The Hunt for the Crypto King

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Hunt for the Crypto King

If you haven’t seen the new Netflix documentary Crypto King, you should stop here and watch it. Even if you’re not into crypto, it’s worth watching. Although, considering you’re reading this on CoinText, I’m going to assume you are a crypto fan (still, I’ve read that there are some crypto people in relationships – who would have thought? So, your significant others will enjoy it too).

With that said, I’m about to jump into some spoilers, so if you aren’t familiar with the crazy story, this is your last chance to avoid finding out.

The Story

Gerald Cotten was the founder of QuadrigaCX, a Canadian crypto exchange. He was a nerd, perpetually clad in clunky running shoes and ill-fitting jeans. He had glasses, and he even spoke like a nerd! Genuinely, he did. He sported disheveled hair in every clip and seemed excited by remote control cars and flying toys. So yeah, he was a stereotypical nerd.

That’s all fine (I have never owned a hairbrush, and “disheveled” is a word I often hear). It just makes the story all the more curious because Cotten turns out to be a sadistic monster, living a double life of fraud the entire time. The most accurate line in the film is when he is described as completely “devoid of human compassion.” There was a screw loose, no doubt; he was pure evil.

 

It’s tragic. In the scenes with Tong Zou, I found the most vibrant – the young software engineer who transferred the last of his life savings – $400,000 – onto QuadrigaCX to avoid a 2% bank charge. He had earlier lost out in the crypto mayhem and was forced to sell his house to clear the debt; that $400,000 was the last of his left.

“I couldn’t get any sleep. I just prayed. I prayed it wasn’t a scam”, Zou says in the film. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what it was – a scam.

Problems

Cotten died mysteriously of Crohn’s disease in India in December 2018, with the death announced by his wife one month later. Also revealed was that he was the only person with the keys to the crypto wallets, so they had gone with him to the grave (damn…it’s such a crazy sentence even to write). That meant that Zou’s $400,000 was likely gone – along with all the other customers. The total missing investor funds amounted to $190 million.

But that’s where I have my first qualm with the film. Sure, the death is bizarre. And the conspiracy theories are engaging, especially given the slew of coincidences that makes you feel like Cotten is still alive, relaxing on a beach with Tupac and Elvis somewhere.

But most of the film lags on the conspiracies about his death for too long. The Telegram chat took up too much screen time, where investors gathered to investigate Cotton’s suspicious passing.

 

Once his death was essentially confirmed, I felt a bit unsatisfied. It was an anticlimax. It reminded me of a 5-day hike through the jungle I did a few months ago. Without the Internet, I had gone five days without any news from the outside world. Turning on my phone upon returning to civilization, after nearly a week of build-up in my head, I saw Bitcoin had moved 0.3%. Like, oh, OK – that’s it?

And that’s how I felt when Cotten’s death in the movie was revealed as (pretty much) confirmed in India. The film is 1 hour and 28 minutes long. Still, the death is confirmed 1 hour and 11 minutes in, having taken the viewer on a wild goose chase of conspiracies, circumstantial evidence, and coincidences until that point, which all suggested Gerry was still alive (or, at least, there was a reasonable chance he was).

Other Intrigue

I would have preferred more time given to the actual fraud he pulled off because the film leaves a lot out. How did he expect to get away with it when the funds can…you know…be tracked on the blockchain? Surely the day would come before long when Bitcoin would turn, and net flows from the exchange would be harmful? So, what would his plan have been if Gerry hadn’t suddenly died on the bed in India? Was there ever a planned escape route from the Ponzi scheme?

Of course, these questions are unanswerable. But it would have been nice to give some time at least to delve into them. I would have also liked a bit of screen time devoted to the numbers and on-chain movement. I’ve been digging in on the Bitcoin blockchain this morning, and the data is fascinating. For example, one thing the movie failed to mention that I noticed – did you know that Quadriga lost an additional 100 bitcoins in February 2019, after Cotton’s death, by transferring them to one of the inaccessible cold wallets that only the deceased Cotten had the keys to?

 

Having other fun this morning, I also looked at the infamous 1PdBMFkicx1vTHs9P6whPGondSVcmndVha Bitcoin address – the deposit address at fellow exchange Bitfinex, to which Cotten sent over 2,800 Bitcoin across 50 transactions, according to the blockchain. Of course, this was all part of his fraud, which would have been nice to get a different look into rather than all the Telegram messages about a faked death.

In truth, locating the cold wallets was ultimately as crucial as searching for Cotten because that would have answered many questions.
Movement in these addresses after Cotten died would have proven it was a fraud, as only Cotten could access the wallets.
Furthermore, balances could be checked, as well as whether the addresses were multi-sig (and hence whether the claim of forgotten passwords was feasible). It would have been nice to see the movie spend more time and detail on this rather than the fake death goose chase.

Other Plotlines

The story is incredible – the twists, turns, and coincidences make it stranger than fiction. Fellow QuadrigaCX founder Michael Patryn turning out to be convicted scammer Omar Denali is tough to believe, and again I wanted to see more of the scams the duo had pulled off.

But it’s a good movie. Maybe more for how staggeringly outrageous the story is rather than anything Netflix did exceptionally well. The home video clips of a nerdy, happy, care-free Cotten contrast so starkly with what he was doing all that time behind closed doors.
But come on, Netflix, show us how he did it! He was running the whole thing nearly solo from his home laptop. Show us how! (I don’t have any intentions of starting an enormous Ponzi scheme, I am just so baffled as to how he pulled this off).

Why

Also primarily glossed over is the why. This is a knowledgeable individual who got into crypto at the very, very start. He should be richer beyond his wildest dreams for nothing except holding his crypto. Why did he feel the need to scam everyone?

Yes, he lost money, but he was scamming from the start. He was a young, bright computer science geek working in crypto and felt the need to steal. The film asserts that he lost around $150 million of his customers’ funds to gambling but didn’t go into much detail beyond that.
Was it poker, slots, or casinos? Or was he leveraging up on crypto derivatives markets? I wanted to get more on this angle.

The hardest part for me to fathom is how someone with such a massive headstart – good background, brilliant, falling into crypto at the exact right moment, happy marriage – could turn to such a dark path. This guy could have had all the riches in the world, and he could have had them easily and legally. He went out of his way to steal and ruin lives.

Conclusion

So, yeah. Good movie – vibrant, shocking, and tragic. Seeing Cotten operate the Bitcoin ATM for the two little girls towards the end was the most challenging part for me to watch, just knowing in retrospect what he was committing behind the scenes at the time (as said in the movie, he “was probably scamming” the children’s parents at the time).
Listening to Zou lament his losses was also heart-breaking, hearing him describe himself sinking further into a pit of despair. It’s just so sad.

Even watching the sister of Cotton’s wife, Jennifer Robson, discuss all the accusations against her and the fact her sister was forced to move to an unrevealed location given the death threats against her was a fascinating but sad watch.
Indeed, an unfortunate part is Jennifer Robson being accused of being in cahoots with Cotten when she was perhaps the biggest victim of all (I’d rather lose my money than find out the man I married was a thieving psychopath).
This YouTube clip, when Robson finally broke her silence two months ago, really hammers home how evil the act that Cotton committed was (as if there was any doubt).

So to be clear, this is a movie that is definitely worth watching. Make yourself a peanut butter sandwich and flick it on with Netflix– you won’t be bored, and even for non-crypto people, it’s a crazy tale.

But as a crypto enthusiast, it could have been so much better.

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