Netflix’s latest true crime doc, "Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King", seeks to unravel the mystery of Gerald Cotten, the CEO of crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, who died in 2018. Cotten passed away from complications that arose from Crohn’s disease while on a honeymoon in India—apparently taking some $215 million of customer funds to the grave.
Given the mysterious circumstances of his death—and the enormous amount of money he controlled—it’s no surprise that conspiracies quickly sprang up in an attempt to piece together the puzzles around his death.
Did Cotten fake his own death, investors began to ask, absconding to lands anew under a new name and a surgically rejigged face? Was the CEO—known for his luxurious lifestyle, which included jets, supercars and vacations—murdered by a mob debt collector or a jealous lover? And why did the Indian hospital that treated Cotten misspell his name on his death certificate?
Netflix has tried to get to the bottom of things in its new 90-minute doc; read on to uncover the wild tale of Gerald Cotten.
Who was Gerald Cotten?
Trust No One depicts Cotten as a nerdy, happy-go-lucky, and charming CEO, who was knee-deep in and a fierce advocate of the technology. He launched QuadrigaCX in 2013, and it quickly became one of the largest crypto exchanges. Business picked up when Bitcoin hit the big time in 2017, reaching prices close to $20,000.
According to the documentary, that’s around the time that Cotten started to invest his money in islands, cars and property, traveling the world while running his exchange.
But Bitcoin crashed at the end of 2018, and Cotten’s flashy lifestyle needed cash to sustain itself. Soon enough, QuadrigaCX’s customers struggled to withdraw money from the exchange.
Cotten told a Globe and Mail reporter that the banks, which didn’t trust crypto exchanges, had frozen the exchange’s bank accounts. But months later, customers still couldn’t take their money out.
Something was afoot. “This was my entire savings, built through ten years of work,” said one disgruntled customer in the doc. Now Cotten’s jet-set lifestyle looked suspicious. Was he avoiding something… or someone?
Then in January, 2019, Cotten’s wife Jennifer Robertson announced that he had died a month earlier. Shortly after, the exchange stopped working entirely.
Is Quadriga’s CEO really dead?
The thing is, a CEO’s death shouldn’t lock customers out of their money. Companies have backups, safeguards to protect against this kind of thing. And who dies from Crohn’s disease at 24 years old?
Angry and suspicious investors congregated on Reddit and Telegram to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. They surfed his social media accounts at first, then traced Cotten’s digital footprints even more closely for clues.
The investors found more questions than answers. For instance, had Cotten’s death certificate, which spelled his name as Cottan, been faked? Was a recently-active Skype account proof he was still alive? And, wildly, was Jennifer, his wife, even real? Supposedly, Cotten’s business associates didn’t even know he was married.
Some evidence suggested that Jennifer, if real, was acting strangely. The funeral, according to a Redditor claiming to be a contractor for QuadrigaCX, said that it was a closed-casket affair, and that Jennifer was “fake grieving” and dancing at the funeral to bacchanalian excess, and even kicked out Gerald’s family.
Robertson’s sister, for the record, doesn’t think that Cotten had fabricated his relationship with Jennifer. It was a perfect match, sparked up on Tinder, she said in the documentary. “My sister’s not a liar.”
Still, questions about the missing money only mounted when two Globe and Mail reporters followed up on the case. They reported that Jennifer said she couldn’t get into Cotten’s laptops, and found an affidavit from Robertson saying that she didn’t understand how QuadrigaCX operated—even though one of Robertson’s companies later wired cash to some of Quadriga’s customers. Still, all this evidence was circumstantial—investors hadn’t yet found a smoking gun.
Following the money
Investors who believed that Cotten had faked his own death and ran away with the money had made one huge assumption: that Cotten had money to steal. When Taylor Monahan, founder of MyCrypto, examined the exchange’s cold wallets, she couldn’t find the lost crypto. It just wasn’t there. “It certainly started to look like fraud,” said one anonymous investor in the doc.
