A San Francisco website operator lived a double life, portraying himself as an innovative Internet trailblazer while lording over a massive online drug empire and trying to arrange the killing of six people he thought were interfering in his business, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Ross William Ulbricht, 29, was ordered held without bail after a prosecutor gave a blistering account of the danger he said the defendant posed to others and his likelihood to flee.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner said Ulbricht had spent most of three years "evading law enforcement, living a double life'' while operating an underground website known as Silk Road, a black-market bazaar where hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, heroin and other drugs were sold as easily online as books and electronics.
Turner said the website also offered malicious computer software and fake identification documents as several thousand vendors distributed goods to more than 100,000 customers.
In ordering Ulbricht detained for trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin N. Fox cited "powerful evidence'' that Ulbricht sought the killings of individuals he believed would interfere with his business.
Turner said Ulbricht sent $730,000 to others over four months this year to carry out the killings of six people to silence witnesses and to protect him and his financial interests. In court papers, prosecutors said one murder was to take place in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada, while four others were to occur in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. With the sixth person, Ulbricht was dealing with an undercover agent, prosecutors said.
"Thankfully, it appears so far those murders did not happen,'' Turner said.
Defense lawyer Joshua Dratel argued for bail, saying Ulbricht lived in San Francisco under his own name and was supported by numerous family and friends willing to fund bail.
"He's reliable and will honor that obligation,'' Dratel said. "He's not going to put his family in the poorhouse.''
Ulbricht was arrested Oct. 1 at a San Francisco public library, where he was swarmed by FBI agents who seized his computer, Turner said.
He was charged in Manhattan with conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking, conspiring to commit computer hacking and conspiring to commit money laundering for a scheme that the government said stretched from January 2011 through September. He is charged separately in federal court in Baltimore in an attempted murder-for-hire scheme. Turner said conviction in the cases could bring a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison and a maximum of life.
In court papers, the government said Ulbricht had operated the Silk Road website under the "Dread Pirate Roberts'' alias - an apparent reference to a swashbuckling character in "The Princess Bride,'' the 1987 comedy film based on a novel of the same name.
It said investigators found a computer entry by Ulbricht in which he described starting Silk Road in early 2011, saying he wanted to "create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatsoever that could lead back to them.'' It said a spreadsheet found on his computer listed "sr inc'' as an asset worth $104 million.
Turner said the FBI also seized 144,000 Bitcoins, a currency that is created and exchanged independently of governments and banks, worth more than $20 million.
In its court papers, the government said the website vastly expanded the geographical reach of drug dealers.
"Just as online stores have made it easy to obtain specialty goods and services in locations where they would otherwise be scarce, Silk Road made illegal drugs available to anyone with an Internet connection and a shipping address,'' it said. "The site thereby greatly diminished the barriers for users seeking to obtain drugs - including younger users seeking to try drugs for the first time.''
Outside court, Ulbricht's mother, Lyn Ulbricht, said: "I can tell you he's not a murderer, not a violent person.''
She said she was heartbroken that he was detained.