Ross Ulbricht is arguably the most publicized and well-known person sentenced for a nonviolent drug offense in America today. Depending on whom you ask, he’s either a sole criminal drug-world mastermind or a peaceful, freedom-loving person who continues to want to improve society and the quality of life for all.
The Feds consider Ulbricht the sole persona behind Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), the operator and alias behind the Silk Road, an online marketplace where both legal and illicit goods and services were sold using Bitcoin. Ulbricht is alleged to have operated the site as the ringleader until his arrest in 2013. In 2015, Ulbricht was found guilty of seven nonviolent charges tied to the distribution of drugs, computer hacking and running a drug enterprise. He was sentenced to two life counts plus 40 additional years.
Rather than a ringleader or drug dealer, Ross Ulbricht’s supporters say he is an idealist, a peaceful believer in the free market. Drugs were never his focus. Nor were the murder-for-hire charges that continue to hang over his head despite never going to court for them. Advocates, including mother Lyn, point out that those charges never reached court.
Yet in May 2015, Ulbricht was sentenced to a double life sentence plus forty years without the chance of parole. Many, including Lyn, were shocked by her son’s extreme sentence, noting that growing up, life sentences were for the worst of the worst, like serial killers. “You didn’t give a nonviolent, first-time offender a death in prison sentence, which this is.”
Ulbricht’s supporters say his sentence was extreme when compared to others alleged in the operation. All other defendants in the Silk Road case received sentences of ten years or less and many are now free. These include the biggest drug seller on the site (ten years), the person running Silk Road 2.0, a bigger site (no prison time), and the computer programmer responsible for the back end of the site (8 months).
Currently, Ulbricht is housed at USP Tucson, with his mother living nearby to provide Ross access to family and the outside world. She spoke to High Times to discuss the ongoing efforts to clear Ross’ name and bring him home.
The Conflicting Case Against Ross Ulbricht
Lyn Ulbricht takes offense at the notion that her son is a drug kingpin. When he did operate the site, she said that her son never controlled anyone’s actions on the Silk Road as a kingpin would. Nor were drugs his intention when he created the underground marketplace.
“It was created as an open, free market, which was his passion,” said Lyn Ulbricht who, along with other loved ones, operates Free Ross, a website advocating for his release through case facts, Ross’ writings and scores of third-party support.
Lyn highlighted her son’s views on personal freedom, which have garnered significant support in the Libertarian Party. She stated that Ross has always been peaceful, and that Silk Road was based on the nonaggression principle, where violence was prohibited and users were free to exchange items as long as they didn’t harm a third party.
While advocates view Ross Ulbricht compassionately and oppose his sentence, the Feds stand in stark opposition. They claim, without proof according to advocates, that Ulbricht planned a murder-for-hire, which Ross continues to deny. Advocates also push back on the murder-for hire allegations against Ulbricht. They state that the charges never went to court, with the charges based on anonymous chats. Despite never facing the charges in court, they continue to hang over Ulbricht’s head.
However, the most compelling case for Ulbricht advocates are the words of alleged victim Curtis Green. He has stated on various occasions that he believes Ross is innocent, saying he does not consider Ulbricht dangerous. Advocates say that the charges were instead used as a smear campaign that further portrayed Ross as a ruthless drug kingpin in order to justify his sentence.
In 2013, Ross Ulbricht was indicted in the Maryland district on three counts, including murder-for-hire. In July 2018, those charges were dropped without Ulbricht ever being tried for them. Instead, he was charged in the Southern District of New York with seven counts stemming from 60 purchases made by undercover officers between 2011 and 2013. Ulbricht said that her family was shocked when the murder-for-hire allegations were announced and shocked once again when the accusations never went to trial..
Fighting for Clemency
Since her son’s arrest, Lyn Ulbricht has been dedicated to freeing Ross and overturning his draconian double life plus 40-year sentence. She notes various critical differences between what the feds claim and what advocates believe is true.
Just some of the critical arguments made include Ross’s passion for the free market, not crime. Lyn said that the Silk Road’s Sellers Guide shows that the site prohibited anything that could “harm and defraud” a third party and that only consenting transactions were allowed. Strictly prohibited was anything involving exploitation of minors, stolen items and other similar practices.
