Ross Ulbricht, the man accused of masterminding the billion-dollar dark net drug marketplace Silk Road, was found guilty Wednesday in a New York court on all counts related to running the site.
Jurors took less than four hours to reach their decision, delivering verdicts on seven separate narcotics and money laundering conspiracy charges.
Linking Ulbricht to the pseudonymous Silk Road administrator "Dread Pirate Roberts" was central to the prosecution's case. Investigators said Ulbricht ran the site as Dread Pirate Roberts — a reference to the swashbuckling character in the book and movie The Princess Bride — from its inception in early 2011 until it was shut down following his arrest in October 2013. On Wednesday, jurors decided Ulbricht was in fact Dread Pirate Roberts.
The site, which operated on the anonymizing Tor network and used Bitcoin, a hard-to-trace cryptocurrency, allegedly facilitated more than 1 million sales, mostly of drugs, worth a total of $1.2 billion.
In his opening statement at the trial, defense attorney Joshua Dratel admitted that the libertarian-leaning Ulbricht started the site as an "economic experiment," but soon gave up on it, turning the marketplace over to users who left him "holding the bag."
Dratel initially fingered former bitcoin kingpin Mark Karpeles, a Frenchman who formerly ran the bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, as the man who framed Ulbricht, but Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that key testimony from a federal agent about an earlier investigation into Karpeles was inadmissible.
Forrest later blocked two defense witnesses from testifying, claiming their expert credentials were unproven. Jurors were apparently unmoved by what remained of the defense's argument, which was largely based on the ambiguity of electronic communication.
The government's case, however, was overwhelming from the start. Investigators were able to link the site to a trove of chat logs and journal entries found on Ulbricht's laptop. Prosecutors established a timeline that included everything from vacations taken by Ulbricht to his decision to take up the Dread Pirate Roberts moniker.
The laptop was logged into an administrative section of the site when it was seized at the time of Ulbricht's arrest in a San Francisco public library. The computer also included expense accounts that correlated to both Silk Road and Ulbricht's non-bitcoin expenditures. Other logs included awkward efforts to order targeted killings of Silk Road users. Those attempts, which cost Ulbricht hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoins, apparently never came to fruition. He has not faced charges related to the attempted murders.
In a statement released Wednesday, the FBI said Ulbricht "deliberately operated Silk Road as an online criminal marketplace intended to enable its users to buy and sell drugs and other illegal goods and services anonymously and outside the reach of law enforcement."
The Dread Pirate Roberts, writing in a journal entry on Ulbricht's laptop dated February 2012, was clear about his intent. "The idea was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them," he said.
Ulbricht's defense team has until April 4 to appeal the verdict, something they said they intend to do. At times, Dratel appeared more intent on creating grounds for an appeal than fostering a coherent defense of Ulbricht. He called for a mistrial on at least five occasions.
Any appeal would likely be based largely around the defense's pre-trial argument that much of the prosecution's evidence was culled from the warrantless hacking of a Silk Road server based in Iceland.
The case was seen as a test of government's ability to crack down on illicit activities that take place on networks that exist, at least in theory, outside of the tracking capacity of authorities. An FBI agent testified that the agency was able to trace millions of dollars worth of bitcoins to Ulbricht's computer by using a public record system - known as the block chain - built into the currency.
Many of Ulbricht's supporters see him as an idealist who harmed no one and merely facilitated drug deals that otherwise would have taken place in dark alleyways. The first merchandise Ulbricht sold on the site was psychedelic mushrooms he grew in a Texas cabin in 2010. One seller who testified at the trial said that, without the site, he likely wouldn't have ventured into drug dealing at all.
Ulbricht's family, which attended the entire trial, was angered by the decision. "It was not a fair trial," Ulbricht's mother Lynn said.
Ulbricht, 30, faces up to life in prison.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford