NEW YORK – Alleged Silk Road darknet mastermind Ross Ulbricht was convicted of drug conspiracy and other charges Wednesday for allegedly founding and running the drug-trafficking site that served as an underworld version of eBay for dealers and users worldwide.
A jury of six women and six men returned the verdict after little more than three hours of deliberations, capping a more than three-week trial that featured evidence that Ulbricht used the online alias Dread Pirate Roberts to found and build Silk Road into a underworld bazaar for everything from heroin and cocaine to phony IDs and computer hacking programs.
Ulbricht, 30, showed no readily visible emotion as the verdict was read. His mother, Lyn, and father, Kirk, each held a hand to their forehead as the jury pronounced their son guilty on all charges in a seven-count indictment.
U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Forrest, who presided over the trial, set a tentative sentencing date of May 15. Ulbricht could face life behind bars for the convictions.
As the judge adjourned court, an Ulbricht supporter yelled out, “Ross is a hero.” Minutes later, as Ulbricht was led away by federal marshals, his family and friends called out, “We love you, Ross.”
Ulbricht looked at them, waved, and then disappeared through a door as he was led back to a holding cell.
Prosecution evidence alleged that Ulbricht planned Silk Road as far back as 2009, and launched the site two years later by renting a house near his family’s Austin, Texas home where he raised hallucinogenic mushrooms for sale.
By 2011, Silk Road was open for business, with secrecy measures designed to make it difficult for anyone to identify the true identities of the marketplace’s operator, buyers and sellers. The business used a computer routing system known as Tor that sent messages from the participants through multiple computer servers located in Iceland and elsewhere and rented under false identities.
Silk Road also required its anonymous buyers to trade money for bitcoins and then use the electronic currency to conduct all transactions. The site charged a percentage commission on each deal, generating a bitcoin stash for Ulbricht that prosecutors said was worth roughly $18 million at the time of his arrest.
Prosecutors told jurors that Ulbricht continued to administer Silk Road from the site’s beginning until Oct. 1, 2013, the day that federal investigators arrested him in a San Francisco public library. Undercover agents staged a loud distraction that enabled them to grab his laptop before he could either log off or trigger an encryption program that protected his data.
At the time of the arrest, Ulbricht, operating under the Dread Pirate Roberts log-in, was engaged in an online chat with an undercover investigator who had secretly infiltrated the site and posed as an administrator who aided the alleged mastermind.
The laptop yielded a trove of electronic evidence, including a personal journal, emails and other evidence that prosecutors used at trial to argue that Ulbricht ruled an operation responsible for more than $182 million in illegal drug sales.
Ulbricht’s defense team, however, contended he launched Silk Road as an “economic experiment,” and soon turned the site over to others because it had become too “stressful.”
Defense lawyer Joshua Dratel told jurors that Silk Road’s real operators ultimately lured Ulbricht back to take the fall when they learned federal investigators were targeting the site, its operators and others involved.
Dratel argued that the electronic evidence seized and analyzed by prosecutors had been manipulated by others specifically to implicate Ulbricht.
Contending that trial evidence proved that Ulbricht sold Silk Road, Dratel said “one of the important principles in this case is that Dread Pirate Roberts and Ross Ulbricht cannot be the same person.”