The CEO of what has been noted as Canada's largest cryptocurrency exchange, whose death is mired in controversy and whose widow says went to his grave with the sole password to access hundreds of millions of dollars, may have wanted to exit his business before he died, another leading cryptocurrency executive said, adding to the mystery.
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Gerald Cotten was the CEO of QuadrigaCX, and reportedly died of Crohn's disease in India in December. He was 30 years old at the time. "I knew Gerry, we talked about doing business. He’d always flake and never follow up," Cole Diamond, CEO and co-founder of Coinsquare which is now the largest Canadian crypto exchange, told ABC News. "I sent him an email asking to buy his company in December. We’re probably going through a consolidation phase in the crypto market and I thought based on previous conversations he might want out."
Diamond said he did not receive a response from Cotten, who died on Dec. 9 in Jaipur, India, according to a statement provided by J.A. Snow Funeral Home in Nova Scotia. Cotten's will was signed on Nov. 27, less than two weeks before his death, and filed in probate court in Nova Scotia on Dec. 21.
QuadrigaCX was already battling legal issues and a drastic plummet in Bitcoin value before Cotten passed away as the only person who knew the sole password able to unlock about $190 million in assets, his widow Jennifer Robertson claimed in Canadian court documents.
Robertson said the company had 363,000 registered users in its database, about 115,000 of whom had money in personal accounts with Quadriga. As of Jan. 30, the date of Robertson's affidavit, the company owed its affected users $250 million Canadian ($190 million U.S.), $180 million of which was held in cryptocurrency which she said she calculated using market prices as of Dec. 17, 2018.
The company had no bank accounts and Cotten used his personal bank account for business, according to Robertson's affidavit. She said she had conducted "repeated and diligent searches," in the couple's primary Nova Scotia home and other properties as well as hiring an expert to examine Cotten's encrypted laptop for business records and missing coins.
But other large players in the crypto world question the accounts of the inaccessible password and the timing of Cotten's death.
Michael Gokturk, CEO of Vancouver-based Einstein Exchange, told ABC News that the claim that such a large exchange could have run off of one personal laptop defies belief.
For one, QuadrigaCX was "very large. Odds that they ran it from one laptop at one guy’s house, it’s unbelievable at best. I have 50 staff running an exchange half the size," Gokturk said. “It’s not something you run from a home laptop, it was intricate -- was tied into Equifax. You need a team to integrate that.” Gokturk added that it "sounds very fictitious" for Cotten to be the only person who could have access to the password.
"Every new and old crypto company has security measures in place. A lot of crypto CEOs were getting kidnapped and extorted,” Gokturk said. “The ability to kidnap a single point of failure for Canada’s biggest exchange? Makes no sense for a pioneer [in the industry] to make such a rookie mistake. It’s like walking out on the street with $1 million in 100s on him at all times. Operating off a single laptop, it makes no sense.”
"It could be totally legitimate but it’s such a strange twist of events," Gokturk said. "In the middle of a massive lawsuit, the guy takes off to India to build an orphanage, it makes no sense. Nothing smells right."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that they would not comment on any possible investigation into the company unless charges have been filed. Through a spokesperson, the police issued a statement saying: “The RCMP is aware of the allegations against Quadriga CX.”
Within QuadrigaCX, the currency is divided between a hot wallet (coins in the server) and a cold wallet (an offline storage area to protect the coins from hackers). Allegedly, only Cotten could access the cold wallet, and according to his widow’s affidavit, only Cotton could transfer coins between wallets.
Cotten's widow claimed Cotten had no physical office, no cash management system and the work was done through his personal laptop.
The cryptocurrency world is almost by definition a community of sleuths obsessed with both security and transparency. Bitcoin and other virtual currencies have digital records that are publicly accessible and transaction histories can be traced. But several crypto analysts have claimed there is no QuadrigaCX “cold wallet.”
