The suspected mastermind of the online drug emporium Silk Road is facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict at the end of a four-week trial that revealed a plethora of detail about US investigations into the use of the bitcoin digital currency for drug trafficking and other crimes.
Ross Ulbricht, 30, was convicted on all seven charges which he had faced at Manhattan district court, including drug trafficking, criminal enterprise, aiding and abetting the distribution of drugs over the internet, computer hacking and money laundering.
His defence team attempted to convince the jury that, while Ulbricht was one of the site’s creators, known as Dread Pirate Roberts, the mysterious mastermind behind the deep-web marketplace was actually Mark Karpelès, the founder of bitcoin exchange Mt Gox.
However, the prosecution was able to produce evidence including Ulbricht’s personal journals, as well as his bitcoin wallet containing millions of dollars’ worth of the online-only currency, all of which pointed to his guilt.
Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in October 2013 in the wake of US investigations into the use of bitcoin for drug trafficking and other illegal activities and charged with being Dread Pirate Roberts, a name taken from the film The Princess Bride where it referred to a mythical persona shared between several people.
Visitors to Silk Road could procure anything from LSD to ecstasy pills and even read reviews and star ratings left by previous customers of dealers, rather as one might do on sites such as eBay or Amazon.
By spring 2013, 10,000 products were for sale, 70% of which were drugs, in addition to more than a hundred listings for “services,” much of which related to hacking into social network accounts, and more than 800 listings for digital goods such as pirated content or hacked Amazon and Netflix accounts. Fake drivers’ licences and fake passports could also be found.
Prosecutors said Silk Road had generated nearly $213.9m (£140m) in sales and $13.2m in commissions before police shut it down. Police had claimed that Ulbricht had been running the site since 2011, doing so for much of 2013 from his home in San Francisco and from a nearby cafe where he was eventually arrested.
The jury of six men and six women needed a little over three hours to deliberate while Ulbricht turned toward his supporters and raised his hand as he was led from the court after the verdict was read.
“Ross is a hero,” shouted one of the supporters who have rallied behind him and regard the US government’s case as an attack on internet freedom.
The US attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said Ulbricht’s conviction should send a message to anyone attempting to operate an online criminal enterprise.
“The supposed anonymity of the dark web is not a protective shield,” he said.
Ulbricht had conceded that he created Silk Road, which his defence team had said was intended as a “freewheeling, free-market site” where all but a few harmful items could be sold. They argued that the “economic experiment” became too stressful for him, so he handed it to others before being lured back.
Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht’s lawyer, had tried to raise questions in jurors’ minds about whether someone else had been operating Silk Road, such as Karpelès, who was never charged and has denied involvement.
Although a federal agent told jurors he had been investigating Karpelès, the judge, Katherine Forrest, struck out much of that testimony as improper.
Ulbricht faces up to life in prison and a minimum term of 20 years. His sentencing was scheduled for 15 May, although his defence team signalled he would appeal. A separate trial of Ulbricht in Baltimore, on charges including attempted commission of a murder-for-hire, continues.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010