True Crime Tuesdays: Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King
Helen Archer | On 10, May 2022
Netflix’s summer of scam continues apace with Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King. British director Luke Sewell’s first feature documentary looks at the life and death of Canadian Gerry Cotten, founder of the exchange platform Quadriga CX, whose passing – and the subsequent discovery of a missing $250m – sent shockwaves through the world of crypto currency.
The film’s main thrust begins in 2017, at the height of the Bitcoin boom, when many people were becoming rich off the back of it. As tens of millions were made, Cotten was busy buying a plane, a boat, an island, property and travelling the world living what is described here as a “digital nomad lifestyle”. But all good things must come to an end and, with the news that China and South Korea wanted to ban Bitcoin, the market nosedived. By 2018, the documentary tells us, people were becoming bankrupt overnight.
Tong Zou, a software developer from San Francisco and one of the contributors to the documentary, describes how, after seeing his peers profiting from the crypto boom, he decided he wanted a piece of the action. He invested his life savings of $400k via Quadriga, planning to withdraw the lot immediately with a healthy profit – and yet found himself unable to do so. On the online platform Telegram, he connected with other people who found themselves in the same boat. They started contacting journalists at Canada’s top newspaper, the Globe and Mail, in the autumn of 2018, in a bid to recover their money.
But they were dealt a body blow with the shocking news of Cotten’s death, which came to light in the form of a statement on his website on 14th January 2019 – a month after he had actually died in India in 2018, as a result of complications of Crohn’s disease. The Telegram posse, unconvinced of the veracity of the news, turned to websleuthing in a bid to discover whether Cotten really was dead, and what had happened to the “lost” $250m, which remained unrecoverable thanks to key passwords that had apparently died along with Cotten.
From here, the documentary becomes something of a thriller, told via messages sent on forums and intercut with interviews with the users who were active in them. Tong himself writes “why do I feel like I’m part of a CSI episode just unfolding”, as theories that Cotten faked his own death as part of an exit scam took hold. All eyes were on his Cotten’s wife, Jennifer Robertson, whose sister, Kimberley Smith, is interviewed here in order to protest her innocence. A reddit thread emerged thanks to a “whistleblower”, who gave details on Cotten’s funeral and a disagreement that ensued between Jennifer and Cotten’s parents. The Globe, meanwhile, obtained a copy of Cotten’s will, which was signed about 2 weeks before he died, leaving everything to Jennifer.
But the websleuths were also investigating Cotten’s dodgy business partners, as well going on deep dives into Cotten’s historic use of digital social platforms. The possibility of money laundering, or connections to organised crime, are articulated and forensic accountants discover an absence of records after 2016. Cyber security experts investigate, along with the Ontario Securities Commission, who discover that large volumes of crypto assets were being sent to other crypto exchanges abroad.
Needless to say, many of the theories presented are debunked by the end, leaving the viewer feeling rather manipulated. Themes such as the undercurrent of misogyny that can develop in male-oriented online spaces, or the kind of mass delusion that occurs when people bond by jumping down internet rabbit holes, could perhaps have been better explored. Ultimately, it’s a film about conspiracy theories, about the people who embrace such theories and their reasons for doing so – bitterness, a need for a villain to take the heat off their own bad decisions – but, given that the viewer has been swept away by these selfsame theories, it’s also pointing a finger back at us and our own preconceptions. The viewer, along with the people who lost money after investing via Quadriga CX, seem to be looking for some sort of scary criminal mastermind to blame – only to discover that the man behind the curtain was simply a tech-head mistaken for a financial genius.