NEW YORK — A federal judge sentenced Silk Road darknet mastermind Ross Ulbricht to life in prison Friday for founding and operating a criminal version of eBay that made buying illegal drugs almost as easy as clicking a computer mouse.
After considering the 31-year-old Texas native’s apology and plea for leniency, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ordered him to serve far more than the mandatory minimum 20 years faced for his February conviction on five criminal charges.
The punishment, two life terms and three lesser prison sentences, matched the maximum punishment called for under federal sentencing guidelines and recommended by a government probation report.
Saying the sprawling global drug operation “wasn’t a game, and you knew that,” Forrest also imposed a nearly $184 forfeiture order on the Ulbricht.
“What you did with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric,” said the judge, who lectured Ulbricht that he was like any other drug dealer, even though his operation seemed sleek and safe as it handled hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions worldwide.
Ulbricht, dressed in a dark-colored detention top and pants, seemed to stifle tears as he sought to explain himself before sentencing.
“I had a desire to, I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives for themselves and have privacy and anonymity,” he said. “I’m not a self-centered sociopathic person who wanted to express inner badness.”
Pronouncing himself “a little wiser” and “more humbled,” Ulbricht also said he was “so sorry for the families” who lost loved ones to Silk Road-related drug deaths.
The statement contrast with his decision not to testify during the more than three-week federal court trial that ended with a jury of six women and six men finding him guilty after barely three hours of deliberations.
The trial featured evidence Ulbricht used the nom de Net “Dread Pirate Roberts” — drawn from The Princess Bride novel and movie — to run Silk Road from 2011-2013 as an encrypted electronic bazaar. The site matched buyers and sellers around the world for billions of dollars of deals featuring heroin, cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine, phony IDs and computer-hacking programs.
Silk Road operated on a hidden area of the Internet, and required all deals to be paid for in bitcoins, an electronic currency that preserved the anonymity of its denizens. Trial evidence showed Ulbricht reaped bitcoins worth roughly $18 million.
With the swiftness of their verdict, jurors rejected defense arguments that Ulbricht founded Silk Road but quickly turned it over to unidentified others who lured him back to take the fall as federal investigators closed in on the fast-growing operation.
Lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel, had argued that the man who in boyhood reached Eagle Scout status was a loving family member and remorseful entrepreneur who deserved leniency. In pre-sentence filings, he cited a declaration filed with the court from Fernando Caudevilla, a Spanish physician who used the name “Doctor X” and provided expert advice on drug use on Silk Road’s safety forum.
Paying Caudevilla $500 a week to provide that advice showed Ulbricht was not an unfeeling businessman, but someone who kept his customers’ well-being in mind, argued Dratel, who is separately expected to pursue an appeal of the conviction.
Forrest shot down that argument, calling Caudevilla an “enabler,” and his behavior “breathtakingly irresponsible.”
Federal prosecutors, for their part, insisted Ulbricht deserved far more than the 20-year minimum sentence. In support of their argument, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Serrin Turner and Timothy Howard gave Forrest details of six drug-overdose deaths involving Silk Road drug buyers. They also stressed trial evidence that showed Ulbricht ordered and paid for murder-for-hire plots to protect his operation.
Dratel objected, arguing in part that prosecutors failed to show sufficient evidence showing the fatal overdoses were directly linked to Silk Road drug buys. He also noted that prosecutors did not seek a major sentence enhancement for a Silk Road worker who was sentenced to the equivalent of a 14-month prison sentence on Tuesday.
Forrest, however, said the issues should be considered in sentencing. She listened as two parents whose children died from Silk Road drug overdoses gave deeply emotional statements about their losses.
One victim, an athletic young kayaker identified in a prosecution filing only by his first name, Bryan, was an employee of a small money management firm in Boston. He was found dead in his apartment in early October 2013, within days of Ulbricht’s arrest in San Francisco.
Bryan’s father, Richard, addressed the court and described how his son apparently tried heroin during his senior year in college, then spent the final two years of his life battling drug urges.
The grieving father also wrote in a separate victim impact statement that Bryan used his computer to connect with Silk Road, an operation that “eliminated every obstacle that would keep serious drugs away from anyone who was tempted.”
“Clearly my son made a horrible choice in electing to try heroin in the first place,” the father wrote.
However, after voicing his grief in a statement that kept the packed courtroom spectators rapt, the father told the court that Ulbricht’s motives and creation had none of the theoretical, political or socially redeeming characteristics claimed by the darknet mastermind, his relatives and other supporters.
“All Ross Ulbricht cared about was his growing pile of bitcoins,” the father said, calling for “the most severe sentence the law allowed.”
“This is the behavior of a sociopath,” he concluded.