MANHATTAN (CN) – Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht received a life sentence Friday after a federal judge denied the 31-year-old leniency for operating an underground drug website.
“What you did was unprecedented, and in breaking that ground as the first person, you sit here as the defendant now having to pay the consequences for that,” U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest told Ulbricht during a three-hour hearing on Friday.
From behind the mask of the online pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht steered a website that facilitated an estimated $182.9 million stake in the global drug trade and other black market products.
The black-market equivalent of eBay spawned legions of imitators still attempting to dodge law enforcement with the veil of encryption.
Of Silk Road’s other illicit wares, hacking software sold on the website tacked on another five years to the sentence, the fake ID transactions added another 15 years and the money laundering service added 20 more years.
This additional sentencing time served no practical effect because, as Judge Forrest noted, there is no possibility of parole in federal prison.
Barring Ulbricht’s success on a promised appeal, the sentence will snuff out any of the hope Ulbricht expressed in his letter to the judge of spending old age as a free man.
“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,” Ulbricht wrote.
Elaborating in the courtroom, Ulbricht spoke about the “little things” he missed in prison like “throwing a Frisbee to a dog in a park” and “Thanksgiving dinner with family.” His voice cracked as he reflected how he had “essentially ruined my life and broken the hearts of every member of my family and several of my friends.”
Those broken hearts were reflected in 100 letters that poured into Forrest’s chambers urging her to give the minimum sentence allowed under the statute, which would have been 20 years in prison.
Despite saying she was moved by those “beautiful letters,” Forrest added that Ulbricht must pay the price for Silk Road’s “assault on the public health of our communities.”
Grieving parents of two Silk Road users who died in drug overdoses also delivered emotional testimony before Ulbricht’s speech.
The father of “Brian B.,” who was found dead in Boston with heroin and a syringe, shared pictures of his deceased son with the judge and the attorneys. Ulbricht also leafed through pictures of the young man.
“It’s been nearly 20 months since I buried my son,” said the father, Richard, who added that one of the pictures showed marks on the son’s left forearm as a reminder to stay clean.
Ultimately, however, the ease of ordering heroin in perceived anonymity over the Internet pushed Brian off the wagon, Richard said.
Operating over the so-called Darknet, Silk Road was a “hidden service” of the Tor browser, which allows users to disguise their IP addresses as they browse online. The website’s users took additional precautions of communicating anonymously, following detailed instructions for mailing products, and conducting transactions in the digital currency bitcoins.
Groundbreaking at the time, the business model spawned many imitators and took on a global following.
Emphasizing this international reach, a mother in Perth, Australia delivered the second victim impact statement on behalf of her deceased son “Preston B.”
Crying throughout her remarks, she recounted the fatal brain injury that her son suffered after falling from the second story of a hotel while tripping on a psychedelic drug colloquially known as “N-Bomb”
“One stupid synthetic tablet cost him his life,” she said.
For Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner, these stories emphasized that site’s toll on anyone with a “computer and a shipping address.”
“This was not a victimless crime,” he said.
Agreeing it was not victimless, Ulbricht’s attorney Joshua Dratel added: “The solution for pain is not more pain. The solution for suffering is not more suffering.”
To Ulbricht and his supporters, Silk Road began as an idealistic experiment to allow people to buy or sell whatever they wanted without corporate exploitation and government interference. The Dread Pirate depicted himself online as a libertarian outlaw, and a vocal group of people who view Ulbricht as a folk hero insist that helped tame an unruly trade.
Ulbricht’s defense submitted some of these ideas to the court in articles such as “Silk Road Was Safer Than the Streets” and “Will Shutting Down Silk Road Do More Harm Than Good?”
For Forrest, these defenders were carrying “some misguided flag.”
Calling the Dread Pirate the “captain of the ship,” Forrest remarked: “It’s fictional to think of Silk Road as a place of ultimate freedom.”
Breaking the Silk Road rules led to stiff punishment from the Dread Pirate, who allegedly commissioned the murder of those who threatened his business.
In online chats presented at trial, Dread Pirate Roberts could be seen sending bitcoins to a purported motorcycle gang in order to put a hit on people blackmailing Silk Road’s leader. Nobody was ever found dead, and Ulbricht was not tried for any murder-for-hire.
Still, Forrest found “ample and unambiguous evidence” of Ulbricht’s intent to kill in these discussions.
“There is no evidence that he was role-playing,” she said.
Imposing $183.9 million in forfeiture, Forrest refused to recommend that the Bureau of Prisons not remand him to a maximum-security prison.
At a press conference, Ulbricht’s attorney Dratel stood by his parents as he promised an appeal.
Slamming the sentence as “unreasonable, unjust, [and] unfair,” Dratel commented that the judge gave short shrift to literature showing both the futility of long sentences and the more complicated effect Silk Road had on the drug market.
Mother Lynn Ulbricht commented that she was “blown away” by the sentence.
“When I was growing up, life sentences weren’t given as frequently,” she said. “Maybe it’s the drug war, but since then, I see sentences all the time. Growing up, you had to be a mass murderer to get a life sentence.”
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