Silk Road website creator gets life term for drug plot

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The accused mastermind behind the underground website Silk Road was sentenced on Friday to life in prison for orchestrating a scheme that enabled more than $200 million of anonymous online drug sales using the digital currency bitcoin.

Ross Ulbricht, 31, was sentenced by US District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan three months after a federal jury found him guilty of charges including conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking.

"There must be no doubt that lawlessness will not be tolerated," Forrest said about Ulbricht, who was also ordered to forfeit $183.9 million.

Ulbricht had admitted to creating Silk Road, but denied wrongdoing. He is expected to appeal.

Ulbricht, who sniffled while speaking, told the judge that, despite the government's contention, he did not build Silk Road for greed. "I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives and have privacy and anonymity," he said.

However, he recognised he had ruined his life by breaking the law, even if he disagreed with it "I wish I could go back to convince myself and take a different path," he said. "But I can't do that."

Serrin Turner, a prosecutor, had sought a lengthy prison sentence above the 20 year minimum. While he acknowledged Ulbricht's politics might have factored into his motivations, Turner said "he did not do it for idealistic motive," but to make money.

"This was not some disinterested do-gooder," he said. "What he did was allow anyone anywhere in the world to obtain any drug they wanted as long as they had a computer and shipping address.

"If he wanted to pursue a political agenda, he could have done so through the political process."

Silk Road operated for more than two years, allowing users to anonymously buy drugs and other illicit goods and generating over $214 million in sales in the process, prosecutors said.

The online black market was shut down in October 2013, when authorities seized the website and arrested Ulbricht at a San Francisco website.

Prosecutors said Ulbricht operated the website under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to a character in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. The website relied on the Tor network, which lets users communicate anonymously, and accepted bitcoin as payment, which prosecutors said allowed users to conceal their identities and locations.

Prosecutors said Ulbricht, who grew up in Austin, Texas, took extreme steps to protect Silk Road, soliciting the murders of several people who posed a threat. No evidence exists the murders were carried out.

At trial, Joshua Dratel, his lawyer, said Ulbricht had indeed created what he intended as a "freewheeling, free market site" where all but a few harmful items could be sold.

Dratel said Ulbricht handed off the website to others after it became too stressful, and was lured back toward its end to become the "fall guy" for its true operators.

In a letter filed in court last week, Ulbricht asked for a sentence that would leave a "small light at the end of the tunnel.

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