Ross Ulbricht: Drug lord or the first crypto-prisoner?

Photo - Ross Ulbricht: Drug lord or the first crypto-prisoner?
Ross Ulbricht is perhaps the most tragic figure in the crypto history. The information storm about the fate of the former Silk Road’s creator, and current prisoner, still does not subside.
Ross Ulbricht is 38 years old, and has already spent 7 years in a maximum security federal prison, USP Florence High in Colorado.
According to the official version of American law enforcement officers, Ulbricht is a former drug dealer and creator of the darknet market for the sale of illegal drugs and weapons. The court ruling that sent Ross to jail stated that he developed and operated the Silk Road website for about two years. During this time, he made a profit of $28.5 million in BTC.

He was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, trafficking in false identity documents, selling drugs, poisons, and murder-for-hire.

His family, friends, and relatives swore on oath that they knew nothing about his illegal activities on the Internet. And his ex-girlfriend, Julia Vee, said that Ross did not even have a car, and lived in rentals. Hence, the accusations of laundering millions are ridiculous.

We think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Official version

Ulbricht launched the Silk Road website in 2011. At the time, he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania doing research in materials science and engineering. But his cherished dream was to create an open market where people could buy and sell whatever they wanted, without the IRS or police control.

One might agree that this is an understandable desire when you’re 27.

To preserve user privacy and his own anonymity, Ulbricht created a marketplace on the dark web, a portion of the Internet hidden from traditional search engines. Silk Road accept neither cash nor credit cards: users had to pay with Bitcoins, which had just emerged on the network. All transactions were encrypted and therefore untraceable. These actions brought the site to the attention of several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI's elite New York cyber unit.

In 2013, the FBI arrested a 29-year-old graduate for developing and hosting a criminal website. The investigation lasted almost 2 years. During this time, police and FBI investigators found out that the website connected several thousand drug dealers and almost a million clients around the world. For a short time (from 2011 to 2013), his project gained a wild success. During this relatively short period, Silk Road managed to earn about $200 million. Ross profited from commissions taken from every transaction, which ranged from 5% to 15%.

According to anonymous witnesses, users could even discuss assassinations on the Silk Road forum.
In 2015, Ross Ulbricht was found guilty on all counts and received two life sentences + 40 years.

Public Opinion on the Court's Charges

The FBI and Maryland District Court prosecutors believe that he deserves his life sentence, but members of the crypto community call it disproportionately harsh. Everyone was particularly struck by the fact that the court demanded that Ulbricht be subject to the thieves-in-law clause, usually reserved for mafia and cartel leaders. “A 27-year-old university graduate as a drug cartel leader. What is this, a comedy show script?” — such comments flooded forums and social networks in 2015.

Ross has consistently denied the accusations, which were based on messages in anonymous online chat rooms, and the authorship of which the court could not prove. And those who knew the defendant personally never believed the accusations.

Even the only identified “victim”, Curtis Green (Known online as “chronicpain”), is an ardent supporter of a Ross pardon. Green was mentioned in the investigation documents as a person who threatened to reveal the Silk Road users’ data to the police, and whose murder was allegedly planned by Ulbricht.
Chronicpain went on record in court that his threats to leak information to the police and Ross’s threats to “find and kill” him, which the police pulled from their private correspondence, were all just an online spat. And that there would have been no real action on either side. But the court ignored his words.

It is also known that the “drug trade” for the most part consisted of small batches of marijuana, which, by the way, is officially allowed in the states of Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Maine, California, and Colorado. But the trial, at the request of the prosecution, was held in Maryland, with the most stringent restrictions on cannabis cultivation and use.

What could essentially be indicted to Ross was the use of Silk Road as a platform for connecting clients with hackers, selling personal data from hacked sites, and trading in fake documents.

However, this is definitely not enough for two life sentences without the right to appeal.

It is also interesting that the seized Bitcoins, at the time of their sale by the marshal service, increased in price multiple times, and were sold at the price that was set at the time of the arrest.

The people who bought them at the auction  (Tim Draper and Barry Silbert) have made a nice fortune on crypto investments. And the underlying asset was 50,000 BTC from the Silk Road.
Ross Ulbricht Photo: Julia Vie for Rolling Stone

Ross Ulbricht Photo: Julia Vie for Rolling Stone

What is Ross Ulbricht doing now?

Florence High maximum security prisoner spends his days reading books about artificial intelligence and physics textbooks. He writes and publishes scientific articles on encryption and blockchain technology on the Internet. Ulbricht also meditates, teaches GED undergraduate courses, and draws sketches of his life in prison by pencil.

Ross shared with his Medium followers that he's launched his own NFT. He successfully tokenized his artwork and sold them at a profit on the SuperRare platform. All proceeds were donated to charity.

More details have emerged concerning the Silk Road case. 

In July 2023, Roger Thomas Clark, a 62-year-old known online as Variety Jones, was convicted. He served as Ross's mentor, aiding him in managing the website, personally connecting with opioid dealers, and promoting drug transactions through the platform.

The investigation turned its attention to Roger after examining Ulbricht's personal journals. In these writings, Ross spoke highly of him, citing his expertise in cybersecurity and marketing. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams declared that Clark was behind the orchestrated assassination attempt of a community member, intending to “protect this digital drug empire.”

During the trial, Roger Thomas Clark admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 20 years of high-security imprisonment.

Given these recent developments, the crypto community anticipates a potential reexamination of Ross's case.

Ross Ulbricht’s Quotes

Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they individually saw fit. [It] turned out to be a naive and costly idea that I deeply regret.
Decades of incarceration stretch out in front of me. As I face that future — my eventual old age and death in this cage — I find myself looking for meaning and purpose.
But what I realized — and what gives me hope that I will find something more to live for — is that my story is not over. It does not end with “…and then he was arrested and spent the rest of his life in prison.” I am still alive. I am still here. I can still make a difference.