Sep. 3—AUBURN — When state Sen. Eric Brakey met President Joe Biden briefly during the president’s July 28 visit to Auburn, the Republican lawmaker handed him a handwritten card with a succinct request.
The note read, in its entirety: “Mr. President — Welcome to Auburn, ME! Please consider clemency for Ross Ulbricht. Life in prison for building a website is cruel and unusual punishment. Sincerely, Eric Brakey.”
The card noted it was not printed at taxpayer expense.
Ulbricht, a Texas native with no ties to Maine, is serving a life sentence in federal prison following his 2015 conviction by a federal jury for distributing narcotics, distributing narcotics by means of the internet, conspiring to distribute narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiring to commit computer hacking, conspiring to traffic in false identity documents and conspiring to commit money laundering.
At the time, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Ulbricht was “the face of cybercrime” and “a drug dealer and criminal profiteer who exploited people’s addictions and contributed to the deaths of at least six young people.”
Brakey, though, has a different take.
In social media posts, he’s called Ulbricht “the Nelson Mandela of Bitcoin” and castigated “our dirty, rotten government” for keeping the 39-year-old locked up.
On the last day of Donald Trump’s presidency, Brakey criticized Trump for failing to pardon Ulbricht and two other men who remain fugitives: Julian Assange, charged with the violating the Espionage Act and conspiring with hackers, and Edward Snowden, whose leaks of classified information also led to charges of espionage. Assange is in a British prison; Snowden is living in Russia.
Brakey wrote on Twitter that passing up the chance to pardon all three was “a great final act of cowardice and submission to the Deep State.”
He also said last year that “when picking a candidate for president, a good litmus test is who is most likely to pardon and/or commute” the sentences of Assange, Snowden and Ulbricht.
“If the candidate is good on this, then they are also likely good on other items of importance,” Brakey said.
Freeing Ulbricht is clearly not just a passing whim for the Auburn legislator.
Brakey has raised the issue repeatedly for years and he is featured prominently on the Free Ross website that has long remained active in its bid to get Ulbricht out of prison, a proposal endorsed by at least three presidential candidates this year, Vivek Ramaswamy, Larry Elder and Robert Kennedy Jr.
Since the president “has the pardon power,” Brakey said Thursday, “he seemed the right person to raise the issue.”
His bid to convince the president apparently fell short.
Brakey said Thursday that he “never heard anything back” from the White House.
The White House Press Office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
THE CASE AGAINST ULBRICHT
Ulbricht created a secretive website in 2011 called Silk Road, named for the old trading route between Constantinople and China. It served as a black market for all sorts of transactions made with Bitcoin, a digital currency not easily tracked by authorities.
His operating philosophy, as Ulbricht later put it, “People should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.”
Ulbricht operated the entire website from his laptop.
It came to widespread attention that summer when Gawker, an American blog, detailed some of its buying and selling in a story headlined “The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable.”
After much investigation and increasing publicity, federal agents caught up with Ulbricht at a library in San Francisco, where they arrested him.
At trial, he tried to argue he had sold the site and shouldn’t be held responsible in any case for what other people bought and sold. His role was merely to provide the platform and take a small transaction fee.
The U.S. Department of Justice, however, said Silk Road “was used by thousands of drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and other unlawful goods and services to more than 100,000 buyers” as well as helping to launder the money involved in the deals.
The DOJ called Silk Road “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet, serving as a sprawling black-market bazaar where unlawful goods and services, including illegal drugs of virtually all varieties, were bought and sold regularly by the site’s users.”
Prosecutors convinced jurors in a four-week trial that Ulbricht “deliberately operated Silk Road as an online criminal marketplace intended to enable its users to buy and sell drugs and other illegal goods and services anonymously and outside the reach of law enforcement. “
They pointed to six people who died of overdoses after buying drugs via Silk Road, including two 16-year-olds and a 25-year-old man in Boston.
