Programmer Ross Ulbricht is serving a double-life sentence for starting The Silk Road, a website on the dark web that traded guns and drugs for crypto. Prosecutors also have evidence of six murder-for-hire schemes that he has not been charged with. More than any other single person including Satoshi Nakamoto, Ulbricht is responsible for the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency. And, according to his Twitter feed, he is also learning how to rock.
Can you guess what kind of instrument a medium-talent programmer—who used existing technology and little skill of his own to cause other people misery—would pick?
He’s playing bass! Ulbricht joins Paul Simonon from the Clash and Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols in the pantheon of people who joined a band and THEN learned bass. All jokes aside, learning music is good for the soul and everybody has to start somewhere. Plus you get to work on that “bass face.”
[Editor’s note: Ken Kurson, founder of Modern Consensus, played bass for the bands the Lilacs and Green back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just sayin’.]
Ulbricht has been tweeting little missives from prison since he was sentenced on May 29, 2015. From 2011 until his arrest in 2013, Ulbricht developed, programmed, and managed a private server via the private Tor browser that was a crypto eBay for drugs, guns, and illegal weapons. They settled payments in the then-nascent bitcoin blockchain. Ulbricht acted as “The Dread Pirate Roberts”—a nickname he’d passed along to the next chief of operations after he retired.
It’s unclear how he is getting his tweets out there, but they are part of a larger project to bring attention to his clemency petition. For the most part they appear to messages delivered by mail.
It’s quite an entertaining little tamagotchi of a feed. Over the past year, Ross was put into solitary confinement, known as a Secure Housing Unit or SHU. “It’s dreary and lifeless back here in the SHU (“the hole”) but I get an apple every morning and got a seed to sprout in wet tissue! He’s about 8mm tall now and his name is SHUbert 😁,” he wrote in October 2018.
SHUbert died in prison.
Ulbricht, a libertarian who believes people should be able to make their own choices, started the website in February 2011.
According to the FBI, from “February 6, 2011 to July 23, 2013 there were approximately 1,229,465 transactions completed on the site. The total revenue generated from these sales was 9,519,664 Bitcoins, and the total commissions collected by Silk Road from the sales amounted to 614,305 Bitcoins. These figures are equivalent to roughly $1.2 billion in revenue and $79.8 million in commissions, at current Bitcoin exchange rates.”
Just to give you an idea about the quantity of drugs he moved: $1 billion in sales is almost twice the amount that people spent online shopping for Black Friday sales in 2011. The FBI eventually unloaded his bitcoin by selling it to a friend of Modern Consensus, Timothy Draper.
His family also operates an Instagram account to bring, uhm, attention to their quest for clemency.
It’s also worth noting that everyone involved with bitcoin drug sales made some serious coin. Sure, you would never buy drugs or five different hitmen on the internet. But if you sold an old iPhone on Silk Road for $100 in bitcoin in 2011, you could have had as much as $6,594,267 at the peak in December 2017. Even this week you would still have $1,295,653.
It is worth noting that even though no one appears to have died and the charges did not stick, Ross did try six times to have people murdered and to pay for it in bitcoin. One time Ross didn’t realize that someone he thought of as an Silk Road friend and confidant turned out to be a DEA agent. He was paying a DEA agent to do the murder that never took place.
In a separate instance, someone blackmailed Ulbricht by saying he had stolen the money in a drug deal with a biker gang. When someone posed as a leader of a jilted Hell’s Angels squadron who got bilked out of money, Ulbricht tried to upsell them. He said they should sell their drugs on Silk Road and if they could murder the blackmailer, he would pay them for their troubles.
Imagine if every text you ever sent were made public. Only instead of knowing how you really feel about your family, you tried to have people killed. That’s what’s going on here.
It’s easier to order drugs and murders from Ross’s dirtbag eBay. But the lack of face-to-face contact doesn’t mean that he wasn’t stuffing the pockets of murderous cartels and trying to have other, poorer people commit murder for him—all because his booming crypto-wealth made him into a man of many options.
But as the judge in his sentencing said best, “You are no better a person than any other drug dealer and your education does not give you a special place of privilege in our criminal justice system. It makes it less explicable why you did what you did.” She gave him double-life plus 40 years without the possibility of parole.
Criminal justice reform should be a priority in our future. The kind of extra-judicial punishment associated with incarceration—whether abuse in prison or keeping one far from loved ones—is something we will have to reexamine. But Ross Ulbricht committed a new crime on a scale never seen before. He isn’t innocent because he did something he didn’t fully understand, he’s guilty because he thought that would set him free.
For now, the petition to let Ulbrict go has 150,000 signatures. Only President Trump could pardon him now and the states still have the murder-for-hire charges just waiting in a WORD doc somewhere.
Otherwise, Ross Ulbricht will die in prison like SHUbert. 😢