End of the Road

From Silk Road Drug Kingpin to Prison Lifer?

After just a few hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict in the trial of a 30-year-old former Eagle Scout charged with running a drug market on the ‘darknet.’

02.05.15 10:55 AM ET

Drug kingpins do not usually turn to their moms on the verge of tears when they are convicted.

But Ross Ulbricht is what the government calls a “digital kingpin,” not the typical guy who comes up from the streets and graduates from selling dime bags to moving kilos.

And even if the Boy Scout motto is to “be prepared,” this 30-year-old former Eagle Scout was likely not ready for the suddenness of the jury’s verdict in Manhattan federal court Wednesday.

When the jurors retired just before noon after a six-week trial, they might have been expected to spend at least a full day or two deliberating.

The question was whether the government had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Ulbricht was Dread Pirate Roberts, founder and administrator of Silk Road, which is often described as a kind of Amazon.com for drugs on the so-called darknet.

Ross stood to spend a minimum of 20 years, perhaps even life in prison. His only hope as the jurors retired was that at least one of them would buy the defense’s argument that he had created Silk Road, but somebody else had taken over as Dread Pirate Roberts and set him up as a “fall guy.”

At 3:20 p.m., after just three and a half hours, the jury sent out a note. The slip of paper could have been about anything, maybe a request for a legal clarification or a readback. But there were mutters that it was a verdict.

The tension built as the defendant’s mother, Lyn Ulbricht, came in and took what had become her customary spot on the second spectator’s bench from the front in this 15th-floor courtroom. The father’s customary spot was still empty as she sat with her head bowed, a figure of hope against hope with the late afternoon sun streaming in on her.

A defense lawyer said something to the court clerk and then turned to the mother, apparently assuring her that the things would not proceed until the father arrived. One long minute followed another and then Kirk Ulbricht strode in, sitting beside the mother. He also bowed his head. His hand rose to his temples.

The wooden door to the left swung open and Ross Ulbricht entered from the holding cells wearing a dark blue blazer, blue shirt, and khakis. He managed a kind of swagger, but it was absent a street dealer’s arrogance. He did not appear to be attempting to impress anybody or act out a role. He seemed only to be trying to demonstrate that he was OK, that he was still Ross. 

He mouthed a silent word to his mother.

“Hey.”

Ulbricht slid into the defendant’s chair more quickly than he had earlier in the trial.

“Ready?” the court clerk asked.

“Yes,” a defense lawyer said.

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Judge Katherine Forrest again assumed the bench.

“I have received a note from the foreperson,” she said. “The jury has reached a verdict.”

A court officer pounded on the wood door at the back: one, two, three times.

“All rise,” he said.

Ross rose with everyone else and watched the jury file in. The judge said that she had marked the note as received at 3:23 p.m. The foreperson handed a brown envelope to the court clerk, who presented it to the judge.

The judge extracted the white verdict form and quickly examined the four stapled pages. She gave it to the clerk, who was wearing a sporty bow tie as is his custom during deliberations in a criminal case. He repeated the same word in connection with each of the six counts.

“Guilty.”

He repeated a different word as to whether Ross had trafficked in amounts of four different illegal drugs that made him liable to the more serious penalties.

“Yes.”

One woman among the spectators had begun to cry, but the mother remained heroically composed even as her son turned and looked back at her. He pressed his lips together and his eyes reddened. He kept looking at her, keeping himself from spilling over the verge of tears.

“It’s not the end,” the mother said. “It’s not the end.”

She remained a world-class mother and if her son is as guilty as the jury found him, then his greatest crime has been to allow her to declare him innocent. She has declared she would never turn away from him.

Everyone rose again as the jurors were excused. The length and detail of the charge sheet made the speed of their verdict all the more surprising, but the case as presented by the prosecution was not a jigsaw puzzle. It was a progression of evidence that had ended with the jurors less than four hours from finding him guilty on all counts.

Much of the evidence—including a highly incriminating journal that detailed his progression from promising young scientist to foundering entrepreneur to digital drug kingpin so twisted by the dark side of the Internet that he plotted to have people murdered—came from Ulbricht’s Samsung laptop. And the laptop likely would have automatically locked into encrypted mode if he had been able to close the lid before the FBI grabbed it from him as he chatted online as Dread Pirate Roberts in a San Francisco public library.

One instant and he very well might not have been convicted.

The judge now set a date for the sentencing.

“Friday, May 15 at 10 a.m.,” she said. “Is there anything else we should do right now?”

“No, your honor,” the prosecution said.

“No, your honor,” the defense said.

“Then we are adjourning,” the judge said.

All rose again as she stepped down from the bench.

“Ross is a hero!” somebody among the spectators called out.

Whatever Ulbricht is to that person and a few others, he was now a convicted drug kingpin in the eyes of the law.

A marshal set a hand lightly on Ulbricht’s back to signal it was time to return to the cell, not likely to be free again for decades, perhaps never at all.

“I love you, Ross!” his mother cried out. “It’s not the end.”