When the young CEO of Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange is reported to have died while honeymooning in India, it sets off a cataclysmic chain of events that would leave about 76,000 people out more than a quarter of a billion dollars and a trail of conspiracy theories around whether Gerald Cotten is dead or alive.
What happens when the one person with access to a quarter of a billion dollars unexpectedly dies — taking all the passwords with him?
Introducing A Death in Cryptoland: the unbelievable story of a dead man, lost Bitcoin fortunes, and an industry that criminals love.
This new original series from CBC Podcasts unravels the story of crypto-tycoon Gerald Cotten, his secret past, a death shrouded in mystery, and an online sleuth's obsession to uncover the truth behind QuadrigaCX.
The series is hosted by longtime CBC tech contributor and columnist Takara Small, who's been following the story closely since 2015. CBC Podcasts spoke with her about the making of the show and her role as host. Here is part of their conversation.
This is a complex, layered story. Mind outlining the basics for us?
It is complicated, which is why I think this story has struck a chord with so many people around the world.
This story has everything you'd find in a summer blockbuster (missing cash, dead founder and odd ties to the underworld), but this is a true story. It begins with Gerald (Gerry) Cotten who was the co-founder and CEO of QuadrigaCX, one of Canada's first and largest cryptocurrency exchanges.
Cotten, 30, died while honeymooning in India in 2018 under mysterious circumstances, allegedly due to complications from Crohn's disease.
His unexpected death left thousands of customers around the world with no way to access their accounts (and ultimately their money), since he was the only person who had passwords to the firm's encrypted accounts.
After his death, it was discovered that Cotten had signed a will shortly before his fateful trip, leaving everything to his wife. He had millions in assets, including a private plane, several homes and luxury cars.
Since Cotten's death, irate customers and amateur detectives have speculated about what really happened at Quadriga. Shared conspiracy theories about the whereabouts of the lost money, his death (loved ones had a private funeral for Cotten; there is pressure on police to exhume his body), and more, continue to circulate online. Some popular theories are: he faked his own death as the walls were closing in; he was killed because of his shady business dealings and his death was made to look like a freak medical complication.
How did you come to get involved in this project?
I've been covering this story for other programs like CBC Radio's Metro Morning and even BBC Radio before the podcast existed. This has felt like a continuation of the work I'd already been doing in a way, so when I was asked about joining this project, I immediately said yes.
The great thing about the podcast is that it was intentionally created with the idea that listeners around the world, who don't know much about Quadriga or crypto in general, can follow along.- Takara Small, host
How has your experience been as host for A Death in Cryptoland?
I've been fortunate enough to be a host for different podcasts in the past and an on-air contributor for radio and TV, so I didn't feel like hosting was completely brand new to me. Every production is different, but I had experience before joining.
The only thing that was (and still is) different is COVID-19, which completely changed how you produce a project like this. Normally you can have multiple people in the studio with you, but over the past year it was just me and the technician (with plastic barriers, disinfectant wipes and masks up). The CBC building, which is smack dab in the middle of downtown Toronto, is normally bustling and full of people, but largely empty right now.
A quick throwback to my time in studio while working on ‘A Death In Cryptoland’. <br><br>First two <a href="https://twitter.com/cbcpodcasts?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@cbcpodcasts</a> episodes out May 25th! <a href="https://t.co/l6TrpExqLm">pic.twitter.com/l6TrpExqLm</a>—@takarasmall
I remember asking the department for a letter of employment so I could travel to and from work just in case I was stopped by the police during lockdown… that was surreal. But, throughout this process, the heroes are the technicians I've worked with, because they were by my side (in a physically distant sort of way) every step of the way throughout every lockdown. I relied on them and they deserve so much recognition and credit for how this turned out. It really does take a village.
It's a very intimidating topic, cryptocurrency. How is the team ensuring that the podcast will be accessible to folks who don't speak tech/finance?
The great thing about the podcast is that it was intentionally created with the idea that listeners around the world, who don't know much about Quadriga or crypto in general, can follow along. Most importantly, as the host I'm there to help break everything down so it's enjoyable and easy to understand.
We hear from victims, journalists, law enforcement and conspiracy theorists who share their thoughts, memories, relationships with Gerry and more.
On the surface, A Death in Cryptoland tells the story of an untimely death and lost fortunes. But once you started digging, what else did you learn?
I learned a lot more about the victims, who don't often have a chance to tell their story. A lot of people have spent years focused on Gerry but ignored the people who lost everything when the company collapsed. Of course, there are some people who didn't want to go on record, some who felt uncomfortable sharing how much they've lost, but hearing their stories is an important part of telling this podcast. They deserve the right to tell their story in their own words.
I don't want to give too much away, but ultimately the biggest surprise for me was how little people in his life actually knew about Gerry and his past.
Why tell this story on the global stage now?
We couldn't have picked a better time to tell this story. We're seeing major companies not only accept Bitcoin but actively promote it to their customers. Celebrities, athletes, and even your neighbour down the street are buying, selling or talking about crypto in a way they didn't before.
The cryptocurrency conversation has been largely dominated by men in the past. Why is it important to you to be a voice in these discussions?
I'd argue that the technology sector as a whole has largely been dominated by a very specific demographic for decades — and crypto is no exception.
When there's only one type of person talking about technology, it means you're only telling part of the story. Technology impacts how everyone interacts with society, how we pay for essential goods (especially now) and in some cases is the only way we can safely connect with the outside world. I'm fully aware that I don't look like the average technology contributor — trust me, people have no problem telling me that — but I think having different perspectives is needed and necessary.
Why is it important to you that folks get the full picture of this story?
There are thousands of exchanges in operation around the world and new ones are popping up all the time. Perhaps this story will act as a warning and help people understand the good, the bad and the ugly.
Q&A edited for length & clarity. Written & produced by Émilie Quesnel.