A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.
On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a âkingpinâ charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders. It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict. Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life. But Ulbrichtâs legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judgeâs decisions throughout the case.
As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile.
âThis is not the end,â Ulbrichtâs mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. âRoss is a hero!â shouted a supporter.
From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the governmentâs evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Roadâs billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming. When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Roadâs âmastermindâ account. On his seized laptopâs hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbrichtâs who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroomâs trashcan connected to the Silk Roadâs code. Ulbrichtâs guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agentâs analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black marketâs bitcoins from the Silk Roadâs servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.
Ulbrichtâs defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an âeconomic experiment,â one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013. Those purported operators of the site, including the ârealâ Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the âperfect fall guy.â
âThe real Dread Pirate Roberts is out there,â Ulbrichtâs lead attorney Joshua Dratel told the jury in opening statements.
But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbrichtâs personal computer. The defense was left to argue that Ulbrichtâs laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computerâperhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest. In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a âwild conspiracy theoryâ and a âdesperate attempt to create a smokescreen.â It seems the jury agreed.
Despite the caseâs grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal. His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratelâs protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecutionâs evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Roadâs Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agencyâs alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defenseâs expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications.
âWhat you saw in terms of length of deliberations is demonstrative of [what happens] when the defense is precluded and limited and circumscribed in the way that it was,â Dratel told reporters outside the courthouse, confirming that he will appeal the decision.
âIt was not an even playing field,â added Ulbrichtâs mother. âIt was not a fair trial.â
Even so, the caseâs decision will no doubt be seen by many as U.S. law enforcement striking a significant blow against the dark webâs burgeoning drug trade. More broadly, the case represents the limits of cryptographic anonymity tools like Tor and bitcoin against the surveillance powers of the U.S. government. In spite of his use of those crypto tools and others, Ulbricht couldnât prevent the combined efforts of the FBI, DHS, and IRS from linking his pseudonym to his real-world identity.
But Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets. Todayâs leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcementâs crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sitesâ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.
If the feds do find the administrators of the next generation of dark web drug sites, as they found Ulbricht, donât expect those online drug lords to let their unencrypted laptops be snatched in a public library, or to have kept assiduous journals of their criminal conspiracies. The Dread Pirate Robertsâ successors have no doubt been watching his trial unfold and learning from his mistakes. And the next guilty verdict may not be so easy.
How We Can Help
If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed criminal law attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to defend your rights. Please learn about our firm at www.FerrisLawFirm.com.