Here's how Ulbricht's lawyer described the situation according to Ars Technica's Joe Mullin:
He created it. As a free-wheeling, free market site, that could sell anything, except for a couple items that were harmful. It was an economic experiment. After a few months, it was too much for him. He handed it off to others.In the end, he was lured back by those operators, lured back to that library, that day. They had been alerted that they were under investigation, and time was short for them. Ross was the perfect fall guy. Silk Road was his idea.[Silk Road created] a digital contrivance that left him holding the bag when the real operators of Silk Road knew their time was up.
Ulbricht's explanation may sound familiar to fans of "The Princess Bride," the popular book and film that featured the original "Dread Pirate Roberts." (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
Hero Westley is captured by a notorious pirate, only to eventually assume the role of his captor -- including name and reputation -- in a passing on of leadership. You can find video of the scene online, but here's the thrust of the situation that Westley explains to his long-lost love Buttercup:
Well, Roberts had grown so rich, he wanted to retire. So he took me to his cabin and told me his secret. "I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts," he said. "My name is Ryan. I inherited this ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited it from was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts, either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired fifteen years and living like a king in Patagonia." Then he explained the name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear.
The situation the defense suggests isn't exactly like in the "Princess Bride" -- it's unclear if Ulbricht ever went by that name on the site before handing over the reins and Westley isn't lured back to be a patsy in the film. But the transfer of leadership and mistaken identities certainly draws some parallels.
In a 2013 interview, "all routed through Tor and the Silk Road’s messaging system," with Andy Greenberg, the Dread Pirate Roberts that was then running the Silk Road gave a similar origin story -- saying he was not the creator, but had taken it over at his suggestion after meeting through the site and working with the original creator on security problems.
The respondent in that interview declined to say if he was also responsible for all the comments by the Dread Pirates Roberts on the site's forums -- many of which described a form of libertarian worldview.
In his reporting on the trial, Greenberg says that he was unable to confirm the Dread Pirate Roberts story at the time. And, after Ulbricht's arrest, Greenberg says that an FBI staffer who declined to be named told him prosecutors had evidence that it was Ulbricht, lying to him during the interview.
"The Internet is an unusual place," Ulbricht's lawyer said Tuesday, according to Mullin. "People create and fabricate profiles of themselves and others, in ways we weren't able to imagine 20 years ago. It's like a dating site. You get all kinds of information—then you meet someone in person, and it may not be the same."
The "real" Dread Pirate Roberts, responsible, is still out there, the defense claimed.
The government alleges that Ulbricht was the Dread Pirate Roberts and served as the "kingpin" for the Silk Road from the beginning through when he was ambushed by FBI agents with his laptop open to a chat with Silk Road employees in the science fiction section at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
"The defendant was caught red handed," prosecutors at the court house said Tuesday, according to Ars Technica.