But it wasn’t just drugs for sale on Silk Road. The government showed at trial there were 159 listings for services such as computer hacking; 169 listings for forgeries, such as offers to make fake passports; and 801 listings for digital goods, among them pirated media content and malicious software.
Ulbricht, the government said, “controlled and oversaw every aspect of Silk Road” and generated millions in commissions along the way.
At sentencing, New York District Court Judge Katherine Forrest, who imposed two life sentences on Ulbricht, said, “There must be no doubt that you cannot run a massive criminal enterprise and because it occurred over the internet minimize the crime committed on that basis.”
“What Silk Road really was, was a social market expander of a socially harmful drug that we have deemed in our democratic process to be unacceptable and it was an enabler of those trying so very hard to get away from it,” she told Ulbricht at sentencing. “What you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.”
BRAKEY SEEKS TO HELP
For at least the past five years, Brakey has openly pressed for Ulbricht’s release.
During the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Maine, in which he was the Republican challenger taking aim at U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, Brakey vowed that he would “definitely raise the issue with the president” when he got to Washington.
One of the people who noticed Brakey’s effort was, perhaps surprisingly, Ulbricht.
Working through friends outside the prison, Ulbricht has long had a Twitter account in which he discusses his case, talks about life behind bars and even notes interesting events in the night sky.
In September 2018, after learning of Brakey’s support, Ulbricht used the social media platform to thank him.
“You’re my new favorite Senate candidate!” Ulbricht wrote, then asked more broadly “how can we help” get Brakey elected.
It turned out that King easily won the three-way race that year to secure his second term. Brakey next sought a congressional seat, but lost a 2020 primary in Maine’s 2nd District.
After that, he moved to Texas to work with libertarians before returning to Maine to run for his old state Senate seat in Auburn, an election that he won.
He keeps thinking about Ulbricht, though.
“I have spoken with his mom on many occasions and interviewed her for my podcast several years ago,” Brakey said Thursday.
“He is a smart and good-natured person who could be contributing to our country instead of rotting behind bars for life,” the lawmaker said. “It’s a heartbreaking story.”
Ulbricht told the court he regretted starting Silk Road and had never intended to harm anyone.
His mother, Lynn, whom Brakey once interviewed in a podcast, said in a petition to free him that her son is serving “a double life sentence without parole” for starting “an anonymous e-commerce website” at the age of 26 because of his passion for free markets and privacy.
She said her son, a former Eagle Scout, was never charged with any violent crime and is serving a far longer sentence than the dealers who bought and sold illegal drugs via Silk Road.
“The sentence Ross received for building a website was incredibly disproportionate to anyone else who has been sentenced for similar offenses,” Brakey told the Sun Journal.
With support from many in the cyber community, Ulbricht sought to appeal his sentence.
His lawyers argued that the government had grabbed internet traffic data without getting a warrant — a technical point in which courts sided with federal authorities — and insisted that Forrest, the judge, had imposed an unreasonable sentence after considering allegations raised at trial by prosecutors that Ulbricht had tried to hire hit men, something for which the the government ultimately did not try Ulbricht.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused in 2021 to consider the issues. It left Ulbricht’s sentencing intact, with no further appeals possible.
“This is not how our criminal justice system is supposed to work,” Brakey wrote on Twitter in 2018.
Ulbricht once said that the price he’s paying for his crimes is “the same as a death sentence. It just takes longer.”
Whether that proves true appears to rest entirely on whether a president is willing to pardon him or commute his sentence.
In a letter to Biden last fall, Ulbricht said he has “searched my soul and examined the misguided decisions I made when I was younger. I have dug deep and made a sincere effort to not just change what I do, but who I am.
“I am no longer the type of man who could break the law and let down so many.
“I know I could be — and yearn to be — a positive influence in the free world. Please give me a second chance so I can prove that I can be an asset to my community and country.
“If you see fit to commute my sentence, I will owe you my life, and I will never let you down.”
Biden, who has pardoned nine people and commuted the sentences of 112 others, has not taken any action to free Ulbricht or reduce his sentence.