The suspected operator of the underground website Silk Road was today convicted on narcotics and other criminal charges for his role in orchestrating a scheme that enabled around US$200 million of anonymous online drug sales using bitcoins.
Ross Ulbricht, 30, was convicted by a federal jury in Manhattan on all seven counts he faced following a closely watched four-week trial that spilled out of US investigations of the use of the bitcoin digital currency for drug trafficking and other crimes.
The jury of six men and six women needed a little over three hours to deliberate before finding Ulbricht guilty of charges that included drug trafficking and conspiracies to commit money laundering and computer hacking.
Ulbricht faces up to life in prison. He has attracted many supporters to his cause, including some who say the government's case is an attack on Internet freedom.
After the verdict was read, Ulbricht turned toward his supporters and raised his hand as he was led from the court. "Ross is a hero," shouted one supporter wearing dreadlocks.
Silk Road operated from at least January 2011 until October 2013, when authorities seized the website and arrested Ulbricht at a public library in San Francisco.
Prosecutors said Ulbricht ran Silk Road as "Dread Pirate Roberts," an alias borrowed from a character in the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride."
The website relied on the Tor network, which lets users communicate anonymously, and accepted payment through bitcoins, which according to prosecutors allowed users to conceal their identities and locations.
By the time it was shut down, Silk Road had generated nearly US$213.9 million in sales and US$13.2 million in commissions, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Ulbricht took extreme steps to protect Silk Road, soliciting the murder of several people who posed a threat. No evidence exists that the murders were carried out.
Ulbricht conceded that he created Silk Road, and his lawyer Joshua Dratel said it was intended as a "freewheeling, free market site" where all but a few harmful items could be sold.
But Dratel said Ulbricht's "economic experiment" eventually became too stressful for him, so he handed it off to others. He was lured back toward its end, he said, becoming the "fall guy" for its true operators.