Ross Ulbricht convicted of running drug marketplace Silk Road

The alleged Dread Pirate Roberts faces up to life in prison after a jury finds him guilty of the so-called "kingpin" charge, among others.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
2 min read

Since his trial began on January 13, supports of Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht have protested outside the Manhattan courthouse. Getty Images

Ross Ulbricht, a soft-spoken former Eagle Scout with a master's degree in materials science, has been convicted of creating and operating the Silk Road, one of the Web's largest marketplaces where criminals could buy and sell drugs and other contraband.

After hearing evidence for almost a month in federal court in Manhattan, a jury took less than three hours to find the 30-year-old guilty of all seven charges. 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.

The charges against Ulbricht include trafficking drugs on the Internet, five conspiracy charges, and one charge of running a continuing criminal enterprise, often called the "kingpin" allegation. Prosecutors typically levy kingpin charges against well-known Mafia and drug cartel leaders.

Ulbricht faces up to life in prison. His defense is expected to appeal the decision. "This is not the end," his mother said as Ulbricht was led out of the courtroom, Wired reported.

The prosecution's mission was to show that Ulbricht was not who he seemed to be, which was a happy-go-lucky yet reserved engineer who worked mainly on his computer and paid his monthly rent in cash. They claimed that when he logged online, Ulbricht donned the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts, an alias borrowed from "The Princess Bride" novel and film adaptation designed to give the appearance of many conspirators and not just a single leader.

Prosecutors said Ulbricht conceived and oversaw Silk Road operations as it grew into a $1.2 billion drug empire known by users as an Amazon of sorts for narcotics, with buyer ratings and money-back guarantees. Prosecutors and the FBI also said Ulbricht hired people over the Internet to kill those trying to extort him for cash. There's no evidence that the hits took place, the FBI has said, and Ulbrict did not face any murder solicitation charges in the trial.

The case represents one of the strangest, darkest tales of Web culture run amok in recent memory. Because of his ties to underground websites, hacker activities and drug trafficking, Ulbricht's story has taken on an almost fictional quality. In fact, Hollywood is already planning a film based on a forthcoming book from New York Times reporter Nick Bilton.

This case can now provide precedent for federal authorities to spend time and resources pursuing other illegal marketplaces that have flourished in the absence of the Silk Road.

From the beginning, Ulbricht's defense faced an uphill battle. Its primary argument was that Ulbricht was indeed the creator of the Silk Road, but handed responsibility to someone else. They claimed Ulbricht became the perfect "fall guy" for that unnamed operator of the site.

Throughout the month, however, the jury heard about countless Web documents, chat logs, journal entries and a cache of bitcoins that had been found on Ulbricht's laptop.