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Silk Road Mastermind, Penn State Alum Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison

Jerry Sandusky might be Penn State’s most widely known convicted criminal, but drug kingpin Ross Ulbricht can probably now stake claim to a close second.

Ulbricht, known by his online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was sentenced to life in prison without parole today in Federal District Court in Manhattan after being convicted earlier this year for running the world’s largest drug-trafficking website. Known as Silk Road, the online drug bazaar provided the means for thousands of drug dealers around the world to peddle their goods anonymously to hundreds of thousands of buyers. Users in the marketplace exchanged about $1.2 billion in illegal drugs from its inception in February 2011 until Ulbricht was arrested in October 2013.

So why are you reading about this on Onward State? Well, as it turns out, Ulbricht earned a master’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering from Penn State in 2008. His Master’s thesis — titled Growth of EuO Thin Films by Molecular Beam Epitaxy — was published in 2009 and is  still available to download on Penn State’s server. According to Linkedin, his job at Penn State as a graduate research assistant entailed “designing and implementing project plans to seek out and verify rare properties in crystalline materials; and collaborating internationally and nationally in multiple sub-projects involving spintronics and ferroic materials.”

As we previously reported, his Collegian mentions paint a picture of a libertarian-minded campus figure. He was described as a “debater for the College Libertarians,” a wannabe Ron Paul delegate, and a drummer for the NOMMO Performing Arts Company.

The story of Silk Road is a fascinating one, and if you have an hour, I highly recommend reading Wired’s two-part series on how this all went down (part 1, part 2). Essentially, Ulbricht, driven by his libertarian ideals, created a website that allowed users to exchange Bitcoins anonymously in exchange for narcotics. He evaded the DEA and FBI for more than two years until a misconfiguration somewhere on the site indadvertedly revealed the IP address of the Silk Road server in Iceland. After an undercover investigation traced the website back to Ulbricht (thanks to a couple slip-ups on his part) he was arrested at a public library in San Francisco. He was eventually convicted on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money. While the minimum sentence was only 20 years in prison, evidence presented at trial indicated that Ross paid for six murders to be carried out to help protect his identity (most of these hits were setups by the FBI or scammers and there is not proof that anyone was actually killed), which made his case for leniency much more daunting.

“I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” Ulbricht wrote to the sentencing judge, according to Wired. “Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.”

Prosecutors also allege at that at least six people died from drug overdoses as a result of Silk Road purchases (there is no evidence that Ulbricht himself actually sold drugs).

“Make no mistake: Ulbricht was a drug dealer and criminal profiteer who exploited people’s addictions and contributed to the the deaths of at least six young people,” Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said. “Ulbricht went from hiding his cybercrime identity to becoming the face of cybercrime, and as today’s sentence proves, no one is above the law.”

Ulbricht will of course appeal his maximum sentence. It’s safe to say he won’t be back to State College for Homecoming.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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