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Founder of Online Drug Trade Gets Life Sentence

He borrowed his pseudonym from the masked hero who outsmarted villains in the movie “The Princess Bride” and he trafficked drugs and guns globally on a website the FBI called the most sophisticated criminal marketplace on the Internet. Ross William Ulbricht, who went by “Dread Pirate Roberts,” ran Silk Road, a site Fortune magazine dubbed “an online drug and mayhem marketplace.”

Named for the ancient trade route between China and the West, Silk Road directly led to at least six overdose deaths, prosecutors said before Ulbricht was found guilty on Feb. 4 of charges including distributing drugs through the Internet and money laundering. Ulbricht had pleaded not guilty, claiming his Libertarian-minded website was sold early on and hijacked by someone else. He vowed to appeal his conviction and life term.

How far was Silk Road’s reach? According to a study published in May 2014 in the journal Addiction, nearly 20 percent of American drug consumers surveyed reported they’d used drugs bought on Silk Road.

Bitcoin, a virtual currency created in 2008, allowed Silk Road drug deals around the world to be made namelessly outside the international banking system. On the site, thousands of drug dealers conducted drug sales, from which Ulbricht took $420 million in commissions.

“Terribly Destructive to Our Social Fabric”

Although prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest to take the six drug deaths into account during Ulbricht’s sentencing, the life term was a harsher sentence than even prosecutors sought. The Wall Street Journal reported that a witness said the courtroom filled with stunned gasps and tears. Parents of one of the half dozen Silk Road fatalities testified at Ulbricht’s sentencing that his son succumbed to his addiction because he was so easily served with anonymous buys and stealth delivery service.

At the May 29 sentencing, Forrest called Ulbricht’s site “an assault on the public health of our communities” by making it easy for anyone anywhere to buy anything without any accountability. The New York Times reported that Forrest emotionally listed how Silk Road enabled drug users and the addiction that shreds families.

Ulbricht, 31, maintained that creation of Silk Road was driven purely by his Libertarian views and said he “wanted to empower people to make choices” in their own lives. Prosecutors, however, traced most of the site’s sales to illegal products such as heroin, cocaine and 13,000 other drug offerings, court records show. “What you did with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric,” said Judge Forrest, who also ordered Ulbricht to forfeit $183.9 million.

A Promising Start

It was a shocking discovery for family and friends of the Eagle Scout who grew up in Austin, according to a report by Rolling Stone magazine which covered the case extensively. Ulbricht, who’d had an SAT score of 1,460, won a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas and published papers on solar cell technology at the school’s Nano­Tech Institute.

After he graduated in 2006, Ulbricht won another full scholarship to Penn State, where he conducted research and earned a master’s in materials science and engineering in 2009. But Ulbricht’s mother told Rolling Stone that he felt constrained by science and embraced the freedom of being an entrepreneur who worked for himself. He would have a used-book business before moving to San Francisco.

The Digital Drug Marketplace

Ulbricht’s online gun and drug mall operated in what’s called the “deep web” of hidden sites not easily accessed by Google. Getting to such sites requires using software that encrypts a user’s locations and destinations. Dubbed the “eBay of Vice,” Silk Road was a place to find such illegal wares as fake passports and social security cards, college letters of recommendation, hacking tutorials, and even assassins-for-hire.

Ulbricht testified that his original creation was meant to provide a free market for people to shop without government interference — as long as it caused no one else harm. The government countered that not only had at least six buyers died of overdoses but that Ulbricht had hired an undercover FBI agent to kill five enemies. Authorities said there was no sign this happened.

Government documents portrayed Ulbricht as a drug kingpin who ran an “online black market of unprecedented scope” that left a trail of addiction and death. In less than three years, prosecutors said, Silk Road conducted more than 1.5 million transactions on the site, involving more than 100,000 buyer accounts and almost 4,000 vendor accounts.

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