His shimmering blond hair combed back neatly, Gerald Cotten looked a picture of health and confidence as he smiled for a photo some years ago. But he would be felled before his 31st birthday by an incurable disease of the digestive tract, far away from the lawn-dotted Nova Scotia neighbourhood he called home.
In the navy blue sweater from which he still beams at Facebookers, Gerald Cotten could be mistaken for a young Silicon Valley upstart. Tech was indeed the Canadian national’s forte, but he dealt neither in zero-waistline phones nor sleek gaming apps. His business was money.
Cryptocurrency, to be exact.
The International Monetary Fund provides a simple explanation for the uninitiated: cryptocurrency is a method of direct online payment that uses math to bolster security. It is not without risks, but provides an alternative to the drawbacks of traditional banking — such as processing fees and vulnerability to hacking. The foremost example of cryptocurrency is bitcoin, which you can read about here.
Gerald Cotten founded QuadrigaCX, a trading platform for bitcoin and two other kinds of cryptocurrency, litecoin and ethereum, in 2013. He was its chief executive. When Quadriga informed its users, on January 15, that Cotten had succumbed to Crohn’s disase while in India to open an orphanage, more bad news was to follow. Around a fortnight later, his widow Jennifer Robertson would inform a Canadian court that most of the money on the platform was in “cold storage” — or offline, as an anti-theft measure.
Problem: Gerald Cotton transferred these funds manually to “hot wallets” on a server, ran his business from an encrypted laptop, and Jennifer Robertson doesn’t have the password or recovery key.
Now, just how much did QuadrigaCX owe its users in total, according to Jennifer Robertson’s court filing? Around $250 million (Canadian dollars), which is over Rs 1,348 crore. ( For perspective, that’s around 15 per cent of the sum that fraud and money laundering charges against Vijay Mallya amount to.)
The news of Gerald Cotton’s death sparked an outpouring of grief. A QuadrigaCX statement hailed him as a hardworking, passionate man who “cared deeply about honesty and transparency”.
“A visionary leader who transformed the lives of those around him”
“Gerry, dude…you were kind and funny and fair and so f****** good at what you did,” wrote Freddie Heartine, who commented on Facebook. “Truly a sad day for Canadian crypto,” said another.
But while this may have been the majority opinion in the casacade of tributes, it was not the only one. One GIF proclaimed in big, block letters: “I don’t believe you.”
That was the polite meme.
A report in the New York Times describes how netizens have speculated on “whether Mr Cotten had indeed died — or whether, perhaps, he had faked his death to pull off what is known as an exit scam”.
On February 3, a Twitter handle called CryptoMedication made a number of claims in a nine-part thread, with a recommendation to users that they “treat this as a theft of their money rather than an exchange that was merely victim of unfortunate circumstance”. A couple of comments on Reddit speculate on the possibility of getting fake death certificates in India.
Jennifer Robertson, Gerald Cotten’s wife, complained in her affidavit of “threats” and “slanderous comments” targeting her.
Now, a Canadian court has temporarily protected Quadrigo from lawsuits, and Ernst & Young has been asked to help it sort out finances.
Behind the boyish good looks and the well-pressed sweater in the photo of Gerald Cotten is a financial and legal mess whose story is still to be told fully.
But a bad headache isn’t all he bequeathed. The NYT reported a Canadian newspaper’s account of what he left behind — they include pet dogs Nitro and Gully, and a plane.