Researchers at the Zerononcense, a cryptocurrency website, analyzed dozens of aggregated wallet addresses and transaction IDs for bitcoin withdrawals and deposits for QuadrigaCX and concluded there appeared to be no identifiable cold wallet reserves for QuadrigaCX. “It appears that QuadrigaCX was using deposits from their customers to pay other customers once they requested their withdrawal...It is the author’s opinion that QuadrigaCX has not been truthful with regards to their inability to access the funds needed to honor customer withdrawal requests.” Gokturk agrees.
“For them to say, ‘We can’t access the cold wallets,’ fine, give us an address,” said Gokturk. The community have determined there is no cold wallet, a lot of the Bitcoin on reserve for clients were sent to other exchanges. When a client sends money to accounts, they have a specific address, that address can be traced back,” he said. “For them to say we can’t produce an address it just smells like something doesn’t make sense.”
Quadriga customer Yana Brenar saw the news about Cotten's passing and said she thought: "My money is gone."
"My first idea was to go to the blockchain.com and type in my wallet address," Brenar wrote in an email to ABC News. "Money has gone to someone's wallet with plenty of BTCs [bitcoins] balance...and, unfortunately, it's not my wallet."
"Honestly, I do believe that there is something going on behind this whole story, there are straightforward questions for Quadriga but no one could give straightforward answers," Brenar wrote. "If there is nothing to hide, then someone would stand up and answer, but no...they are hiding behind creditors protection so no one can sue them, no one can get answers."
Gokturk believes the value of the missing money is probably more than the reported $190 million. Bitcoin, for example, hit a high of $19,783.21 per coin in December 2017, but on Thursday, the price was $3,359.27. Customers have been trying to withdraw money from their QuadrigaCX accounts for over a year, according to posts on the company’s Facebook page.
In January 2018, CIBC froze $26 million worth of Quadriga assets, including customer accounts, and an Ontario Court ruled that $67 million in Quadriga transactions were improperly transferred, according to Robertson's affidavit. However it has been difficult to get a financial institution to accept bank drafts from Quadriga, she said.
"The litigation with CIBC had a significant impact on Quadriga's ability to operate and to ensure users of the Quadriga platform were kept whole," Robertson said.
Efforts by ABC News to contact Robertson for further comment have been unsuccessful.
Last week, QuadrigaCX was granted creditor protection by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to avoid bankruptcy for 30 days while it tries to find money to pay its debts. The company also has 30 days to avoid creditor lawsuits while it tries to find the password-protected funds.
Gotkurk takes issue with the 30-day protection period, because he says that the company's records could be taken offline during that time.
"A lot of time critical evidence could be destroyed," Gotkturk said. "In that 30 days tons more chaos will unravel,” he said. “Information will unravel. You need to lock that information down and that begins with the servers. It runs off a cloud service somewhere. Who has seized the customers' data?"
The QuadrigaCX records are stored on an Amazon server, Robertson said in an affidavit.
Despite the fact that QuadrigaCX was referred to as a Vancouver-based business, Gokturk did not know Cotton personally. He did say, though, that he respected Quadriga as a pioneer in the cryptocurrency world.
For Gokturk and Diamond, the claims made by Robertson in court don't make sense.
Coinsquare’s CEO Diamond also called QuadrigaCX’s story "shady." He pointed out that Cotten was married, and presumably his wife would know the password.
"He’s got somebody who he agreed to trust for rest of his life. A back-up person and yet no access to the accounts. He's got a will, a plane. Everybody who has crypto in cold storage has to keep the recovery code somewhere because it’s a very long number. There’s not a true explanation. If the company decides to only have one person has a key, later on you can’t say, ‘Sorry, guys’ in bankruptcy," Diamond said.
“In 2017 Quadriga lost $16 million in an ethereum [form of cyrptocurrency] contract. Money disappeared into the ether. Our belief was it was not profit, it was probably customer funds. A lot of customers were requesting withdraws they were not receiving. Months pass, it smells of a possible Ponzi scheme,” Diamond said.
“The platform was plagued by issues, the whole thing stinks. Probably incredibly mismanaged,” he added.