The man who created the underground drug-selling website Silk Road was sentenced to life in prison.
US District Judge Katherine Forrest cited six deaths from drugs bought on Ross Ulbricht’s site and five people he tried to have killed.
She told the 31-year-old from San Francisco he was a criminal even though he does not fit the typical profile – he has two college degrees – and brushed aside his efforts to characterise the business as merely a big mistake.
“It was a carefully planned life’s work. It was your opus,” she said. “You are no better a person than any other drug dealer.”
Ulbricht’s 2013 arrest shut down what prosecutors described as an unprecedented one-stop online shopping mall where the supply of drugs was virtually limitless.
It enabled nearly 4,000 drug dealers to expand their markets from the pavement to cyberspace, selling drugs on a never-before-seen scale to more than 100,000 buyers in markets stretching from Argentina to Australia, from the US to Ukraine.
The US government said in court papers Ulbricht left a blueprint that others have followed by establishing new “dark markets” in sophisticated spaces of the Internet which are hard to trace, where an even broader range of illicit goods are sold than were available on Silk Road.
Ms Forrest said the sentence could show copycats there are "very serious consequences".
She also ordered US $183 million to be forfeited. Prosecutors had not asked for a life sentence, saying only they wanted substantially more than the 20-year mandatory minimum.
Ulbricht was convicted in February of operating the site for nearly three years from 2011 until 2013.
Prosecutors say he collected $18 million in bitcoins through commissions on a website containing thousands of listings under categories like Cannabis, Psychedelics and Stimulants.
They said he brokered more than a million drug deals worth over $183 million while he operated on the site under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts – a reference to the swashbuckling character in The Princess Bride.
The judge said Ulbricht’s efforts to arrange the murders of five people he deemed as threats to his business was proof Silk Road had not become the “world without restrictions, of ultimate freedom” that he claimed he sought.
Ulbricht is also charged in Baltimore federal court in an attempted murder-for-hire scheme.
“You were captain of the ship, Dread Pirate Roberts,” Forrest said. “It was a world with laws you created. It was a place with a lot of rules. If you broke the rules, you’d have all kinds of things done to you.”
Prosecutors cited at least five deaths traced to overdoses from drugs bought on Silk Road, and two parents who lost sons spoke in court.
Before the sentence was announced, a sniffling and apologetic Ulbricht told Forrest he is a changed man who is not greedy or vain by nature.
“I’ve essentially ruined my life and broken the hearts of every member of my family and my closest friends,” he said.
“I’m not a self-centred sociopathic person that was trying to express some inner badness. I do love freedom. It’s been devastating to lose it.”
His lawyer, Joshua Dratel, said he was “disappointed tremendously” by the sentence.
Outside court, Ulbricht’s mother, Lyn, called the war on drugs a failure and said two of the victims in the case died during the four months that authorities investigated but did not shut down the website.