Then the Ontario Securities Commission opened an investigation. The OSC found that after 2016, QuadrigaCX stopped producing consistent data about its holdings, and that large volumes of cryptocurrencies were being sent to foreign crypto exchanges. But even the forensic accountants only managed to trace $46 million of the total $215 million customers had deposited onto the exchange. Where was the rest of the money?
No, really, who was Gerald Cotten?
Subsequent investigations found that Michael Patryn, one of the co-founders, registered the domain name for QuadrigaCX—not Gerry. Was Patryn, whom employees described as a macho, terrifying character, calling the shots, not Cotten?
It was alleged that Patryn was involved in a money-laundering ring under a different name—Omar Dhanani. The Globe and Mail reporters were on the case, and used photos to conclude that they were the same person. The OSC tugged on the same thread, but neither could get hold of him.
Then, out of the blue, one Mike Patryn joined the Telegram group that investors were using to discuss conspiracies. The user said that he left the company in 2016, and that the company was legitimate at the time. And not even he thinks that Gerald is dead—nor did he ever meet his wife. “I didn’t know that Gerry was married,” he says. So, Patryn: shit-stirrer, criminal mastermind or another one beguiled by Cotten?
TRUST NO ONE: THE HUNT FOR THE CRYPTO KING
Follow a group of investors turned sleuths as they try to unlock the suspicious death of cryptocurrency multimillionaire Gerry Cotten and the missing $250 million they believe he stole from them. Premieres in 2022 pic.twitter.com/rP9iFJHkWm
— Netflix (@netflix) September 23, 2021
Someone tracked Patryn to a scam forum called TalkGold, where Patryn talked to one user in particular, “sceptre”, a bunch. One of the Globe reporters had a hunch that this was Gerry Cotten, and traced the account to another online den of thieves, BlackHatWorld. After some more digging, the reporter found an order form filled out by one Gerald Cotten.
No longer a likable nerd, investors thought that Gerald, now “sceptre”, had been operating scams since he was 15. Indeed, QuadrigaCX launched just three months after “sceptre” put out a call to build a crypto exchange.
A trip to India
At this point, lots of investors think that Cotten, a man alleged to have a history of scamming, really had faked his own death. So the Globe goes to Cotten’s hospital in India to put the whole “fake death” thing to bed.
The doctor, reported the Globe, initially diagnosed Cotten with “little more than traveler’s diahrrea”, but kept him in hospital just in case. Then Cotten took a turn for the worse: he went into cardiac arrest three times; the third time, the doctors couldn’t revive him and declared him dead. That’s when the Globe started to be convinced that he was dead, after all.
But the money, of course, was still missing. And for some, things still looked suspicious. There was no autopsy on the body, for instance, and Cotten had signed his will two weeks after he died—leaving his riches to Jennifer. Then it emerged that Jennifer had legally changed her name three times in the past few years, and a man sharing one of her former last names was at the center of an unsolved murder case. Some people called for Gerald’s body to be exhumed.
Thinking that Jennifer had murdered Cotten, the Telegram group spiraled out of control. Despite no concrete evidence—indeed, the murdered man’s first name was not the same as Robertson’s ex-husband, some angry investors lobbed death threats at Jennifer, convinced that she had murdered Cotten, too. Jennifer, scared for her safety, entered a safe house.
Cracking the nut
Finally, the OSC discovered something that cracked the case wide open. Forensic accountants discovered that Gerry was trading against fake users, crediting their account with fake currencies and pocketing the cash, using the proceeds to play the crypto market. But Cotten was a bad trader: losing money hand over fist, he gambled away about $150 million of customer funds.
Like the end of a classic Ponzi, the OSC said that due to Cotten’s bad trades, QuadrigaCX couldn’t afford to credit customers who withdrew funds.
The thing about conspiracy theories, though, is that they mutate out of control very quickly, and aren’t always reflective of the latest evidence. Even today, some investors remain unconvinced that Cotten really is dead.