Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht sentenced to life in prison

A New York judge hands illegal online drug site founder a life prison sentence in one of the strangest, darkest tales of Web culture.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
3 min read

Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who went by the online handle "Dread Pirate Roberts," was sentenced to life in prison for operating the online illegal-drug marketplace site. Ross Ulbricht/LinkedIn

Ross Ulbricht, the convicted founder of online illegal-drug marketplace Silk Road, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The sentencing of the 31-year-old San Francisco man was handed down by US District Court Judge Katherine Forrest in a Manhattan courtroom, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Ulbricht was facing a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In a letter filed to the court earlier this week, Ulbricht pleaded with the judge not to send him away for life.

"As I see it, a life sentence is more similar in nature to a death sentence than it is to a sentence...Both condemn you to die in prison, a life sentence just takes longer," Ulbricht wrote. "I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age.

"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."

In the end, Forrest rejected Ulbricht's plea.

"It was a carefully planned life's work," Forrest told him Friday. "It was your opus."

Friday's sentencing is the latest chapter in one of the strangest, darkest tales of Web culture run amok. Federal prosecutors said Ulbricht -- under the moniker "Dread Pirate Roberts" -- conceived and oversaw Silk Road's operations as it grew into a $1.2 billion drug empire. The site was known by users as an Amazon of sorts for illegal narcotics, with buyer ratings and money-back guarantees. Prosecutors and the FBI also alleged that Ulbricht was a "kingpin" who hired people over the Internet to kill those trying to extort him for cash.

"Make no mistake: Ulbricht was a drug dealer and criminal profiteer who exploited people's addictions and contributed to the the deaths of at least six young people," Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement Friday. "Ulbricht went from hiding his cybercrime identity to becoming the face of cybercrime, and as today's sentence proves, no one is above the law."

Protesters gathered at the start of Ulbricht's trial, in January. They had various positions, with some saying, for example, that Silk Road shouldn't be held responsible for its users' illegal actions, and others saying the site performed a service by making drug transactions safer than they are on the street.
Protesters gathered at the start of Ulbricht's trial in January. They had various positions, with some saying Silk Road shouldn't be held responsible for its users' illegal actions, and others saying the site performed a service by making drug transactions safer than they are on the street. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Federal prosecutors contended that Ulbricht, a former Eagle Scout, was not the happy-go-lucky yet reserved engineer he seemed to be. Ulbricht's lawyers acknowledged that he was the creator of the Silk Road but said he handed responsibility to someone else. They claimed Ulbricht became the perfect "fall guy" for that unnamed operator of the site.

Ulbricht's mother, Lyn Ulbricht, told documentarian Alex Winter after Friday's verdict via Periscope that she was shocked her son received a life sentence.

"I know, in my heart and soul, what he said to me is that if he walked out of prison today, he would not build another Silk Road, he would not break the law," she said. "I think it's all about (making an) example and it's what's filling our prisons, overflowing (with) nonviolent people like Ross.

"And there's no chance to redeem yourself, there's no chance for parole, there's just no hope. It seems over the top."

In February, a federal jury in Manhattan took less than three hours to find Ulbricht guilty of all seven charges related to computer-hacking conspiracy, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy and money laundering. The virtual bazaar, which Ulbricht founded in 2011, was a haven for buyers and sellers of illegal narcotics, allowing them to conduct business without easy detection by authorities. Ulbricht was arrested in 2013.

During Friday's sentencing, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay more than $183 million in restitution, an amount that prosecutors believed Silk Road made in sales. The site functioned on a hidden area of the Internet called the the Tor network and only accepted payment in the form of the often hard to trace digital currency, bitcoin.

"Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they individually saw fit. What it turned into was, in part, a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions," Ulbricht wrote in his letter to Judge Forrest.

Ulbricht's attorneys asked for a retrial last month, but Forrest, who presided over the four-week trial earlier this year, shot down their request. His attorneys have previously indicated that they intend to appeal.