A mysterious and sudden death in Jaipur has given rise to a possibility that around Rs 1,000 crore in digital currency may disappear off the face of the earth.
The unbelievable story is set in two worlds — the real and the virtual. It is spread across two countries — India and Canada. A large part of it involves an idea not many understanding — cryptocurrency. And at stake is C$190 million or around Rs 1,000 crore based on February 6’s exchange rate.
The star of this story is one Gerald William Cotten, the founder of a now-defunct startup that dealt in cryptocurrency (digital or virtual currency dealing which is supposedly highly secure and which is not controlled by central systems such as reserve banks; bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency).
Gerald William Cotten is now dead and apparently he has taken to his grave passwords that would grant access to around Rs 1,000 crore worth of cryptocurrency that may never again be recovered.
In December 2013, Gerald William Cotten launched QuadrigaCX, a crytocurrency exchange where people could trade in digital currency using real or virtual money. (A typical crytocurrency exchange would allow you to buy a certain amount of bitcoin for a certain amount of rupees. You can even trade bitcoin for any other crytocurrency, such as ethereum.)
For the past few months, QuadrigaCX ran into legal troubles because of which its customers faced problems accessing their money whether real or virtual.
By early December, it looked like QuadrigaCX’s troubles were over. In a Facebook post on December 4, the crypto exchange said that certain funds that were held because of its legal problems were being released.
“Now that we can put this situation behind us, we look forward to focusing on improving our services and offering a better cryptocurrency trading experience for Canadians,” the company said in its post.
QuadrigaCX’s troubles were far from over.
Sometime around that time Gerald William Cotten apparently came to India. Jaipur to be specific. He had come to the Pink City reportedly because he wanted to help build an orphanage.
And then, he died.
According to documents submitted by Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s wife, in a Canadian court, Gerald William Cotten died on December 9 in Jaipur due complications arising from Crohn’s disease, which he suffered from.
CoinDesk, a respected news website that covers all things cryptocurrency, claims to have accessed Gerald William Cotten’s death certificate issued by the Rajasthan government. The certificate, which IndiaToday.in has been unable to verify, is dated December 13 and says that one ‘Gerald William Cottan’ died at the Fortis Escorts Hospital, located in Jaipur’s Malviya Nagar.
This information however mysteriously failed to find its way on to QuadrigaCX’s Facebook page. It was a full month after Cottan’s reported death that QuadrigaCX finally made the news public: “It is with a heavy heart that we announce the sudden passing of Gerald Cotten, co-founder and CEO of QuadrigaCX,” the company said in Facebook post on January 15.
“Gerry died due to complications with Crohn’s disease on December 9, 2018 while travelling in India, where he was opening an orphanage to provide a home and safe refuge for children in need,” the post said.
The Facebook post talked about Cotten’s vision and passion but did not mention a word about a sudden complication that had arisen from his death: Gerald William Cotten was the only person to have access to QuadrigaCX’s ‘cold wallets’ that stored customers’ money.
(Cold wallets in the cyrtocurrency world are typically pieces of hardware such as laptops or pen drives that are kept disconnected from the internet. They are used to store securely crypto coins and are protected by a high level of encryption.)
Basically, an estimated Rs 1,000 crore of crypto coins stored in QuadrigaCX’s ‘cold wallets’ was inaccessible because Gerald William Cotten was the only one with the passwords to access the riches.
So, what now? Well, QuadrigaCX has managed to get a court to give it a one-month protection from being sued by its customers. The company, in a statement said, it has “hired outside consultants to access these cold wallets” and that “a few coins, but not many” have been accessed. “Work on that front is ongoing.”
We are sure you have many questions. We are in the early stages of a long process and we do not have all the answers right now
Some, however, have begun wondering whether this all is just part of a grand and fantastic scam. One Reddit thread, for example, has compiled examples of how easy it is to obtain a fake death certificate in India.
One of the top Reddit threads within the QuadrigaCX community is about whether somebody is “interested in getting someone on the ground in India to investigate Gerry’s death”. Another thread puts it even more bluntly: “Quadriga just successfully stole $190 million worth of crypto.”
What is QuadrigaCX doing in the meantime? It is working under an independent monitor (international accounting firm Ernst & Young) to “maximise the funds available for the company’s stakeholders”.