Ross Ulbricht, the man who developed the illegal online drug marketplace 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.
Parents of the victims of drug overdoses from narcotics bought on the site addressed the court before the sentencing. Ulbricht broke down in tears after remaining stoic for much of the trial.
“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 given several sentences, including a minimum sentence of 20 years, one for 15 years, one for five and two for life. The sentences are to be conducted simultaneously with no chance for parole.
Forrest handed out the most severe sentence available to the man identified as ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, Ulbricht’s pseudonym on the Amazon-like online market selling illegal substances and services.
As the judge read the sentence, she told Ulbricht: “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.”
Ahead of the sentencing, Ulbricht begged Forrest to “leave a light at the end of the tunnel” in an attempt to convince her to minimize his sentence. “I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” he wrote in a letter to the judge this week. At the same time, prosecutors wrote Forrest a 16-page letter calling for the opposite by stating that “[a] lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case.”
Pleading in court, Ulbricht said: “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.”
Forrest rejected arguments brought by the defense that Silk Road had reduced harm among drug users by taking operations off the streets. “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.
The defense also suggested that Ulbricht fell victim to a hacking attack that left him as the fall guy. However, as a result of the evidence presented against him, the pitch was difficult to sell despite their efforts.
Once the largest dark web marketplace for illegal drugs and services, Silk Road boasted a list of 10,000 items for sale, 7000 of which were drugs including cannabis, heroin, and MDMA. According to prosecutors, Silk Road had garnered nearly $213.9 million in revenue and $13.2 million in commissions prior to police shutting it down.
Ulbricht was apprehended in the science-fiction section of his local library. Agents involved in the arrest said he was logged-in to a Silk Road master account, with investigators finding chat logs and files on his hard drive that implicated him.
He was convicted in February after a four-week trial on several counts, including the sale of narcotics, money laundering, as well as maintaining “an ongoing criminal enterprise”, a charge mainly reserved for mob kingpins. Prosecutors also claimed that he had even solicited six murders for hire though no charges were ever brought.
Forrest said she had taken special care in reading the numerous documents supporting Ulbricht. While it was unusual to do so, she wished to address them at the sentencing, particularly those which stated that an online drug marketplace mitigated the violence of the drug trade.
After the conviction, Ulbricht’s defense argued that Silk Road was beneficial to the health of its clients, particularly those who frequently used drugs, as the site offered consultations on proper usage. Forrest was not convinced by any of the arguments.
“Silk Road created [users] who hadn’t tried drugs before,” Forrest said. She added that Silk Road “expands the market” and increases demand on drug-producing and oftentimes violent areas in Afghanistan and Mexico that grow the poppies used for heroin.
She further stated: “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.”
Two parents of children who had died using drugs purchased on Silk Road spoke to the court. One father, whose 25-year-old son died of a heroin overdose, expressed anger at those who publically defended Ulbricht.
“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.”
Another parent, whose 16-year-old son died after taking a powerful synthetic at a party which drove him to jump from a second-story roof described how the time since her son’s death has been unbearable.