no mistake, Ulbricht was a drug dealer and criminal profiteer who exploited people’s addictions and contributed to the deaths of at least six young people,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Transactions were made using the virtual currency Bitcoin, and Mr. Ulbricht, operating under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, took in millions of dollars in commissions, prosecutors have said. They said Mr. Ulbricht had “developed a blueprint for a new way to use the Internet to undermine the law and facilitate criminal transactions,” and that his conviction was “the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched. ” Prosecutors have said Ulbricht enabled over 1 million illegal drug deals worth about $213 million and pocketed 144,336 bitcoins that were worth $18 million.
During his trial, Mr. Ulbricht’s defense maintained that he had created the website but had turned it over to others before being lured back in and set up to take the fall. (The site was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after Mr. Ulbricht was arrested in 2013.) Mr. Dratel had denied that his client was the mysterious Dread Pirate Roberts, a character drawn from the book and movie “The Princess Bride.”
The sentencing reflected the court’s opinion that Ulbricht was essentially no better than a common drug trafficker, dispensing death stealthily with keystrokes instead of with brutality – but a drug dealer nonetheless. Prior to sentencing, many of the victims’ loved-ones paraded before the court to chronicle and catalog the pain they were experiencing for their losses. Ulbricht’s apparent contrition held no sway with the judge, however.
“The testimony of those parents was incredibly moving. I never wanted for that to happen,” Ulbricht said in Manhattan federal court Friday, his voice choked with emotion. “I’m so sorry to the families of the deceased.” He will have years to relive and reflect on the results of his crime. It is not clear when he will be eligible for parole, but it will be no time soon.