‘Silk Road’ Mastermind Convicted On Drug Charges And Running Underground Trafficking Website — How Did He Get Caught?

Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old founder of the online darknet website Silk Road, was found guilty on seven counts related to drug trafficking and other illegal activities on Wednesday. He now faces a life sentence in prison for his role in catering to hackers and drug smugglers.

Silk Road operated as an underground eBay where customers could buy and sell illicit goods such as heroin, cocaine, LSD, and other black market substances. Customers browsed the Silk Road site on secure servers that run undetected by authorities and used the digital currency Bitcoin to make anonymous transactions.

The jury, consisting of six men and six women, brought the hammer down quickly and with a heavy hand on Ulbricht, known online as the “Dread Pirate Roberts.” After deliberating for just three-and-a-half hours on Wednesday morning, the jury unanimously found him guilty on all charges. This brought an end to a three-week trial in which evidence against Ulbricht was brought into court, revealing that Silk Road was used to deal hard drugs, computer hacking programs, fake IDs, and more.

Ross Ulbricht, also known as Dread Pirate Roberts

Preet Bharara, U.S. district attorney, said the verdict against Ulbricht and the Silk Road “should send a clear message to anyone else attempting to operate an online criminal enterprise.”

“The supposed anonymity of the dark web is not a protective shield from arrest and prosecution.”

Evidence shown during the trial showed that the Silk Road website conducted over a million drug deals and amassed $213 million in revenues from January 2011 to October 2013, when Ulbricht was arrested.

Joshua L. Dratel, Ulbricht’s defense attorney, insisted his client was framed and only hosted the Silk Road website, saying that there were “significant errors during the course of the trial.” Dratel did admit, however, that the dark site was Ulbricht’s brain child.

“It was his baby, and he stayed with it enthusiastically for nearly three years.”

Ulbricht’s parents were at the courthouse and were reportedly outraged by the guilty verdict.

“We’re very upset,” Lyn Ulbricht said. “We love our son. We don’t think he belongs in prison.”

The U.S. government acquired a wealth of evidence that matched Ulbricht’s activities to similar activities on the Silk Road server, which was obtained early on by authorities in Iceland. Further evidence showed that Ulbricht used his own name in a request for technical assistance on the Silk Road website, an error that enabled investigators to track him down to a library in San Francisco, where he was logged on to his laptop as Dread Pirate Roberts.

Dread Pirate Roberts at home
Dread Pirate Roberts had a normal social life

FBI agents confiscated the laptop and discovered a cache of Bitcoins and millions in commissions. Along with the money trail were detailed notes on how the Silk Road was operated. The laptop contained information leading to an eyewitness, an eBay employee who admitted that Ulbricht asked him for assistance in developing his dark website.

There was further evidence that Ulbricht was involved in a “murder-for-hire” scheme using Bitcoin to hire hit men to eliminate threats to the Silk Road. There was no evidence that anyone had actually been harmed, so ultimately no conviction was obtained.

Apprehending Ulbricht was not as easy as it may seem. Authorities had very few leads in the Silk Road investigation, and had Ulbricht not made his relatively minor mistake, they might not have found him at all. On top of that, all of his files were encrypted. Had they not caught him with his pants down, they would have had a very difficult time in accessing the Silk Road cache.

That such a currency, nearly untraceable and available strictly online, could be used for such illicit purposes was unheard of before the 21st century. Thanks to dark sites like Silk Road, activities which could be tracked by following hard money are nearly impossible to trace.

While authorities claim victory over the Silk Road website, declaring that the dark site has been eradicated and the mastermind brought down, the online black market remains a hotbed of illegal activity. Other sites like the Silk Road have taken this as a sign that they need to upgrade their efforts to remain anonymous.

Do you think the high-profile nature of the Silk Road case shines a light on illicit activities on the web, or do you think that dark sites have simply gone further underground?