Ross William Ulbricht (born March 27, 1984) is an American former drug trafficker and darknet market operator, best known for creating and running the Silk Road website from 2011 until his arrest in 2013. He was known under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts".
|Ross William Ulbricht|
Ulbricht's 2012 passport photo
March 27, 1984 |
Austin, Texas, 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||Owner of Silk Road|
|Net worth||$28.5 million (at time of seizure)|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment without possibility of parole (May 29, 2015)|
|Criminal status||In prison|
Conspiracy to traffic narcotics (February 6, 2015)
|October 1, 2013|
|Imprisoned at||United States Penitentiary, Florence High|
Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics in February 2015. He is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the conviction and sentence in 2017.
Early life and educationEdit
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 more interested in libertarian economic theory. In particular, Ulbricht adhered to the political philosophy of Ludwig von Mises and 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 had tried day trading and starting a video game company. His mother claims it was the latter that his LinkedIn profile was referring to 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," claiming it to be a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.:7:20 He eventually partnered with his friend Donny Palmertree to help build an online used book seller, Good Wagon Books. His limited business success, combined with a breakup with his on-and-off girlfriend from Penn State, left Ulbricht discontented.
Silk Road, arrest and trialEdit
As early as 2009 Ulbricht had been contemplating the idea of building an online black market that would use Tor and bitcoin to evade law enforcement. 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, if users can avoid linking their identities to their online "wallets" they can conduct transactions with considerable anonymity.
Ulbricht used the Dread Pirate Roberts login for Silk Road. However, it is disputed that he was the only one to use that account. 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." To author Nathaniel Popper, the creation of Silk Road was an act of "sheer desperation" after Ulbricht exhausted most of the nest egg he had after college on his failed businesses. 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 data 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 Tom Kiernan. According to Business Insider Ulbricht was distracted and got up to see what the problem was, whereupon the female agent grabbed his laptop while the male agent restrained Ulbricht. The female agent was then able to insert a flash drive in one of the laptop's USB ports, with software that copied key files. Agent Chris Tarbell presented Ulbricht the warrant for his arrest.
Ulbricht was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and procuring murder. The charge of procuring murder was removed from the indictment although the evidence was factored into Ulbricht's sentence. Ulbricht was convicted of all the remaining charges after a jury trial that concluded in February 2015. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on 29 May 2015.
The prosecutor believed that none of the six contracted murders-for-hire occurred. One charge of procuring murder is to be dealt with in a separate pending trial in Maryland; the other five were never filed.
After the convictionEdit
His lawyers submitted an appeal on 12 January 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. The oral hearing for the appeal was 6 October 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. Ulbricht, as well as arguing that the corruption of two federal agents should be considered, also argued his sentence was too harsh.
On 22 December 2017, Ulbricht filed his final appeal with the United States Supreme Court. His appeal argues 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 5 February 2018, five organizations filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Ulbricht: the National Lawyers Guild, American Black Cross, Reason Foundation, Drug Policy Alliance, and Downsize DC Foundation.
On 7 March 2018, the U.S. government filed a response to Ulbricht's petition. The government argues 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 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.
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