by Liz Fields, Vice
Ross Ulbricht, the hiking, yoga-loving libertarian convicted of masterminding and running the online black market bazaar known as Silk Road, has been sentenced to life in prison.
At the hearing on Friday, Judge Katherine Forrest, who has presided over the gnarled case that has revealed many twisted plots and shadowy secrets since it began in January, delivered her verdict in front of a packed courtroom.
“I don’t know that you feel a lot of remorse,” Forrest said to Ulbricht. “I don’t think you know that you hurt a lot of people.”
The 31-year-old Ulbricht, a former Boy Scout, sat with his lawyers. Minutes before Forrest delivered her decision, Ulbricht reportedly made a tearful last plea for leniency to the court.
“I’ve changed — I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” Ulbricht said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble.”
The minimum sentence he could have possibly received was 20 years.
Even in the days before his sentencing, Ulbricht had denied his involvement in running the “dark” website that he had previously admitted to founding as part of a libertarian experiment — a sort of Amazon or eBay-type marketplace where users could buy or sell any description of goods, from drugs and arms to murder for hire, with the supposedly untraceable currency known as bitcoin.
In an impassioned letter to the court this week, Ulbricht made a plea for Forrest to spare him life in prison and instead sentence him to 20 years, saying that creating Silk Road turned out to be a “very naïve and costly idea that I deeply regret.”
“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.”
Ulbricht’s mother, Lynn Ulbricht, told VICE News ahead of the sentencing the family was “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”
“Even the best possible is a very long prison sentence for nonviolent convictions spanning two decades of the most productive and rewarding years of Ross’ life,” she said.
To this day, Ulbricht has refuted that he operated the site under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts. During the trial, his lawyers tried to convince the court that Ulbricht was simply a patsy, and after creating the site, left it in the hands of another operator — the “real” Roberts — who turned it into the $1.2 billion underground emporium it became before the feds shuttered the site.
But from the start, the evidence against Ulbricht was manifold and damning. Screenshots of drug listings, several journals providing information on transactions in painstaking detail, fake identification documentation, and thousands of pages of chat logs were just some of the data seized by the multi-agency federal taskforce from Ulbricht’s home and laptop after his arrest in October 2013.
Some of that evidence retrieved became the subject of inquiries into authorities’ dubious investigative methods, including early allegations of an illegal search and seizure of data from Silk Road’s servers abroad. The revelation in March that two senior Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents also allegedly pilfered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoins during the nearly two-year investigation also did nothing to allay the multiple online government-conspiracy theories surrounding the case.
But despite these setbacks, Ulbricht was ultimately convicted in February on a raft of charges, including drug trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering, and hiring assassins to take out members of Silk Road.
This week, federal prosecutors sent their own 16-page letter to judge Forrest asking her to slap Ulbricht with “a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum,” to “send a clear message” to others involved in the dark website racket. Since Silk Road was shut down, many other drug marketplaces peddling similar — or worse — products have sprung up to meet demand.
“Ulbricht’s conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched,” the letter says. “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.”
Forrest appeared to agree.
“In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist,” she told Ulbricht as she delivered his sentence. “You were captain of the ship — the dread Pirate Roberts.”
“Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its… creator was better than the laws of this country,” she added. “This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
The federal prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to VICE News’s calls for comment Friday.
Lynn Ulbricht said that her son plans to appeal the decision and that his attorneys say there are “very strong” grounds for appeal.
For now, Ross Ulbricht will remain in the Brooklyn, New York, jail he has spent more than a year in since his arrest, teaching his fellow inmates math, physics, and yoga, his mother said.