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Silk Road Founder Sentenced To Life In Prison


Life in prison - that's the sentence handed down today for Ross Ulbricht. The 31-year-old was behind the underground online market for illegal drugs called Silk Road. His lawyers claimed he was framed - that he had nothing to do with the site after the first couple of months and that he only came back at the very end. The jury didn't buy it. Ulbricht was convicted on all seven felony counts against him back in February. Joining us now is NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. Hey there, Steve.


CORNISH: So the judge in the case, Katherine Forrest, chose to impose the maximum sentence possible, life. Did this come as a surprise?

HENN: It wasn't a complete surprise. I mean, the government had argued for a long sentence, asking for something substantially above the mandatory minimum of 20 years. And the reason prosecutors wanted a long sentence was to set an example. I mean, the silk Road was an enormous drug market. There were something like a - one and a half million drug transactions on the site. At its peak, there were a hundred thousand buyer counts, 4,000 drug dealers. Really, the Silk Road was the first illegal online market to use encryption and the cyber currency bitcoin to try and create an anonymous way for people to buy and sell drugs online. And prosecutors argued that it created a blueprint that others are now following. So Ulbricht's defense team argued for leniency. They collected hundreds of letters from friends and associates, argued that this site was actually safer than street markets. And Ulbricht actually broke down in tears apologizing to the families of folks who had overdosed on the site today in court and said that it was a naive and costly idea that he deeply regretted.

CORNISH: And during this case, federal prosecutors alleged that Ross Ulbricht tried to order the murder of one of his employees. Was anyone actually killed?

HENN: No. And this is really an incredible story that began when one of the Silk Road's employees, a guy named Curtis Clark Green, was arrested, caught with drugs in his home. Now, during that arrest, there was a Secret Service agent named Sean Bridges who got Curtis Green's credentials to log on to the site and then used those credentials to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoin from the Silk Road.

CORNISH: Wait a second. So a Secret Service agent stole drug money for himself?

HENN: Yes, that's right, allegedly - according to federal prosecutors. But here's the thing, at the time this theft happened, Ross Ulbricht didn't know that his employee, Green, had been arrested. So Ulbricht thought Green was a thief, and at that point, Ulbricht reached out to an alleged drug dealer on the site and tried to have Green killed. In reality, the man Ulbricht tried to hire as a hitman wasn't a hitman or a drug dealer, but really an undercover DEA agent named Carl Force. Force faked Green's death and then allegedly turned around and tried to extort more money from Ross Ulbricht. When that didn't work, Force began selling Ulbricht inside information about his own investigation.

CORNISH: This is an astonishing story, Steve. I mean, how did all this come out?

HENN: Well, some of it came out in the case, but the full story wasn't made public until these two federal agents, Carl Force and Sean Bridges, were arrested and charged with corruption. And that happened after Ulbricht had already been tried and convicted in this case. So obviously, Ulbricht's attorneys have argued that the secrecy surrounding this federal corruption investigation of these two federal agents prevented their client, Ross Ulbricht, from getting a fair trial. So, you know, although he was sentenced to life today, the legal case probably isn't over.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thanks so much.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.