Silk Road’s alleged founder has been indicted as a drug kingpin


The Dread Pirate Roberts in "The Princess Bride." (20th Century Fox)

Ross William Ulbricht, the alleged kingpin behind online drug marketplace Silk Road, has now been charged as a kingpin. Using the pseudonym the "Dread Pirate Roberts," the government claims he oversaw a criminal enterprise where 100,000 users bought and sold hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and "other unlawful goods and services."

In a federal indictment released Tuesday, Ulbricht was formally charged with one count of narcotics conspiracy, one count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking, one count of money laundering conspiracy, and one count of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. That last one is commonly referred to as a "kingpin statute," as Andy Greenberg at Forbes notes. The combined charges carry a mandatory minimum of 30 years and a possible maximum of life in prison.

Ulbricht's legal representation has told other news outlets he intends to plead not guilty at arraignment and the indictment "does not contain any new factual allegations."

Curiously missing from the list of charges is any reference to the alleged murder-for-hire schemes the original criminal complaint against Ulbricht cited. One of the incidents described in court documents involved Ulbricht soliciting a hit on a Silk Road vendor attempting to extort him -- receiving confirmation of a Bitcoin payment for the hit and photo evidence of its success, although there's no apparent evidence it actually occurred.

However, Ulbricht was indicted in Maryland on charges of doing something very similar: Soliciting the hit of a vendor Ulbricht alleges stole from him in exchange for $80,000 in wired payments. But there was a twist: The indictment claims the person he paid for the fake hit was an undercover cop, and the "evidence" of the hit he received was faked.

If the government's charges are true, that $80,000 would have been pocket change to Ulbricht. Law enforcement reportedly seized approximately 173,991 Bitcoins worth over $150 million at present exchange rates in the course of their investigation of the drug kingpin. Around 30,000 of those were recovered from servers used to keep the online drug market up and running and were ordered to be forfeited by a federal court last month. The rest were found on hardware belonging to Ulbricht, who has filed a claim contesting their forfeiture.

In the months since Ulbricht's arrest various others allegedly connected with the underground drug market have been arrested or have faced charges, including alleged Silk Road employees and a prominent Bitcoin start-up founder accused of facilitating money laundering for users of the site. But like "The Princess Bride" character which inspired the handle "Dread Pirate Roberts," a pirate who handed off his business to a successor when he was ready to retire, Silk Road lives on even though the original market has been shuttered: A new Silk Road and a new Dread Pirate Roberts have already popped up to fill the void left by the fed's crackdown.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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