The trial of Ross Ulbricht began Tuesday in a Manhattan federal court, more than 15 months since his arrest. Ulbricht stands accused of being the mastermind behind the Silk Road, the infamous online drug marketplace that has drawn comparisons to eBay and Amazon for how easy it was to use.
The trial is only a day in, but it has already promised to be as sensational as the months leading to it.
But first, a little background:
The Silk Road was founded in February 2011 as a hidden service accessible only through Tor, a piece of anonymizing software that masks users’ identities. All transactions were made in Bitcoin, an online currency difficult to trace.
Because of this obfuscating nature, Silk Road became very popular: The FBI estimates that in the more than 2 years that it was operational, it registered 957,079 users and more than 1.2 million transactions, resulting in $1.2 billion of business. The site collected a commission on each transaction, which resulted in close to $80 million in profit for its owner and operator, an individual who went by the online pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts (a name taken from the popular novel/film The Princess Bride).
The federal government is accusing 30-year-old Ulbricht of being Dread Pirate Roberts. He was arrested in October 2011 at a public library in San Francisco while logged into the Silk Road’s administration page. The FBI claims that they also found a logbook and a journal chronicling his Silk Road activities in his seized laptop.
Ulbricht has pled not guilty to a total of seven charges— conspiracy to traffic narcotics, narcotics trafficking, distribution of narcotics by means of the Internet, computer hacking conspiracy, money laundering, continuing a criminal enterprise, and conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identification documents. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
The case has drawn the interest of various groups, including privacy advocates and libertarians (Ulbricht self-identified as one). You, too, should follow Ulbricht’s trial. It’s played out like a modern day, high-tech crime thriller that has consistently delivered shocking new revelations. Here are three of the most gripping things we’ve learned from the Silk Road case so far.
Ross Ulbricht did create the Silk Road
During his opening statement, defense attorney Joshua Dratel revealed that Ulbricht was responsible for the creation of the site, but that he wasn’t online drug kingpin Dread Pirate Roberts. This was the first time since his arrest that Ulbricht has admitted any involvement with the site.
“He created it,” Dratel told the jury. “As a free-wheeling, free market site, that could sell anything, except for a couple items that were harmful. It was an economic experiment. After a few hours, it was too much for him. He handed it to others.”
It was the new owner, Dratel argued, that committed the crimes Ulbricht currently faces.
But what about being caught red-handed at the library, with his finger literally on the keyboard? Ulbricht was just a patsy, his lawyer claimed.
“In the end, he was lured back by those operators, lured back to that library, that day,” Dratel added. “They had been alerted that they were under investigation, and time was short for them. Ross was the perfect fall guy. Silk Road was his idea.”
Admittedly, Ulbricht’s defense doesn’t always square with the seemingly incriminating evidence against him (The Daily Dot was able to obtain a list that contains more than 250 pieces of evidence that will be used by the prosecution). But it’s not entirely implausible. In July 2013, an individual claiming to be the Dread Pirate Roberts told journalist Andy Greenberg that he had taken over the Silk Road from someone else.
“I didn’t start the Silk Road, my predecessor did,” the alleged DPR said. “I was in his corner from early on and eventually it made sense for me to take the reigns.”
The murder-for-hire plots
Part of the government’s case against Ulbricht is that he allegedly, as Dread Pirate Roberts, ordered the murders of six individuals associated with the Silk Road that posed a threat to his profitable enterprise. None of the killings appear to have taken place.
One of the alleged targets was an employee who had stolen Bitcoin from Silk Road users. Ulbricht allegedly asked the hitman—who turned out to be an undercover DEA agent—to rough him up, but then had a change of heart.
“Can you change the order to execute rather than torture?” Ulbricht told the agent, according to a court document.
The law enforcement agent told Ulbricht that the employee had been executed and sent him a fake photograph as evidence. He was paid $80,000 in Bitcoin.
In another instance, Ulbricht allegedly ordered the death of Silk Road user “FriendlyChemist.” According to a criminal complaint filed in Maryland, “FriendlyChemist” threatened to publish the user names, addresses, and other revealing information of Silk Road vendors unless he was paid $500,000. Instead of paying, Ulbricht allegedly hired Silk Road user “redandwhite,” an alleged member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, to take him out.
“This kind of behavior is unforgivable to me,” Dread Pirate Roberts said. “Especially here on Silk Road, anonymity is sacrosanct.”
The supposed hit on “FriendlyChemist” led to the supposed contract killing of four other individuals. After allegedly carrying out the execution, “redandwhite” told Dread Pirate Roberts that “FriendlyChemist” had implicated yet another user, “tony76,” in the extortion attempt. He told Dread Pirate Roberts that he could take care of him as well, but that he’d have to kill four other unnamed accomplices in the process.
It bears repeating that none of the six contract killings appear to have taken place, and none of the charges Ulbricht currently faces are for murder. That hasn’t stopped the prosecution from using these in their case against Ulbricht, arguing that they resemble the actions of a “traditional drug dealer on the street who uses violence to protect his corner or turf from rival deals, or to prevent informants from cooperating with law enforcement.”
Judge Katherine Forrest agreed with the government and has ruled that the evidence of the killings is admissible evidence.
The location of the Silk Road’s Iceland server
The bulk of the case against Ulbricht is built around the FBI’s location of the Silk Road’s server in Iceland, which yielded more than 14 search warrants that eventually led to Ulbricht’s arrest.
The location of the servers has been a huge point of contention in the case. Ulbricht’s defense has repeatedly claimed that the FBI violated Ulbricht’s Fourth Amendment rights because the law enforcement agency may have used illegal means to locate the server; they have refused to provide an exact account of how they found it.
““A definitive answer as to whether the government gained access to the Silk Road servers lawfully or unlawfully is not possible at this stage because the government has not disclosed how it located the Silk Road Servers,” the defense wrote in an October 2014 memo. “However, it is apparent that the government did not seek or obtain a warrant to acquire the (Electronically Stored Information) on those servers.”
Ulbricht’s lawyers even suggested that the FBI’s unwillingness to say how they found the servers stems from the fact that the National Security Agency may have tipped them off.
The FBI eventually did provide an explanation of how they found the servers, and dismissed Ulbricht’s NSA claim as him “conjur[ing] up a bogeyman.” They claim that they were able to pinpoint the location because of the Silk Road’s CAPTCHA service. This account has largely been dismissed by security experts.
Regardless of the credibility of the FBI’s claims, Judge Forrest has ruled that the legality of how they found the servers is irrelevant, and that Ulbricht’s Fourth Amendment protections were not violated because he never claimed ownership of the server. As such, all evidence associated with that server is admissible in court.