Ross Ulbricht, the founder of an online drug marketplace that prosecutors said did $200 million-plus in sales and created a model for hiding criminal activity from law enforcement, was sentenced to life in prison Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Forrest said Ulbricht, who operated the pioneering Silk Road drug bazaar, was no different from any dealer peddling cocaine or heroin on the streets of New York.
"What you did with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric," Forrest said at the sentencing in federal court in Manhattan.
Convicted of drug trafficking and conspiracy charges earlier this year, Ulbricht had faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life behind bars.
Prosecutors portrayed him as a greed-driven entrepreneur who didn't care about the health of the site's users, at least six of whom died after taking drugs purchased on Silk Road.
The defense, however, described him as an idealist driven by free-market theories who set up Silk Road in a way that may have saved lives by creating an alternative to violent street dealing, using vendor ratings to ensure "safe" drugs, and hosting a physician's advice forum.
In explaining her reasons for sentencing Ulbricht to life, Forrest rejected the argument that Silk Road had any "harm reduction" benefit -- or that the site was a spur-of-the-moment mistake. "It was, in fact, a carefully planned life's work," Forrest said. "It was your opus."
She added: "You wanted it to be your legacy . . . and it is."
Ulbricht, 31, had made a tearful plea before sentencing, asking Forrest for a chance to live outside prison walls at some point. He had previously sent a letter to her explaining that he had started Silk Road because he believed "people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren't hurting anyone else."
"I'm so sorry to the families of the deceased," Ulbricht said in court Friday.
After the sentencing, Ulbricht's lawyer, Joshua Dratel, vowed to appeal the verdict and sentence, calling life imprisonment in this case "unreasonable and unjust."
Ulbricht's mother, Lyn, told reporters outside the courthouse that her son felt contrition for his actions and is "looking at his life being destroyed."
The case was widely viewed as a test of how seriously the government would treat tech-savvy drug dealers like Ulbricht who peddle narcotics such as heroin, LSD, crack and marijuana on an encrypted swath of the Internet known as the dark Web, where many illicit transactions are conducted using the hard-to-trace digital currency Bitcoin.
Among those who spoke before Friday's sentencing was the father of a 25-year-old Silk Road customer whom prosecutors referred to as Bryan B. of Boston. He was found dead in his apartment in 2013 with a belt in his left hand, brown heroin and a syringe next to him. His laptop had the Silk Road black market drug website bookmarked, and evidence indicated heroin and needles he bought on the site from "mrgood247" had arrived a few days before he died.
"All Ross Ulbricht cared about was his growing pile of Bitcoins," Bryan's father, Richard, told Forrest. "This is the behavior of a psychopath and this is precisely the kind of person society needs protection from."
But dozens of supporters of Ulbricht, a Texas-born former Eagle Scout from California, had urged the judge to sentence him to the shortest term possible, portraying Silk Road as a mistake born of youth and naivete.
Several similar drug marketplaces have gone online since the FBI closed Silk Road, which had operated for more than two years, and arrested Ulbricht in 2013.