Silk Road founder notes 10 years in prison on eve of Bankman-Fried trial

Ross Ulbricht has officially been behind bars for ten years, a grim milestone for the Silk Road founder who is serving a double life sentence — plus 40 years — without parole.

His X account, updated with his fiancée’s help, reminded the world of his conviction with a Sunday evening post. 

“I sometimes fear I’ll spend the rest of my life behind concrete walls and locked doors. But I have no one else to blame. It’s my poor choices that led me here,” the post read. “All I can do now is pray for mercy.”

Ulbricht, now 39, created the Silk Road online marketplace, named for the ancient Eurasian trade route, back in 2011. Modeling itself after eBay, Silk Road offered users the ability to transact anonymously with one another using bitcoin. 

The site, which was accessible through Tor, facilitated sales totaling 9.5 million bitcoin (valued at $1.2 billion at the time of transaction) from February 2011 to July 2013, according to a 2013 FBI criminal complaint against Ulbricht. 

Ulbricht thought of himself as an “idealistic libertarian” and a passionate advocate for free markets. He alleges that ideology inspired him to create an online marketplace based on the non-aggression principle. It would allow users to buy and sell anything they desired, even if the items would be harmful to the buyer, so long as no third party was harmed in the process. Ulbricht claims that the site worked to prohibit numerous items falling outside of this criteria, including child pornography, acts of violence-for-hire, stolen property, and anything used to “harm or defraud” others.

Read more: DOJ gets Silk Road coins worth $305M stuck in Bitcoin mempool

But rather than becoming a hub for the free and anonymous sale of books, art, clothing and electronics — the kinds of items Ulbricht claims he intended the site to be for — Silk Road became synonymous with the illegal drug trade.

US authorities shut down Silk Road in October 2013, and the FBI arrested Ulbricht on Oct. 1, 2013. The government also seized 144,336 BTC, worth about $30 million at the time.

Ulbricht was later convicted of drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering in February 2015. He was sentenced to life in prison on May 29, 2015.

“Ross has expressed heartfelt remorse for creating Silk Road and accepts responsibility for the mistake he made. Although he never intended harm, he has learned how even well-meaning and idealistic actions can have unintended consequences,” a blog post on freeross.org stated. 

The remorseful tone that Ulbricht has struck has, at times, been shared by Sam Bankman-Fried — whose trial is set to begin Tuesday, days after Ulbricht’s tenth year of incarceration. The two share additional commonalities.

Read more: US government dumps bitcoin stolen from Silk Road, $1.2B to go

Both were major figures in the crypto space, though Ulbricht was involved at a time when bitcoin was much more under the radar. While they were in the public eye, both Bankman-Fried and Ulbricht were young, idealistic and were ultimately accused of some similar crimes, including money laundering. 

Notably, there is no equivalent movement behind the former leader of FTX to free him from jail or to drop the charges against him like there is with Ulbricht. A Change.org petition requesting clemency for the Silk Road founder has garnered over half a million signatures.

While Ulbricht was initially accused by the US government of involvement in several sensational and violent crimes, including a murder-for-hire plot, he was never formally charged with any violent crimes in court.

Ulbricht claims these allegations are false and that he never planned a hit against anyone. Prosecutors went on the record in 2013 saying they believed none of the alleged killings transpired.

There have also been complaints that Ulbricht’s sentence is disproportionate when compared to others involved with Silk Road and subsequent “darknet” marketplaces.

For example, Cornelis Jan “SuperTrips” Slomp, who made a name for himself as the most prolific drug dealer on Silk Road, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2015. In 2021, he was granted a compassionate release due to Covid-19 nearly six years into his sentence, according to Vice.

The two men who tried to resurrect Silk Road — Blake Benthall and Thomas White — also received much lighter scrutiny than Ulbricht. White was sentenced to over five years in prison by UK authorities in 2019 for his role in operating Silk Road 2.0. Benthall was charged in November 2014 but is believed to have avoided prison time over Silk Road 2.0 due to a guilty plea that requires him to cooperate with law enforcement.

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