Advocates also contend Ulbricht could not have acted alone as Dread Pirate Roberts—noting that he was not skilled enough to run the complex Silk Road and its marketplace.
“He wasn’t trained in computer programming, he’s a scientist,” Lyn stated. Although the prosecution claimed that Ross was the only person behind the DPR account, advocates say there are anecdotes, hard evidence, and testimony—including from the government’s lead investigator—that contradicts this key element of their narrative. They contend this evidence and testimony serves as the basis for the now-dismissed murder-for-hire allegations.
Advocates note other glaring concerns in the case, highlighting two corrupt federal agents convicted of various schemes including enriching themselves through Silk Road. In 2015, former federal agent Carl Mark Force was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on extortion, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Another agent, Shaun Bridges has been sentenced several times for his involvement in money he stole from online accounts while serving as an investigator on the Silk Road case. Originally sentenced to 71 months in 2015, Bridges was sentenced to two additional years in 2017, with judges calling his crimes “among the worst of crimes.” In 2016, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. provided a character letter for Bridges seeking leniency.
Advocates go beyond corrupt agents when highlighting the imbalance in the case. Much has been made about how Ross Ulbricht was tracked down during the investigation. Feds are believed to have done so using his email address and a pen-trap to geolocate and eventually arrest him–all without obtaining a warrant for search or seizure. Supporters of Ulbricht and civil liberties say his rights were violated in the hack, with the FBI standing by its practices in 2014.
The evidence and claims have not been enough to sway the courts, with Ulbricht denied an appeal in 2017 and the Supreme Court declining to hear his case in 2018.
While Ross Ulbricht continues to hope for clemency and a second chance, he has garnered an array of support. Advocates include former lawmakers Gary Johnson and Justin Amash. Former Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and 34-year police veteran Neill Franklin also supports Ulbricht’s release. Others voicing objections to the sentence include Dr. Noam Chomsky, justice advocate Sister Helen Prejean, actor Keanu Reeves, and Weldon Angelos, a former nonviolent federal cannabis inmate who now advocates for prison and sentence reform.
Striving For Release, A Freer Society
Lyn and the rest of Ross’s supporters remain hopeful that his release will come one day. Hope is emboldened by ongoing public support, including a Change.org petition with over 425,000 signatures calling for his clemency.
Ulbricht remains connected to the outside world through a Twitter account where Ross’ views are sent out by a loved one managing the page. A frequent blogger, Ross’ views can also be found on Medium and the advocacy site his mother manages.
Without going into much detail, inmates say it was challenging for Ross Ulbricht to acclimate to a violent, maximum security prison early on, especially as someone not used to prison or the lifestyle before his arrest. Over time, Ulbricht endeared himself to fellow inmates, particularly nonviolent drug offenders like himself. Despite prison often segregating people by race, Ulbricht was able to transcend the turmoil and create a community bonded by their sentences.
Tony DeJohn, another nonviolent cannabis offender who received clemency in 2021, credited Ulbricht with forming the community while housed in Florence, Colorado. “He started the whole movement, ,” said DeJohn, saying Ulbricht’s efforts helped create a space where the group could meet in the yard to talk and be open about their situations. “You’re just talking with a genuine person,” said DeJohn recalling his conversations with Ulbricht.
Ulbricht continues to develop projects to better society at large, according to his mother. Lyn points towards Ross’ ZKANN proposal aimed at platforms like WhatsApp to ensure that end-to-end encryption remains in place while also curbing the spread of child pornography and other privacy abuses.
Lyn noted other efforts Ross has told her about aimed at society and sometimes focused on prison life. “He’s trying to help people,” said Ulbricht. “He’s always trying to come up with ideas that are positive and helpful to solve problems.”
Ross Ulbricht continues to develop projects to better society at large, according to his mother. Lyn points towards Ross’ ZKANN proposal aimed at platforms like WhatsApp to prevent the sharing of harmful content like child pornography and other privacy abuses, while still protecting privacy.
Lyn noted that Ross is also focused on other efforts aimed at contributing to society and prison life. “He’s trying to help people,” said Lyn. “He’s always trying to come up with ideas that are positive and helpful to solve problems.”