The Silk Road was an e-commerce website where people anonymously exchanged a variety of goods—both legal and illegal. Launched in 2011, it was one of the very first use-cases for Bitcoin and was run by a pseudonymous founder “Dread Pirate Roberts”.
In October 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut down the Silk Road site and arrested Ross Ulbricht, a 28 year old Libertarian from Texas, on suspicion of being “Dread Pirate Roberts” (DPR).
Ross was found guilty of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet in February 2015. He is currently serving two life sentences +40 years without parole.
Whilst there are some who believe Ross’ sentence was justified because he provided a platform for nefarious actors to carry out their business, there are those who see it differently. Others see a young man who has had his life taken away from him because the authorities feared widespread adoption of Bitcoin or anonymous cryptocurrencies, and wanted to set a precedent. Many in the crypto space talk about a ‘fight for monetary sovereignty’. If such a thing exists, perhaps Ross Ulbricht is the first casualty.
To date, all of Ross’s appeals have been denied and the Supreme Court has declined to hear his case. 21CRYPTOS magazine has spoken to Ross’ mother Lyn Ulbricht to discuss her son’s fight for freedom.
Firstly Lyn, how is Ross doing?
Well, he’s just moved prisons so he’s doing a bit better now, thankfully. After his sentencing they automatically put him in a maximum security prison alongside violent gangs and dangerous criminals because of his life sentence. It was a very dangerous place, there was stabbings, beatings and at least one murder while he was there. One guy was stabbed 29 times. Ross is not at all a violent person, so it was very difficult for him in there.
What eventually happened was another inmate threatened him with beatings if he didn’t attack a fellow inmate who they’d decided was a snitch or a paedophile. Of course, Ross wasn’t going to do that, but he genuinely feared for his life if he didn’t, so he voluntarily put himself in protective custody – an 8x10ft metal box with no window- for three and a half months while the prison investigated.
Thankfully, at the end of that process they agreed he was in danger, and so they moved him to Tucson, which is specifically for people who are targeted in the system.
The people in there with him now are totally different because they’re the people who are being protected. They can’t go to a regular prison because there’ll be attacked. He’s adjusting. He’s actually joined a band and is learning to play Bass Guitar, and he’s making friends because there’s loads of other non-violent people in there. So it’s easier. He still really wants out of there, but it’s not a violent prison and that makes a big difference.
Well, whether you are a supporter of Ross, or not, that’s good news. Everyone deserves the right to feel safe. So, before we talk about where Ross is in terms of his fight for freedom, let’s quickly bring our readers up to speed on why you, and so many others feel he shouldn’t be in prison at all.
I think that it’s quite clear Ross was just being made an example of. His conviction didn’t stop dark net markets. It didn’t even stop the Silk Road 2.0 being launched, and the guy running that, Blake Benthall didn’t even go to jail. So, you have to ask yourself why Ross was given what the Pope called a ‘walking death sentence’? I think it was about Bitcoin.
If it was just about the fact that Ross created a platform on which people then chose to sell drugs, then how come the most prolific drug dealer on the site, who has the same offense level as Ross, is getting out of jail after just 10 years?
There just has to be political reasons, and I think they were Bitcoin based. I think that the authorities were very worried about it. That idea really was solidified, to me anyway, a year ago when Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was urgently targeting bitcoin users a few months before Silk Road was taken down. The NSA is supposed to be going after terrorists, and instead they were going after Bitcoin.
Certainly food for thought. In terms of the whole trial and subsequent appeals, do you think, procedurally speaking, Ross was also hard done by?
Well in the trial, Andreas Antonopoulos was going to be our expert witness, to talk to the jury about Bitcoin, and he was not permitted to testify. The government however was allowed, at the last minute, to bring in their own guy to tell a very different story about Bitcoin – which I’ve been told by experts was nonsense, or that he was lying, and we didn’t get to counter his opinion.
Also at the trial, the jury was told a distorted story about the amount of listings of hard drugs’. They were on there, I can’t deny that and I can’t justify that, but it was only a small percentage. The vast majority of the drugs sold on there was user amounts of cannabis, and yet all the jury was told was “hard drugs, hard drugs”.
Also, there were corrupt agents, who are now convicted and in prison, who had free access to the site. They could act as DPR and other aliases and the jury was not allowed to know they even existed. That to me was huge. They used their backdoor access to steal bitcoins from the site and the evidence for the alleged ‘murder for hire’ is based on one of these corrupt agents saying it’s true. Had the jury known that, it would have changed the trial in my opinion.
There was a lot of information kept from the jury. The judge wouldn’t allow, for instance, Ross’s libertarian beliefs to be heard by the jury. We were not allowed to tell the jury that there were plenty of legal items being sold on the Silk Road too, and that it was really more like an Ebay type site. And that’s only the start of it. We could be here for hours talking about all the things that seemed unfairly prejudicial against Ross during the trial.
Whatever side of the fence people sit on, two life sentences +40 years seems incredibly heavy-handed when you consider the sentences of others convicted of similar levels of crime. And it’s easy to see why you feel like Ross didn’t get a fair trial. There are those, however, that say Ross was guilty of a crime, and therefore the judgement was correct. Would you say Ross was ‘guilty’ of committing a crime, and if so, what?
