Ross William Ulbricht, accused of operating the billion-dollar online Silk Road website where customers used bitcoins to buy and sell drugs, faces a new charge of running an ongoing criminal enterprise.
Ulbricht, 29, allegedly known as Dread Pirate Roberts, was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Manhattan, formalizing the charges made by U.S. prosecutors in an Oct. 2 criminal complaint. The new allegation in the indictment carries a maximum life prison sentence and a mandatory minimum term of 20 years, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.
Ulbricht was also indicted on conspiracy to commit computer hacking and conspiracy to launder money, both of which he was previously charged with. In the indictment, the government extended the time frame of the narcotics conspiracy by one month, saying it went from January 2011 to October 2013.
He was arrested in October and charged with running "every aspect" of Silk Road, where anonymous users paid bitcoin digital currency to purchase drugs, malicious software for computer hackers and other illegal products, Bharara said. Ulbricht is being held at the federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, after prosecutors said he tried to arrange the murder of six people to protect his business.
In December the U.S. charged three former employees with aiding the operation.
"Silk Road emerged 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," Bharara said in a statement.
Illegal drugs were openly advertised on the site under categories such as cannabis, ecstasy, opioids, prescription drugs and stimulants, Bharara said yesterday. Law enforcement agents made more than 100 undercover purchases of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD, according to Bharara.
Ulbricht tried to make those transactions anonymous first by using "The Onion Router" or "Tor" network, a special network of computers around the world designed to conceal the IP address and identity of the network's users, prosecutors said.
Ulbricht designed Silk Road to include a bitcoin-based payment system to conceal the identities and locations of the users, according to the indictment.
Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht's lawyer, didn't immediately return a voice-mail message yesterday seeking comment on the indictment.
The government seized about 173,991 bitcoins worth more than $150 million during the investigation, Bharara said. That included about 29,655 that were recovered from servers used to run the Silk Road site, he said.
Another 144,336 bitcoins were recovered by the federal agents from computer hardware belonging to Ulbricht after his arrest. On Jan. 15, the bitcoins recovered from Silk Road servers were ordered forfeited in a civil action filed by the U.S. which seeks all of Silk Road's assets. Ulbricht has filed a claim asserting ownership of the bitcoins and contesting their forfeiture.
The narcotics conspiracy charge carries a maximum life sentence and a mandatory 10-year prison term. The money laundering conspiracy carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison.