Ross Ulbricht conceived of his Silk Road black market as an online utopia beyond law enforcement’s reach. Now he’ll spend the rest of his life firmly in its grasp, locked inside a federal penitentiary.
On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible. The minimum he could have served was 20 years.
“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew husky with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”
Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable—before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups.
Two of those seven charges were deemed redundant and dropped by the prosecution just days before the sentencing, though that technical change to the charges didn’t lessen Ulbricht’s mandatory minimum sentence—or his eventual punishment.
Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.
In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets. “Transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner,” Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel wrote in a memo to Judge Forrest two weeks ago.
But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road. “Praising Silk Road for including ‘harm reduction measures’ is akin to applauding a heroin dealer for handing out a clean needle with every dime bag,” the prosecution wrote in a letter to the judge.
The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.
“Although the Government has achieved some successes in combating these successor dark markets, they continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement,” read the prosecution’s letter. “To the extent that would-be imitators may view the risk of being caught to be low, many are still likely to be deterred if the stakes are sufficiently high.”
The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case—five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims. But they deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and no doubt loomed large in the mind of Judge Forrest at sentencing.
In his own letter to the judge ahead of sentencing, Ulbricht took a more personal tact, promising that he had learned that the Silk Road was a “terrible mistake” and a “very naive and costly idea” that he regretted and wouldn’t repeat. He pleaded for a chance at freedom in the decades after his incarceration.
“I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” he wrote. “Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.”