Well, there’s two different things there. Firstly, Ross was handed such a heavy sentence because he was found guilty on the ‘Kingpin’ charge – the mandatory minimum sentence for all his convictions by the way is only 20 years- but Ross is not a ‘Kingpin’. Everybody can see he’s not Pablo Escobar.
So, if Ross created an open anonymous marketplace, and he’s a ‘Kingpin’, is Jeff Bezos a Kingpin? Is Mark Zuckerberg a terrorist because terrorists post videos on Facebook? Of course they’re not.
In terms of what Ross was actually guilty of, well, I do believe he had the idea for Silk Road. I believe he initiated the idea and the marketplace and my personal feeling is it probably got away from him. I doubt he thought it was going to become what it did.
And I know he didn’t mean to harm anyone. I mean, Ross is very idealistic. He’s very compassionate. He only wants good. I’m not saying he made good choices, lots of 26 year olds don’t. But I know that he only had good intentions and so to take away his whole life and say that “we must protect society from Ross” as if he’s going to come out and build another Silk Road, you know, is, is just ridiculous.
Also, this sentence it puts everyone in danger, not just Ross. I mean, it’s set a precedent in the United States anyway, of these horrible sentences that they’re giving out. It’s, it’s just really wrong.
So if Silk Road was Ross’ idea, and he was behind its inception, was he DPR?
I think there were many people running it. There’s lots of evidence, both anecdotal and very hard evidence. For example, someone acting as DPR logged in after Ross was in solitary confinement. So, it’s pretty clear other people were running that site too.
If you’re empathetic to Ross’ plight, it’s difficult to use the word ‘remorse’ as you could argue he’s not done anything to directly harm anyone, and yet he’s lost his freedom. Potentially forever. But would you say Ross feels remorseful about anything to do with the Silk Road?
I would say that Ross feels remorse for any harm that was caused by anything he created. He certainly never intended to harm anyone by setting up a free marketplace. At sentencing it was claimed that some people died from drugs they bought on Silk Road. We hired a pathologist who said it’s almost impossible to tell whether that was true or not – but I can certainly tell you that Ross is remorseful for if anything he did that might have led to someone being harmed.
Speaking of harm, the ‘murder for hire’ allegations made during the trial, seem to be the thing that sticks in people’s memory about Ross’ case. And yet, Ross was never charged. What happened there?
Well, the first we heard of the allegations were when the prosecutor brought them up at Ross’ bail hearing. We were like; “what are you talking about”? And then they dropped it. It wasn’t included in the indictment, the jury never ruled on it and he was never convicted of it.
Yet, even now, people say ‘oh yeah, he’s in prison for murder’. There was no murder! Nobody was killed. Even the supposed victim of this set up, Curtis Green, has come out and said he doesn’t think Ross was behind it.
So what was that all about? If you’re not going to charge him and you’re not going to take it to trial, what’s the deal? Of course it was created to smear him and undermine any support he would have otherwise had.
That’s how I believe the government uses the media, the willing media, much of it, because they love click bait. “Murder for hire” headlines, to them, are so much more exciting than “oh, they sold raw milk on Silk Road”.
The problem is, it’s very difficult to change the narrative. It’s what I’ve been trying to do for five years because I know my son. It’s absurd to think he would have even considered having anyone killed. It’s just not who he is.
So, circling back to the fight for Ross’s freedom, where does it stand now the Supreme Court have refused to hear his case?
Well, the Supreme Court rejection was devastating. It means our ability to appeal directly to the court is over. There’s some legal things we can do, but it’s basically up to a commutation by the president of the United States now. And we’re working very hard on that.
We really think that it’s possible. Our petition is over 150,000 signatures now and the goal is to get to 500,000 so I can go to go to the president and say, “look, this is significant. Half a million people think this is wrong. Please, please consider this”.
It’s very encouraging that we have so many people signing the petition. It’s a worldwide effort. You don’t have to be American. It’s a grassroots worldwide movement saying, “look, this isn’t right for anybody, not just Ross, but it creates a precedent for excessive sentencing everywhere for everyone”. It puts us all in peril, really, and it needs to be stopped. If Ross’s case can shine a light on this, then at least something good can come out of what is a devastating situation.
There are plenty of people, particularly in the cryptocurrency community, who have said they’d like to help Ross’ cause, how can they do that?
Firstly, we would really appreciate everyone signing Ross’ petition and sharing with as many other people as possible. You don’t even have to agree with what Ross did. It’s really about the fact that his punishment does not fit the crime. It’s is a cruel sentence, an unusual sentence. It’s unconstitutional and it could happen to anyone. We need to stop it happening again.
Secondly, well, the legal fight alone is so expensive that donations are really what keeps us going. Please participate in things like the MrCryptoWatches auction, or donate whatever you can through our website. Also, if anyone has any political connections or ideas that may help us, please contact me. Any help at all is so very much appreciated.
Visit https://freeross.org to find out more about Ross’ case, to donate or to sign the #FreeRoss petition.
You can contact Lyn Ulbricht at: firstname.lastname@example.org