Accused Silk Road drug baron goes on trial in NY

NEW YORK - The accused US mastermind of an underground criminal website that distributed narcotics, hacking services and forged documents to more than 100,000 people all over the world goes on trial Tuesday.

The trial of 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht, a skinny Eagle Scout from San Fransisco, has been heralded a landmark case in the shadowy world of online crime, as well as surveillance and privacy.

Prosecutors say Ulbricht created, owned and operated the Silk Road website that allowed thousands of criminals in Europe and North America to launder hundreds of millions of dollars for three years.

From January 2011 until October 2013, when the website was shut down by the FBI, prosecutors say Ulbricht was the true identity of "Dread Pirate Roberts" - the anti-hero in fairy tale film "The Princess Bride" - who set up, owned and operated the underworld site.

He was arrested in a San Francisco library working on a laptop in October 2013 and charged with narcotics trafficking, criminal enterprise, computer hacking and money laundering.

Ulbricht has pleaded not guilty on seven separate charges.

He faces life behind bars if convicted, and has hired prominent lawyer Joshua Dratel, who has defended convicted terrorists.

US District Judge Katherine Forrest will preside over the trial, expected to last months, when it begins with jury selection on Tuesday in a federal court in Lower Manhattan.

Silk Road allegedly offered nearly 13,000 listings for drugs, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD sold by agents in more than 10 countries across Europe and North America.

It also allegedly sold malicious software, pirated content and offered fake driver licenses, passports, social security cards, utility bills and car insurance records.

Jury selection begins

Family and friends are convinced of Ulbricht's innocence, setting up a "Free Ross" website that has raised US$339,000 (S$452,000) for his defence.

But while they portray a gentle and generous character, a much-loved brother and son, prosecutors paint a very different picture of the former scholarship student.

They dub him the brains behind "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet" who pocketed commissions worth "tens of millions of dollars" from illicit sales.

The government alleges he was so wedded to his life of crime that he solicited six murders-for-hire to keep the scheme intact, although there is no evidence any killings actually took place.

Much of the trial is likely to focus on the levels of secrecy to which Silk Road went to conceal their activities from the law.

A network concealed the true IP addresses of computers and thereby the identities of users, and included a Bitcoin-based payment system, which also concealed the identities and locations of users.

US authorities say they seized 173,991 Bitcoins, a virtual currency, worth over US$150 million, as part of the operation.

Ulbricht faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty of narcotics conspiracy and criminal enterprise each, with lesser sentences for the other charges.

In November, a second version of Silk Road was shut down and alleged operator Blake Benthall charged on hacking, money laundering and trafficking charges in San Francisco.

Three others have also been charged over the operation.