Ross Ulbricht, Creator of Silk Road Website, Is Sentenced to Life in Prison

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Ross W. Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, a notorious online marketplace for the sale of heroin, cocaine, LSD and other illegal drugs, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

Mr. Ulbricht, 31, was sentenced by the judge, Katherine B. Forrest, for his role as what prosecutors described as “the kingpin of a worldwide digital drug-trafficking enterprise.”

Mr. Ulbricht had faced a minimum of 20 years in prison on one of the counts for which he was convicted. In handing down a much longer sentence, Judge Forrest told Mr. Urlbricht that “what you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.”

Mr. Ulbricht’s high-tech drug bazaar was novel and full of intrigue, operating in a hidden part of the Internet known as the dark web, which allowed deals to be made anonymously and out of the reach of law enforcement. In Silk Road’s nearly three years of operation, over 1.5 million transactions were carried out on the website involving several thousand seller accounts and more than 100,000 buyer accounts, the authorities have said.

Ross W. Ulbricht in an image from his LinkedIn page.

Transactions were paid for using the virtual currency Bitcoin, and Mr. Ulbricht, operating under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, took in millions of dollars in commissions, prosecutors said. They said his conviction was “the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched.”

“He developed a blueprint for a new way to use the Internet to undermine the law and facilitate criminal transactions,” the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a sentencing memorandum this week.

“Using that blueprint,” the office said, “others have followed in Ulbricht’s footsteps, establishing new ‘dark markets’ in the mold of Silk Road, some selling an even broader range of illicit goods and services.”

Before the sentencing, the parent of one man, who died from using heroin that prosecutors said was purchased on Silk Road, accused Mr. Ulbricht of being driven by greed in making drugs easily available to vulnerable people.

“I strongly believe that my son would be here today if Ross Ulbricht had not created Silk Road,” said the man, who was identified in court only as Richard. “All Ross Ulbricht cared about was his growing pile of bitcoins.”

Mr. Ulbricht, in a letter to the judge, said he had created the site not for financial gain but because he had believed “people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.”

His lawyer, Joshua L. Dratel, in submissions to the judge, argued that the website’s “harm reduction” ethos made it safer than traditional drug dealing on the street.

But prosecutors, in their memo, argued that praising Silk Road for “harm reduction measures” was “akin to applauding a heroin dealer for handing out a clean needle with every dime bag: the point is that he has no business dealing drugs in the first place.”

The government said Silk Road had “dramatically lowered the barriers to obtaining illegal drugs,” and had “provided a one-stop online shopping mall where the supply of drugs was virtually limitless.”

As a result, prosecutors said, “The site enabled thousands of drug dealers to expand their markets from the sidewalk to cyberspace, and thereby reach countless customers whom they never could have found on the street.”

Mr. Ulbricht was convicted in February on charges that included engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and distributing narcotics on the Internet, each of which carried potential life terms. Prosecutors also alleged that Mr. Ulbricht solicited the murders of people he saw as threats to his operation and that at least six deaths were attributable to drugs bought on the site. The government recommended a sentence “substantially above” the 20-year minimum.

The site was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after Mr. Ulbricht was arrested in 2013.