Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road Founder, Denied Final Appeal by Supreme Court
Ross Ulbricht, the original “Dread Pirate Roberts” of the dark web, has lost what may have been his final hope for legal reprieve. On Thursday, June 28th, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal for his 2015 conviction resulting from his operation of the Silk Road darknet marketplace. Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence without parole.
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Fall of an Empire
Silk Road was one of the first major merchants to adopt bitcoin and deal with it in heavy volume during its existence from 2011-2013. It was estimated in 2012 that 30% of all bitcoin transactions took place as a part of Silk Road commerce. When shut down in late 2013, the Department of Justice seized 144,336 bitcoin from their active holdings, eventually selling them at $334 USD per coin prior to the 2017 bull run of up to nearly $20,000.
During the investigation of Silk Road, two federal agents stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the online marketplace, evidence which was not allowed to be presented during Ulbricht’s trial. A month after Ulbricht’s conviction, these two agents were handed federal charges, both eventually being convicted and imprisoned. in addition to arguing these events contributed to an unfair trial, Ulbricht’s defense also claimed his fourth amendment rights were violated, a claim also rejected by the court and in future appeal attempts.
Ulbricht’s heavy-handed sentence was not delivered without controversy. Among the charges originally levied against Ulbricht were that he organized 6 murders for hire, a claim which received heavy circulation in news media.
When Ulbricht was sentenced, prosecutors urged the judge to hand him “”a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum.” One of the reasons cited was imposing an effective deterrent to future offenders, saying it can be extremely difficult to track down operators of these sites. In the sentencing letter, Judge Forrest noted that Ulbricht “proved quite ruthless in seeking to protect his illegal empire, attempting on multiple occasions to solicit murders for hire in order to deal with perceived threats to his operation.” These charges were however dropped before Ulbricht’s trial had even begun, with there being no evidence the murders ever took place.
One of the more bizarre developments of the trial came when the defense questioned a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent, who revealed Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles was at one time believed by investigators to be the leader of Silk Road. Karpeles has denied this, though following the trial revealed he had engaged in online communication with Carl Force, one of the federal agents charged with stealing from Silk Road while it was under investigation.
Force appeared to show an interest in working with Karpeles, even mentioning in one message that “the American government and economy will crash in the next five years.” Karpeles did not reciprocate interest in working with Force, and made these statements public after federal charges were handed down against him.
History and Background
Silk Road was named after a network of ancient trade routes extending from China to Europe, originally started circa 200 BCE and lasting well past 1400 CE. Ulbricht’s Silk Road evolved into a digital marketplace where a variety of illicit goods were bought and sold, primarily drugs. In August of 2013 the man known as Dread Pirate Roberts, now alleged to have been Ulbricht, conducted an interview in which the operations and general goals of the site were discussed. He mentioned in the interview he was not the original creator of the site, and rumors have circulated the original founder is still at large.
Though the so-called Napster of deep web markets was shut down, it was not the end of underground wheeling and dealing with crypto. A new marketplace, Silk Road 2.0, arose from the ashes of the original but was shut down just over a year after its predecessor. A number of other marketplaces have been shuttered by authorities in the months and years since, the largest being AlphaBay in 2017. One notable exception was the marketplace Agora, which voluntarily closed its doors when its administration decided they could no longer operate safely.
Present Day Crackdowns
The Silk Road sage continues to play out to this day. Ulbricht’s alleged right-hand man, Roger Clark, has been extradited from Thailand and will face federal charges in the U.S. related to his alleged involvement.
The fight against darknet marketplaces continues on other fronts as well. This week, the Department of Justice arrested 35 vendors and seized $20 million worth of crypto. Additionally, they took control of “$3.6 million in dollars and gold bars, huge amounts of narcotics, and firearms.” Federal law enforcement remains relentless, with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) emphasizing that “every criminal is within arm’s reach of the law.”
What’s your take? Does Ulbricht deserve a presidential pardon? Sound off in the comments below.
Images via Pixabay