Accused Silk Road drug baron goes on trial in NY

Accused Silk Road drug baron goes on trial in NY
The homepage to Silk Road 2.0, allegedly an underground drug market, is seen in a screenshot after it was closed by US authorities November 6, 2014.

NEW YORK - The alleged mastermind of a vast online, global criminal enterprise that sold $200 million (S$266.84 million) worth of drugs to customers all over the world went on trial in New York on Tuesday.

To US government prosecutors, 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht is a criminal kingpin and online drug boss who amassed a fortune of US$18 million from the dark, secretive Silk Road website that conducted more than one million drug deals in nearly three years.

To the defence, Ulbricht is a naive fall guy, who dreamt up the idea of the website as an "experiment" but who bowed out and was set up by the real criminal when the FBI closed in.

Overseen by US District Judge Katherine Forrest, the trial is expected to run four to six weeks, and is considered a landmark case in the shadowy world of online crime and government surveillance.

"This is a case about a dark and secret part of the Internet... where people can buy dangerous drugs," federal prosecutor Timothy Howard told the jury.

From January 2011 to October 2013, Ulbricht took a cut of almost US$18 million in online currency Bitcoin through deals in drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth through the website, Howard said.

"Ross Ulbricht was the kingpin of this digital, criminal empire," he said.

The government alleges that Ulbricht alone was "Dread Pirate Roberts" - the online alias of the Silk Road operator - and was caught red-handed with a laptop of incriminating evidence in a San Francisco library in October 2013.

Secret life

Ulbricht has pleaded not guilty to seven charges of narcotics trafficking, criminal enterprise, computer hacking and money laundering.

He faces life in prison if convicted.

Dressed smartly in a dark blazer, beige pants, white shirt and striped tie, the defendant sat quietly next to his lawyers during proceedings.

At one point he turned to smile at his mother in the gallery as the first government witness gave evidence. He later stifled a large yawn.

Summing up the government's case, Howard said 95 per cent of the products on Silk Road were drugs, with the rest fake IDs, hacking tools and hacking services.

He said Ulbricht made buying heroin, cocaine and crystal meth as easy as online shopping from eBay and Amazon until the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut it down, he said.

The government alleges he was willing to resort to violence and solicited six murders-for-hire to keep the scheme intact, although there is no evidence any killings actually took place.

Howard alleged that Ulbricht set up a lab in a rented cabin outside his former home in Austin, Texas to grown his own hallucinogenic mushrooms to sell online.

Ulbricht, Howard said, led a secret life and took care not to arouse suspicion with lavish spending, as he saved for a future in the Caribbean.

Fall guy

Family and friends are convinced of Ulbricht's innocence, setting up a "Free Ross" website that has raised US$339,000 to help pay for prominent defence lawyer Joshua Dratel.

"Ross is not a drug dealer. Ross is not a kingpin. Ross was not involved in any conspiracy," Dratel told the jury of 12 men and women, with four alternates.

He described his client as "a young man with a lot of ideas" who came up with the idea of Silk Road "as a completely free-wheeling website" or "kind of economic experiment," but said his involvement stopped there.

After a few months, it became so stressful to operate that he handed it off to others and was only lured back "to take the fall" as the real criminals knew the FBI was closing in, Dratel said.

"The real Dread Pirate Roberts had an escape plan and transferred the blame to Ross," said Dratel.

A second version of Silk Road sprung up just weeks after Ulbricht's arrest. It was shut down and alleged operator Blake Benthall was charged last November.

"The real Dread Pirate Roberts is out there," Dratel said, calling on the jury to use their common sense, look at the evidence and determine his client's innocence.

Among those expected to testify are a long-time college friend to whom Ulbricht allegedly confessed and a drug dealer who sold heroin on Silk Road.

The government's first witness was Homeland Security special agent Jared Der-Yeghiayan, who spoke of intercepting drugs in the mail from Europe and making the connection with Silk Road.

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