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Ross Ulbricht

Trial of alleged Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht begins

It's crunch time for the 29-year-old physics graduate: he could go to prison for life

The trial of alleged Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht has kicked off in a federal court in Manhattan, New York, marking the start of another page in the long and tortured history of the darknet drugs marketplace. 

The US believes Ulbricht is Dread Pirate Roberts, the shadowy mastermind behind Silk Road. He is accused of making millions off the sale of drugs and illegal goods (like firearms) on the black market.

The 29-year-old Cali physics graduate is charged with seven counts, including operating a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to commit narcotics trafficking. If convicted, he faces life in prison. He is also separately accused of soliciting a hitman to kill several people who threatened the security of Silk Road, though there is no evidence that these murders actually took place. 

Ulbricht has never admitted to being Dread Pirate Roberts and is pleading not guilty to all the charges. The trial is expected to last up to six weeks. 

In documents released before the trial began, the judge presiding over the trial emphasised the severity of Ulbricht's alleged crimes. "Ulbricht is charged not with participating in a run-of-the-mill drug distribution conspiracy," US District Judge Katherine Forrest said, "but with designing and operating an online criminal enterprise of enormous scope, worldwide reach, and capacity to generate tens of millions of dollars in commissions."

According to Ulbricht's charge sheet, he raked in over $80 million in commissions off the $1.2 billion in sales of black market goods. But Ulbricht's alleged reign as the darknet Heisenberg came to an end when the FBI raided the site and arrested him in the sci-fi section (seriously) of a San Francisco library in October 2013. 

But tech activists such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concern about the evidence stacked up against Ulbricht. They believe that the government has mishandled the case against Ulbricht. (In short? Don't dismiss those crazy conspiracy theories about Silk Road's demise.)

"We are asking the prosecution, 'How did you find the server?' and they're not saying," Ulbricht's mother, Lyn Ulbricht, said in a documentary interview. "We have to know, in order to see if Ross's Fourth Amendment rights were violated. There were 14 searches and seizures in this case, some of them have no warrant at all and some of them have what's called a general warrant, which is a fishing expedition into a person's total property."

Numerous darknet marketplaces have sprung up in the wake of Silk Road's death, but law enforcement has stepped up its operations against any wannabe Silk Road sites. In a coordinated international crackdown last November, police took down Silk Road 2.0 and arrested its alleged creator, Blake Benthall. It also shut down 26 other marketplaces and arrested six Britons in drug raids.