Ross Ulbricht, the man behind illegal online drug emporium Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday by Judge Katherine Forrest of Manhattan’s US district court for the southern district of New York.
Before the sentencing the parents of the victims of drug overdoses addressed the court. Ulbricht broke down in tears. “I never wanted that to happen,” he said. “I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path.”
The 31-year-old physics graduate and former boy scout was handed five sentences: one for 20 years, one for 15 years, one for five and two for life. All are to be served concurrently with no chance of parole.
The judge handed out the most severe sentence available to the man US authorities identified as “Dread Pirate Roberts”, pseudonymous founder of an Amazon-like online market for illegal goods.
“The stated purpose [of 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. You made your own laws,” Forrest told Ulbricht as she read the sentence.
Ulbrict had begged the judge to “leave a light at the end of the tunnel” ahead of his sentence. “I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” he wrote to Forrest this week. Prosecutors wrote Forrest a 16-page letter requesting the opposite: “[A] lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case.”
“I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble,” Ulbricht pled in court.
Forrest rejected arguments that Silk Road had reduced harm among drug users by taking illegal activities off the street. “No drug dealer from the Bronx has ever made this argument to the court. It’s a privileged argument and it’s an argument made by one of the privileged,” she said.
Silk Road was once the largest “dark web” marketplace for illegal drugs and other services. In March 2013 the secret site listed 10,000 items for sale, 7,000 of which were drugs including cannabis, MDMA and heroin. Prosecutors said Silk Road had generated nearly $213.9m (£140m) in sales and $13.2m in commissions before police shut it down.
Ulbricht was convicted in February after a four-week trial on all seven counts, from selling narcotics and money laundering to maintaining an “ongoing criminal enterprise”, a charge usually reserved for mob kingpins. Prosecutors said that he had gone so far as to solicit six murders for hire, although no charges were ever brought.
Throughout the trial, the defense suggested that Ulbricht was the victim of a complex hacking attack that left him looking like the fall guy. Given the evidence presented against Ulbricht, the pitch proved a hard sell to the jury.
Ulbricht was arrested in the science fiction section of his public library, “literally caught with his fingers at the keyboard, running Silk Road”, said the prosecution in its opening statement. He was logged in to the Silk Road master account, according to the agents who arrested him, and investigators found chat logs and other evidence on the hard drive that implicated him.
Forrest said she had taken special care to read the reams of documents sent to her in Ulbricht’s support, and that while it was unusual to do so, she wanted to address them at the sentencing, particularly those who’d said that an online drug marketplace reduced the violence of the drug trade.
After his conviction, Ulbricht’s defense argued that the Silk Road was in fact a boon to the health of its clients, especially those who habitually used drugs. Forrest found none of the arguments convincing.
“Silk Road created [users] who hadn’t tried drugs before,” Forrest said, adding that Silk Road “expands the market” and places demand on drug-producing (and violent) areas in Afghanistan and Mexico that grow the poppies used for heroin.
“The idea that it is harm-reducing is so narrow, and aimed at such a privileged group of people who are using drugs in the privacy of their own homes using their personal internet connections”, she said.
Two parents of children (identified only by their first names and last initials) who had died while using drugs obtained on Silk Road spoke to the court. Richard B., whose 25-year-old son died of a heroin overdose, expressed his anger at the people who have defended Ulbricht publicly. “Since Mr Ulbricht’s arrest, we have endured the persistent drumbeat of his supporters and their insistence that Silk Road was victimless,” he said. “I strongly believe that my son would be here today if Silk Road had never existed.”
Vicky B, whose 16-year-old son died after taking a powerful synthetic at a party and jumping from a second-story roof, said that the time since her son’s death had been unbearable. “This is the photo of the last kiss from my son,” she said, holding up a photo of herself with her son Preston before the school ball where he died.
“We keep Preston’s ashes at home,” she said, her voice breaking. “Sometimes I just hold them. Sometimes I get under a blanket with them and try to get warm.”
This article was written by Sam Thielman in New York, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th May 2015 21.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010