If you were interested in drugs around 2011, you’ll remember Silk Road. It was the online marketplace that first introduced the world to postal order contraband—and inadvertently—Bitcoin. According to court documents the site facilitated approximately 1,229,465 transactions between February 2011 and July 2013 in sales of narcotics and with every sale, Silk Road took a percentage of the proceeds for the site’s administrator and founder—the enigmatic Dread Pirate Roberts.
For the duration of Silk Road’s short life, the identity of this figure was a source of intrigue. Some speculated that Dread Pirate Roberts was actually several people, while others thought that the name was a pseudonym for a cartel. But these suspicions were put to bed in October 2013 when the FBI arrested a 29-year-old man by the name of Ross Ulbricht.
According to evidence presented by the FBI, Ross had worked mostly alone and learned to write code as he built the site. He didn't have any prior convictions for computer hacking or peddling drugs, and instead had a degree in physics from the University of Texas. He'd also grown up in a loving, middle class family and had been in the Scouts as a child. Surprisingly, Ross wasn't the evil genius so many in media and law enforcement had predicted.
This version of Ross is certainly the one his mother clings to. Lyn Ulbricht maintains that Ross is a kind-hearted, misunderstood man who made a mistake, and that the life sentence he received without possibility of parole was unjust for simply running a website.
We spoke to Lyn about the day of Ross’ arrest, and why she's taken it upon herself to get him pardoned, regardless of how difficult that seems.
VICE: Hey Lyn, let’s start with how all this started for you. Can you tell me about the day Ross was arrested?
Lyn Ulbricht: You want to know about the day my life changed right? So we’d just visited Ross in California, where he was living at the time. I was just doing some errands when I came into my husband’s office and he was sitting with his head in his hands bent over his desk. I was like, what’s happened? What’s going on? And he goes Ross has just been arrested and I’m was like what?!
My husband put me on the phone with a reporter, who was very nice, and she said, oh yeah you haven’t heard? Then she told us what was going on and I was like no way, there’s no way and then I turned on the TV and it was all over TV and suddenly there was media driving by our house, filming our house. And the neighbours were freaking out and the phones were ringing off the hook and the emails were pouring in. And you know, my life hasn’t been the same since.
Did you ever have an inkling of what was happening prior to his arrest? Was this something you'd considered?
No, not at all. I mean first of all Ross isn’t a computer programmer, he’d never been trained in that. So no, it never occurred to me. I hadn’t even heard of Silk Road and I had no idea what it was.
Really, you’d never heard of Silk Road?
No, the first I had heard about it was on that day I just described.
What was your household like before this happened?
We were just a regular family, you know? Mum and Dad and Ross and his sister Cali. He’d had a pretty regular American upbringing. Pretty boring, really. And we never had drugs at the house. That’s the other thing, Ross wasn’t a drug person.
Okay, so I know that you want to tell me about why you think Ross is innocent—or at least more innocent than a life sentence would suggest—but he definitely founded Silk Road, which was a site that definitely sold drugs. Where do you think that came from?
It’s typical libertarian philosophy—the whole libertarian party is against the drug war. It just goes right along with having the choice of what you do with your own body. Also there were restrictions, Silk Road wasn’t a completely free market. It was based on non-aggression principals and it was all about not forcing anybody to do anything they didn’t want to do. For instance, child pornography and anything to do with paedophilia was forbidden, as was the sale of stolen property, weapons, and violent services. And they considered drugs a choice, not something that anyone was forced to do. Again it was that libertarian idea of, your body, you decide. Basically Ross was an idealist, he was all about the free market.
Do you ever feel resentment toward him? Because as you say, he’s really changed your life.
Every once in a while it’s exasperating, like: wow you never gave me any trouble growing up, you’re sure making up for it now. Honestly, there was a time I felt exasperated with him, but that was in the beginning. I don’t feel that way now. He was 26 years old when he started Silk Road and I know he never meant to harm anyone, he would never do that. And now he’s become kind of the poster boy for excessive sentencing. I have learned so much going to the prisons, not just with Ross, but with so many people.
Ross has now spent six years in prison. How’s he coping?
There have been times, like when he was in the metal box [solitary confinement] that were very hard. But even then he was like I’m okay, I’m alright, I’m doing okay. Of course, he has moments where he loses it, like anybody would. He was really upset when he got sentenced to life. That was a tough phase for him but he’s intentionally positive. Maybe it’s because I’m his mother and he doesn’t want to upset me, but it seems like he chooses to be as positive as he can.
What's he been doing with his time?
He has a few friends and he reads a lot, he works out, goes outside a lot. He doesn’t get involved in stuff that causes conflict. He’s in a new prison now where he says they’re more into doing constructive things. For example he’s joined a band and is learning bass guitar.
And I understand you’ve moved from Texas to Colorado so you’re closer to the prison?
Yeah, actually it’s our third move. We sold our house a long time ago to pay for all this. We have an internet business so we're able to move easily.
That’s a pretty big commitment, to pack up your life and move states.
Yeah well, we felt it was important for him to have a lifeline to the world. When he was first arrested he was placed in a maximum-security prison in New York, so we moved there. Because of his life sentence he was put in with super dangerous criminals, stabbings, beatings, that kind of thing. He got along okay at first, until Ross refused to beat up someone suspected of being a snitch and he refused and was like “I’m not going to beat up some guy I don’t even know.” And that put him in danger because you just don’t say no.
So he had to put himself into protective custody, so he wouldn’t get beaten. And then he spent three and a half months in a metal box with no windows, and barely got an opportunity to go outside. But he’s in a much better place now and can relax a bit. Before he always had to be on the lookout for potential violence or danger.
From what you’ve seen, does the public still have an interest in Silk Road? Do people send him letters?
Yes, people definitely still have an interest in the case. He gets letters of support from all over the world, even though some don’t always come through. The past year has been very busy, especially since Ross joined Twitter last summer. We have growing list of supporters and our petition is one of the fastest growing clemency petitions on Change.org right now.
I’ve read that Ross does a tutoring program for other inmates, can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah he helped four guys get into a remote college course. He’s also helped several people get their high school diplomas. He’s also been doing private tutoring, helping people with physics and yoga, and also just helping people if they need a letter written.
You said that going into prisons has taught you a lot?
Yeah, well Ross had one friend who is doing a life sentence for selling marijuana to an informant 13 years ago. The prison is in Colorado, in a state where marijuana is now legal and he’s serving a life sentence. That’s so messed up! That’s just wrong. And there are just so many cases like that. This country has such a problem with excessive sentencing, so I feel like this has been fate for me too. My goal has become to not just to get Ross out but to help move the system into a more humane and saner place because the United States wasn't always like this. This is because of the the drug war and it’s really gotten out of control, It needs to be rolled back, it needs to be changed.
On that topic, you’re managing a push to get Ross pardoned. How can people help?
We have our petition, it’s at freeross.org and Instagram. You can also follow Ross on Twitter. It’s a worldwide grassroots effort to call attention to his case. And we always need financial help. If it weren’t for the people giving us financial help, we wouldn’t have gotten to the supreme court. Also if you have any ideas or ways you can help, please contact us. We’re very small.