Silk Road founder was a patsy, defense maintains

Prosecutors charge Texas man Ross Ulbricht with single-handedly running the billion dollar Silk Road underground marketplace

The alleged mastermind behind the notorious "Silk Road" online marketplace maintained his innocence in court on Tuesday, asserting, through his lawyer, that while he started the site, he turned over all operations to other parties shortly thereafter.

In the weeks to come, government prosecutors will have to convince a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that defendant Ross Ulbricht is, in fact, "Dread Pirate Roberts," an anonymous handle for the person, or group of people, who facilitated more than US$1.2 billion in sales of unlawful and illegal goods on Silk Road from January 2011 until October 2013.

For opening arguments, Ulbricht's lawyer, Joshua Dratel, asserted that the defendant started Silk Road as an experiment, but handed off operations a few months later when running the site became too stressful, according to press reports.

Those who did subsequently run the underground marketplace lured Ulbricht back in order to become an unsuspecting fall guy. Ulbricht was "left holding the bag" by real operators of the Silk Road website, according to Dratel, the Associated Press reported.

Speaking for the prosecution, assistant US attorney Timothy Howard portrayed Ulbricht as anything but an unsuspecting dupe, but rather a mastermind who set the rules "like a traditional drug boss" for those who sold illicit goods on the site, the AP reported.

The prosecutors plan to set forth evidence that allegedly directly ties Ulbricht to "Dead Pirate Roberts," including a witness who will say that Ulbricht bragged about running Silk Road well after it had become successful, according to Wired.

Texas resident Ulbricht was indicted last February, after being arrested in October 2013 in California. At the time of his arrest, Ulbricht was charged with narcotics conspiracy, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and money laundering. Both the charges of narcotics and engaging in a criminal enterprise have maximum penalties of lifetime imprisonment.

Ulbricht has pleaded not guilty to all charges and, until Tuesday, did not even admit that he had any association with the site.

In public documents, prosecutors have described the website as "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet, serving as a sprawling black-market bazaar where unlawful goods and services, including illegal drugs of virtually all varieties, were bought and sold regularly by the site's users."

Prosecutors allege that more than 100,000 people had visited the site and purchased illegal drugs from thousands of drug dealers, and that as of September 2013, the site contained nearly 13,000 listings for controlled substances. Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed through the site, according to prosecutors.

Silk Road made such transactions untraceable through a variety of means, including by using the Tor software for setting up anonymous networks and by employing a payment system based on Bitcoin to further obscure the identities of participating parties, according to the prosecution.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest of the Southern District of New York is overseeing the case.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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