Ross William Ulbricht
Ulbricht's 2012 passport photo
|Residence||Pima County, Arizona U.S.|
|Other names||Dread Pirate Roberts, Frosty, Altoid|
|Alma mater||University of Texas at Dallas (B.S. 2006)|
Pennsylvania State University (M.S. 2009)
|Occupation||Darknet market operator|
|Years active||February 2011 – October 2013|
|Known for||Creator of Silk Road|
|Net worth||$28.5 million (at time of seizure)|
|Criminal status||In prison|
Conspiracy to traffic narcotics (February 6, 2015)
|Criminal penalty||Double life imprisonment + 40 years without possibility of parole (May 29, 2015)|
|October 1, 2013|
|Imprisoned at||United States Penitentiary, Tucson|
Ross William Ulbricht (born March 27, 1984) is an American convict best known for being the narcotics trafficker who created and operated the darknet market website the Silk Road from 2011 until his arrest in 2013. The website was designed to use Tor for anonymity and bitcoin as a currency. Ulbricht's online pseudonym was "Dread Pirate Roberts" after the fictional character in the novel The Princess Bride and its film adaptation.
In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet. In May 2015, he was sentenced to a double life sentence plus forty years without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht's appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2017 and the U.S Supreme Court in 2018 were unsuccessful. He is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Tucson.
Early life and education
Ulbricht grew up in the Austin metropolitan area. He was a Boy Scout, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. He attended West Ridge Middle School, and Westlake High School, both near Austin. He graduated from high school in 2002.
He attended the University of Texas at Dallas on a full academic scholarship, and graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in physics. He then attended Pennsylvania State University, where he was in a master's degree program in materials science and engineering and studied crystallography. By the time Ulbricht graduated, he had become interested in libertarian economic theory. In particular, Ulbricht adhered to the political philosophy of Ludwig von Mises, supported Ron Paul, and participated in college debates to discuss his economic views.
Ulbricht graduated from Penn State in 2009 and returned to Austin. By this time Ulbricht, finding regular employment unsatisfying, wanted to become an entrepreneur, but his first attempts to start his own business failed. He tried day trading and started a video game company. His mother claimed that his LinkedIn profile referred to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, not a darknet market, when it stated, "I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.":7:20 He eventually partnered with his friend Donny Palmertree to help build an online used book seller, Good Wagon Books.
Silk Road, arrest and trial
Ulbricht envisioned Silk Road as a free market experiment with an emphasis on user anonymity. He believed people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they want as long as they did not hurt anyone. Silk Road was designed to use Tor and bitcoin. Tor is a protocol that encrypts data and routes Internet traffic through intermediary servers that anonymize IP addresses before reaching a final destination. By hosting his market as a Tor site, Ulbricht could conceal its IP address. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency; while all bitcoin transactions are recorded in a log, the blockchain, users who avoid linking their identities to their online "wallets" can conduct transactions with considerable anonymity.
Ulbricht used the Dread Pirate Roberts username for Silk Road. However, whether he was the only one to use that account is disputed. Dread Pirate Roberts attributed his inspiration for creating the Silk Road marketplace as "Alongside Night and the works of Samuel Edward Konkin III."
Ulbricht began to work on developing his online marketplace in 2010 as a side project to Good Wagon Books. He also sporadically kept a diary during the operating history of Silk Road; in his first entry he outlined his situation prior to launch, and predicted he would make 2011 "a year of prosperity" through his ventures. Ulbricht may also have included a reference to Silk Road on his LinkedIn page, where he discussed his wish to "use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind" and claimed "I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force." Ulbricht moved to San Francisco prior to his arrest.
Ulbricht was first connected to "Dread Pirate Roberts" by Gary Alford, an IRS investigator working with the DEA on the Silk Road case, in mid-2013. The connection was made by linking the username "altoid", used during Silk Road's early days to announce the website, and a forum post in which Ulbricht, posting under the nickname "altoid", asked for programming help and gave his email address, which contained his full name. In October 2013, Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI while at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and accused of being the "mastermind" behind the site.
To prevent Ulbricht from encrypting or deleting files on the laptop he was using to run the site as he was arrested, two agents pretended to be quarreling lovers. When they had sufficiently distracted him, according to Joshuah Bearman of Wired, a third agent grabbed the laptop while Ulbricht was distracted by the apparent lovers' fight and handed it to agent Thomas Kiernan. Kiernan then inserted a flash drive in one of the laptop's USB ports, with software that copied key files.
On February 4, 2015, Ulbricht was convicted on all counts after a jury trial that took place in January 2015. On May 29, 2015, he was sentenced to double life imprisonment plus forty years, without the possibility of parole.
On the last day of trial, Serrin Turner, the lead prosecutor, addressed the jury and stated that none of the six contracted murders-for-hire occurred. One charge of procuring murder was originally filed in October 2013 in a separate pending indictment in Maryland (which was later dismissed with prejudice in its entirety in July 2018); the other five allegations were never filed.
After the conviction
Ulbricht's lawyers submitted an appeal on January 12, 2016, centered on claims that the prosecution illegally withheld evidence of DEA agents' malfeasance in the investigation of Silk Road, for which they were convicted. Ulbricht also argued his sentence was too harsh. Oral argument for the appeal was held on October 6, 2016. On May 31, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied Ulbricht's appeal and affirmed the judgment of conviction and life sentence in an opinion written by Gerard E. Lynch, United States Circuit Judge.
On December 22, 2017, Ulbricht filed his petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. His appeal argued two key issues: (1) "Whether the warrantless seizure of an individual’s Internet traffic information without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment"; and, (2) "Whether the Sixth Amendment permits judges to find the facts necessary to support an otherwise unreasonable sentence."
On February 5, 2018, twenty-one amici filed five amicus curiae briefs in support of Ulbricht, including the National Lawyers Guild, American Black Cross, Reason Foundation, Drug Policy Alliance, and Downsize DC Foundation.
On March 7, 2018, the U.S. government filed a response to Ulbricht's petition. The government argued that a decision on the first issue of his appeal should be postponed until a decision is granted in Carpenter v. United States, which involves similar concerns related to the collection of communication data. The government suggested outright dismissal of the second issue, citing a lack of supporting precedent as well as noting that the Sixth Amendment claim was not raised prior to filing the petition.
On June 28, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider Ulbricht's appeal. A claim for annulment of Ulbricht's sentence alleging ineffective assistance from defense lawyers was rejected in August 2019.
On July 20, 2018, Robert K. Hur, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, filed a motion to "dismiss with prejudice" the indictment containing the murder-for-hire charges, meaning the charges can never be re-filed. On July 26, 2018, the charges were officially dismissed by U.S District Judge Catherine C. Blake who granted the motion to dismiss.
During his trial, Ulbricht was incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York. Starting in July 2017, he was held at USP Florence High, under Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) number 18870-111. His mother Lyn moved to Colorado so she could visit him regularly.
- Deep Web (film)
- USBKill, kill switch software created in response to circumstances of Ulbricht's arrest
- Variety Jones and Smedley
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