Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury Roasts Ulbricht as Silk Road’s Real ‘Dread Pirate’

MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal jury wasted no time in fingering Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht on Wednesday as the underground website's elusive leader, Dread Pirate Roberts.

The clock had barely struck noon when a diverse pool of 12 jurors finished receiving their lengthy instructions about how to conduct their deliberations in a closely-watched case of the controversial Silk Road website.

Federal agents estimate the underground marketplace, a so-called "hidden service" of the Tor browser, facilitated sales of more than $182.9 million in the global drug trade.

Evidence in the case against its founder, Ross Ulbricht, spanned nearly three weeks of testimony, and included hundreds of exhibits adding up to thousands of pages. Lawyers on both sides left much of the voluminous record in the jury room for inspection.

Working through their lunch break, the jury had its forewoman pass a note to the bailiff at 3:20 pm.

As Ulbricht's family sat nervously in the gallery, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest inspected the paper before announcing: "It says the jury has reached a verdict."

Jurors made no eye contact with Ulbricht as they took to their seats for the deputy's recitation of their form.

The still-boyish looking Ulbricht, 30, kept a stolid face, but his sister wept into her lap as the first of seven counts read "guilty." Ulbricht's parents held their composure, but both had their faces in their hands by count three.

Every special finding came in favor of the prosecution in the unanimous, sweeping verdict.

Convicted on all seven counts, Ulbricht faces a potential life sentence for aiding $182.9 million in global narcotics sales. Ulbricht also faces time for Silk Road's money-laundering and false-ID businesses.

A former Eagle Scout from Texas, Ulbricht wanted jurors to believe that he merely founded the website as an "economic experiment" in anonymous shopping in 2011.

Denying that Ulbricht captained the online Silk Road under the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts, the defense claimed that their client was "set up" by the "real" DPR, named after a character in the William Goldman book turned 1980s film "The Princess Bride."

It took less than four hours of deliberation for the federal jury to reject that defense on Wednesday.

Agents found reams of evidence on Ulbricht's laptop tying him to the DPR pseudonym, including chat logs, journal entries, business logs, sales spreadsheet, and password keys. More than $18 million in the digital currency bitcoin was found on Ulbricht's computer, and an equivalent amount listed on Silk Road's "mastermind" page under the field "cold Bitcoins."

Journal entries found on Ulbricht's computer state that his first sales on the website were "several kilos of high shrooms," grown near his home in Austin, Texas. The FBI found an eBook about creating a drug laboratory, receipts for the supplies needed, and emails about renting a secluded nearby cabin on Ulbricht's computer.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner described such files as "overwhelming" and "damning" proof of Ulbricht's guilt.

For defense attorney Joshua Dratel, the trove of incriminating evidence found on his client's computer was "too convenient," especially for an enterprise that traded in cyber-security.

With sentencing set for May 15, Dratel said "of course" they will appeal.

"Bye, Ross," Ulbricht's mother, Lyn, said as U.S. Marshals ushered him from the courtroom. "We love you, Ross. It's not the end."

Regularly attending court proceedings, Ulbricht's parents have been constant advocates for their son and still maintain his innocence. They were not shy about pressing their case for the what they called the "travesty" of their Ulbricht's case.

Lyn Ulbricht emphasized that both her son's expert witnesses, Columbia University-affiliated computer scientist Steven Bellovin and bitcoin expert Andreas Antonopoulos, had been struck from the witness list.

"I think that if the defense witnesses had been allowed to testify, I think it would have been a very different case," she said. "Again, it's not a fair trial. It's not an even playing field, and I think it's a travesty."

Other reactions to the verdict show that Silk Road's legacy will continue to divide the court of public opinion. One of Ulbricht's defenders shouted, "Ross is a hero," after the verdict.

While trial evidence showed that the vast majority of the site's vendors sold drugs, some of Silk Road's libertarian stalwarts still hail it as a way to free consumers from corporate or governmental interference.

But in a statement celebrating the conviction, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it little more than a "black-market bazaar" where the "supposed anonymity of the dark web" offered far less a haven than advertised.

"Ulbricht's arrest and conviction - and our seizure of millions of dollars of Silk Road bitcoins - should send a clear message to anyone else attempting to operate an online criminal enterprise," Bharara said.

With Ulbricht facing, at minimum, a mandatory 20-year sentence, Dratel told reporters that prosecutors never offered his client a plea that was "meaningful with respect to any exposure or anything like that."

"As to whether or not [Ulbricht] would have taken up the offer, that's a totally different question in terms of our discussions," he added.

Ulbricht's case has led many to speculate how federal courts will handle offenses involving the digital currency bitcoins and the so-called Deepnet, a vast swath of the web hidden by encryption that some experts estimate encompasses 99 percent of the Internet.

Dratel told reporters that the precedent could pose a "significant problem" for any case involving electronic media - and not just for cybercrime prosecutions.

"One of the problems with a case like this is that it presents the possibility of anyone here, all of us, being judged by things for which there is no attribution in real life," he said. "There's only attribution on the Internet where things can be created, modified, edited, moved or hacked. And it's a significant problem going forward if the standard is so low for the evidentiary admission of that information."

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.