The Mystery 'Crypto King' Who Stole $215M in Bitcoin and Wound Up Dead – The Daily Beast

The new Netflix doc “Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King” probes QuadrigaCX co-founder Gerald Cotten, who made off with a bitcoin fortune before (supposedly) dying in India.
Entertainment Critic
No matter their current ubiquity, cryptocurrencies are a mystery to many Americans, who view them as a sketchy digital-currency scam that’s as untrustworthy as it is confounding. Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King won’t alter that outlook, recounting the real-life tale of Gerald Cotten, founder and CEO of QuadrigaCX, a leading cryptocurrency exchange that ceased operations in early 2019. The reason for that shutdown was the untimely death of the 30-year-old Cotten, who lost his life under puzzling circumstances while traveling in India with his new wife Jennifer Robertson. Worse—at least, for investors—Cotten was the only person who knew the passwords to his firm’s accounts, meaning that QuadrigaCX’s $215 million in assets were inaccessible, leaving everyone with empty pockets.
Shady doesn’t begin to describe this turn of events, and it’s only the first stop along Trust No One’s tour of predictable criminal revelations and wild conspiracy theories. Director Luke Sewell’s documentary eventually becomes yet another non-fiction Netflix effort about amateur online sleuths (following Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel). Yet first and foremost, it’s an exposé about the unreliability of the crypto universe, where digital money affords the promise of untold wealth, regardless of the fact that it only exists online, and is guaranteed by individuals and outfits who have little obligation to behave on the up and up. To be sure, some have made a mint trading in this arena, but as proven by the story of Cotten and his victims, the crypto markets are also a potential trap set by crooks looking to fleece true believers out of their legitimate cash.
Cotten established QuadrigaCX in 2013, and to those who came to know and work with him, he seemed to be a fun-loving geek with a perpetual smile on his face and a real passion for the emerging crypto industry. Social media videos of Cotten flying drones, lighting walnuts on fire, and generally acting like an average twentysomething dork underscore this characterization. Despite his reserved demeanor, though, he found himself moving up to the big leagues during the next four years, as bitcoin’s value rose from $100 to $20,000 and, in the process, transformed Quadriga into the largest bitcoin exchange in Canada. To people such as software engineer Tong Zou, who were tired of their day-to-day jobs and looking to earn a living in a novel way, QuadrigaCX appeared to be a promising means of radically improving one’s financial situation. Consequently, Zou and others risked their present for a best-case-scenario future, hoping that bitcoin’s skyrocketing trajectory would continue long enough for them to become akin to the instant millionaires flaunting their crypto-funded Lamborghinis and mansions on YouTube.
Zou took out $85,000 in loans to invest in crypto, but when things went south in 2017, he found himself under water. In order to escape his newfound debt, he sold his San Francisco apartment and then transferred his remaining $400,000 in savings from America to Canada via QuadrigaCX. When he tried to access those funds, however, he was denied—a fate that befell numerous clients, including QCXINT, who due to privacy concerns appears in Trust No One with his face obscured by a CGI wolf-avatar head. Shortly thereafter, Cotten turned up dead, and Zou, QCXINT, and the rest were told that their money was in permanent lockdown. This prompted an inquiry by The Globe and Mail, as well as an investigation by the Ontario Securities Commission, both of whom sought to know where the money was, what had happened to Cotten, and if any malfeasance was at play in this crazy saga.
Crypto skeptics won’t find any of this the least bit surprising. Nor will they bat an eyelash at what ensued, beginning with suspicions that perhaps Cotten had faked his death and was hiding out on some tropical beach, living the high life on his former clients’ dime. That theory seemed plausible to many, as did the notion that Jennifer might have had a hand in this ruse—either as an accomplice, or as her husband’s killer. News that some of QuadrigaCX’s assets had been sent to other crypto exchanges also raised eyebrows, suggesting that Cotten could have been mixed up in money laundering for underworld types. Certainly, that line of reasoning was bolstered by the discovery that Cotten wasn’t even the sole founder of QuadrigaCX; instead, he had partnered with Michael Patryn, a menacing macho man with a past that included multiple identities and prior involvement with Shadowcrew, a money-laundering and identify-theft ring.
Believe it or not, Trust No One has further bombshells to deliver, all of which reveal something at once ugly and pedestrian: Cotten was a serial scammer who had designed QuadrigaCX, from the get-go, as a Ponzi scheme, and the business had crashed and burned when the crypto market took a nosedive and investors came looking for their (now-misappropriated) money. Sewell relays this tale via archival news reports, talking-head interviews, screenshots of online headlines and articles, and computer-generated graphics, which get the functional job done without too much unnecessary flash. While the director sometimes goes a tad overboard treating each new detail as a dramatic eye-opener, he provides a lucid account of Cotten’s rise and fall, the efforts to deduce what really took place with QuadrigaCX, and the fundamental nuts-and-bolts operation of the crypto industry.
A window into the darker side of the web (and the businesses and financial markets that flourish there), Trust No One is both a refutation of crazy conspiracy theories and a case study about the sketchiness of crypto, which primarily comes across as a vehicle for swindling suckers and/or making secretive monetary moves that wouldn’t be viewed kindly by law enforcement. Cotten may have really passed away in India in 2019, destroying any chance that investors might recover their lost assets, yet his legacy lives on—albeit probably not for the reasons he, and those who put their trust in him, would have liked.