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The Hunt for the Crypto King

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If you haven’t seen the new Netflix documentary, Crypto King, you should stop right here and go 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 actually some crypto people who are 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 dishevelled hair in every clip, and he seemed to get excited by remote control cars and flying toys. So yeah, he was a stereotypical nerd.  

That’s all fine (I myself have never owned a hairbrush, and “dishevelled” is a word I often hear). It just makes the story all the more curious, because Cotten turned 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. The scenes with Tong Zou I found the most emotive – the young software engineer who transferred the last of his life savings – $400,000 – onto QuadrigaCX in order to avoid a 2% bank charge. He had earlier lost out in the crypto mayhem, and was forced to sell his house in order to clear the debt; that $400,000 was the last of what he had left.

“I couldn’t get any sleep. I just prayed. I really prayed it wasn’t a scam”, Zou says in the film. Unfortunately, that’s exactly 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 announced was that he was the only person who had the keys to the crypto wallets, so they had gone with him to the grave (damn…it’s such a crazy sentence to even write). What that meant was 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 really 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. There was too much screen time taken up by the Telegram chat, 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 Internet, I had gone five days without any news from the outside world. Turning on my phone upon getting back to civilisation, 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 movie is 1 hour and 28 minutes long, but 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 to be 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 negative? So, if Gerry hadn’t suddenly died on the bed in India, what would his plan have been? Was there ever a planned escape route from the Ponzi scheme?

Of course, these questions are unanswerable. But it would have been nice to at least give some time to delve into them. Personally, I would have also liked a little more screentime devoted to the numbers and on-chain movement. I’ve been digging in this morning on the Bitcoin blockchain, 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 further fun this morning, I also had a look at the infamous 1PdBMFkicx1vTHs9P6whPGondSVcmndVha Bitcoin address – which was 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 further look into, rather than all the Telegram messages about a faked death.

In truth, the search to locate the cold wallets was ultimately as important as the search for Cotten, because that would have answered a lot of the questions. Movement in these addresses after Cotten died would have proven that it was fraud, as only Cotten was apparently able to access the wallets. Furthermore, balances could be checked, as well as whether the addresses were multi-sig or not (and hence whether the claim of forgotten passwords was feasible). It would have been nice to see the movie spend a little more time and detail on this, rather than the fake death goosechase.

Other Plotlines

The story really is incredible – the twists, turns and coincidences truly 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 particularly well. The home video clips of a nerdy, happy, care-free Cotten just contrast so starkly with what he was doing all that time behind closed doors. But come on Netflix, show us more of how he did it! Apparently 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 at to how he pulled this off).

Why

Also largely glossed over is the why. This is a highly intelligent individual who got into crypto at the very, very start. He should be richer beyond his wildest dreams right now, 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 he felt the need to steal? The film asserts that he lost around $150 million of his customers’ funds to gambling, but doesn’t go into much detail beyond that. Was it poker, slots, casinos? Or was he leveraging up on crypto derivative markets? I really wanted to get more on this angle.

The hardest part for me to fathom is how someone with such a massive headstart in life – good background, highly intelligent, 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. It’s like he went out of his way to steal and ruin lives.

Conclusion

So, yeah. Good movie – emotive, shocking and tragic. Seeing Cotten operate the Bitcoin ATM for the two little girls towards the hardest 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 childrens’ 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 levelled 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 sombre watch. Indeed, an especially depressing 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 an evil the act that Cotton committed was (as if there was any doubt).

So just 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, I feel it could have been so much better.



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