End of the Silk Road for the Dread Pirate Roberts

Online blackmarket founder Ross Ulbricht faces 20 years

Ross William Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, convicted of seven drug-related charges in federal court on Wednesday
Ross William Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, convicted of seven drug-related charges in federal court on Wednesday (Photo courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York)

No one knew who the real Dread Pirate Roberts was. That was a core plot point of The Princess Bride, and the defense case laid out by lawyers for Ross William Ulbricht. That may have worked in the film, but a New York jury has said that Ulbricht is undoubtedly the founder of online marketplace the Silk Road, and a drug kingpin.

Late last year, the FBI laid out a complicated case against Ulbricht, who they alleged had designed and run one of the world's biggest online black markets (see "Feds Take Wind out of Dread Pirate Robert's Sails," Oct. 11, 2013). They alleged that Austin native and UT graduate Ulbricht had established the Silk Road anonymous trading system (named after the historic trading routes between Europe and Asia) in 2011, and had run it through to his arrest in 2013. They charged him with a slate of criminal activities, including narcotics conspiracy, money laundering, and computer fraud, and operating a continuing criminal enterprise, colloquially known as a kingpin charge.

Even though Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco, the case was heard in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan before Judge Katherine Forrest. While Ulbricht's lawyers conceded during the proceedings that he had set up the underground market, they argued he had actually handed it off to other people for most of its period in operation. So while he was a Dread Pirate Roberts, he was not the Dread Pirate Roberts.

After a month of evidence, it only took the jury three and a half hours to decide that, no, he was the Dread Pirate Roberts they were looking for. After all, the prosecutors had presented testimony from friends who said he had told them he ran the Silk Road, chat transcripts and daily records recording day-to-day management of the system, and 700,254 bitcoins (worth, at the time, approximately $13.4 million) transferred from Silk Road's servers to his bitcoin accounts. As for the idea that all that data was falsified by other users to set him up, Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner dismissed that idea, saying, “There were no little elves that put all that evidence on the defendant’s computer.”

Forrest has set a date of May 15 for sentencing but, with minimum mandatory sentencing, Ulbricht is facing at least 20 years, and potentially life. There are also outstanding charges in Maryland, relating to claims that he attempted to hire a hitman to kill a former employee.

However, Ulbricht still has his fervent defenders, not least his family, who say he will appeal the charges. They argue that the prosecution was lopsided, and the defense was hamstrung by the court. Then there are the Internet Libertarians, who vary from portraying the whole case as a conspiracy against civil liberties, to those who feel the Internet's nature is to be unregulated – a country unto itself, without any law other than the free market. Not everyone is so sympathetic: Ars Technica reports that users of Evo, one of Silk Road's successors, have mocked him for bad security, with one commenter calling him an "absolute cement-head" for getting caught so easily.

With this verdict, it also looks like Alex Winter will have an end to his next movie. The Bill & Ted star has followed up Downloaded, his documentary about Napster creator Shawn Fanning, with Silk Road, chronicling the case against Ulbricht. He better get back to the cutting room quick: His movie gets its world premiere at SXSW 2015.

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Silk Road, Ross William Ulbricht, Dread Pirate Roberts, Courts, SXSW

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