The rise and downfall of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht is one of the most famous criminal justice stories of the past decade. It introduced millions of law-abiding people to the criminal behind both the Silk Road and the Dark Web. Before his arrest, Ulbricht’s website had more than $1.2 billion in sales for illegal drugs and other products, using cryptocurrency to make the exchanges. 

A jury found Ulbricht guilty on all charges in February 2015, sentencing him to two lifetimes in prison plus 40 years with no possibility for parole. He is serving his sentence at a federal prison in Arizona. The charges included  money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. 

Ulbricht was only 31 at the time of his conviction. The profit potential of Silk Road and the Dark Web had proved too attractive to ignore.  

How Silk Road Started

Ulbricht grew up in Austin, Texas. In his youth, he became a Boy Scout. He eventually graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University in materials science and engineering. 

In February 2011, after failed attempts to enter day trading and a video game company, Utrecht founded Silk Road, named after the trade route that linked Europe to the Far East. The site existed on what is known as the Dark Web, which is content on the internet that is only accessible using specific software, configurations, or authorization. 

As reported by Vanity Fair, the trial later brought to light everything the former Boy Scout had done. For example, the magazine reported, the trial showed “that he approved the sale of almost every drug imaginable—even to minors. That he had allowed the sale of cyanide and guns. That he had created incentives and promotions to enable more people to sell more drugs on the Silk Road, and that he had believed he would never, ever be caught.” 

Six people died because of drugs bought on the site, including a young man in Australia who jumped out of a window.   

The Silk Road Arrest

Police arrested Ulbricht on Oct. 1, 2013, in the science fiction section of the San Francisco public library. Agents who made the arrest said the young man was literally working on the site when they arrested him. Authorities replaced the site with an image notifying the public of its seizure.  

The FBI tracked Ulbricht by tracing some of his early requests to others to help him build the site. An IRS investigator first made the connection. The investigator found the connection by linking the username “altoid”, which Ulbricht used in the early days of Silk Road to announce the website, and a forum post where Ulbricht, using the nickname “altoid”, asked for programming help and gave an email address that contained his full name. 

From that little detail, agents made the entire case. At the library, two agents staged a lover’s fight to distract Ulbricht until a third grabbed his laptop, inserted a flash drive and copied all the computer’s files. 

Black Market Websites

While the Silk Road is long gone, the Dark Web continues. People still operate illegal markets on the internet. In some ways, the Silk Road arrest made those who run illegal websites on the Dark Web that much better at hiding their actions. By 2016, a survey had already found that more people than ever use the Dark Web to buy illegal drugs. 

Silk Road and the Dark Web provide a fascinating criminal case that students in an online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree program can study to understand modern crime. Developing expertise in how criminals use the digital world to further their illegal ambitions makes criminal justice students more prepared to succeed in their chosen career field.