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 “kingpin” 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 Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s 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.
“This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.
From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s 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 Road’s “mastermind” account. On his seized laptop’s 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 Ulbricht’s 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 bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code. Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.
Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” 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 “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”
“The real Dread Pirate Roberts is out there,” Ulbricht’s 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 Ulbricht’s personal computer. The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer—perhaps 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 “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.
Despite the case’s 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. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s 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 agency’s 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 defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications.
“What 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,” Dratel told reporters outside the courthouse, confirming that he will appeal the decision.
“It was not an even playing field,” added Ulbricht’s mother. “It was not a fair trial.”
Even so, the case’s decision will no doubt be seen by many as U.S. law enforcement striking a significant blow against the dark web’s 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 couldn’t 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. Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ 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, don’t 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 Roberts’ successors have no doubt been watching his trial unfold and learning from his mistakes. And the next guilty verdict may not be so easy.