A new Netflix documentary explores the suspicious death of Gerald “Gerry” Cotten and the scandal that ultimately revealed how the Canadian cryptocurrency exchange he founded, QuadrigaCX, had misappropriated customer funds and operated similarly to a Ponzi scheme.
QuadrigaCX is certainly one of the biggest scandals in crypto history. As many as 115,000 customers lost about $190 million worth of various cryptos they kept on the exchange, and the debacle was a black eye for an industry already associated in the public mind with ransomware and dark markets. For seasoned crypto users, the death (or disappearance) of the single executive who controlled the private keys to QuadrigaCX’s wallets offered a stark reminder of the adage, “not your keys, not your coins.”
But is “Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King” worth watching? Two CoinDesk editors watched the film and came away with different conclusions.
Toby Bochan, managing editor, Learn:
A large portion of the film focuses on the suspicious death side of the story, rather than on the more interesting story, to me, of how he was able to get away with the scheme for so long and how it was eventually figured out that it wasn’t a case of lost passwords holding customer funds hostage, but rather that there were no funds left to give.
The main theories around Cotten’s death are:
- He faked his death as part of an “exit scam” with or without the knowledge of his wife, Jennifer Robertson, changed his appearance and is living the life somewhere in the Bahamas or wherever
- Jennifer Robertson poisoned him and is some kind of black widow
- He is actually dead.
The Cotten/Quadriga story is inherently interesting to me – which is why I wanted to dig in during my free time enough to write about it before the film came out – but the movie was not. I know that much of the discussion, sleuthing and rumors circulated on Telegram and Reddit. But I felt like 25% of the screen time relied on watching online chats to move the narrative forward and support one of the conspiracy theories around his death. It felt lazy.
The most interesting part of the film to me was the appearance of Jennifer Robertson’s sister, Kimberly Smith, as this is the first time anyone from her family has spoken at length to the media since the scandal. The addition of a point of view from someone who had known Cotten only in a non-business, family way added a layer that I didn’t see in other coverage, as it was clear that Smith at least believed Cotten and Robertson’s relationship and love were genuine.
The downside of spending so much screen time on Robertson is that the film ends up giving equal narrative weight to the black widow theory of Cotten’s death, which I find frankly preposterous. Despite the aspersions the movie casts, there are pretty straightforward reasons why Robertson has had three last names in her life: She was born with one, married into another and changed it to the third after her divorce from her first husband. Her first husband is very much alive, and she hasn’t seemingly benefited financially in any way from Cotten’s death and had to be put in a safe house at one point because of threats from former QuadrigaCX customers.
Theory No. 1 that Cotten faked his death is the dominant one, and the movie could have spent more time on the fake-death industry that is a real thing in India, his history of Ponzi schemes with Michael Patryn aka Omar Denali (aka Sifu), but the filmmakers did a decent job covering these wrinkles in the limited time they had.
Some might say that I am not the right audience for this as I already know how the story turns out. After learning the outline of the story through reporting done on CoinDesk, I listened to Aaron Lammer’s "Exit Scam" podcast series and I found it utterly, completely fascinating.
My verdict is: Skip the movie and listen to "Exit Scam" instead.
Lawrence Lewitinn, managing editor, global capital markets:
If you’ve been closely following the Gerald Cotten/QuadrigaCX saga for the past couple of years, this film leaves a lot to be desired. But for the other 99.98% of people with Netflix subscriptions, it’s a good 90 minutes of entertainment.
Let’s be real here, folks: Nobody besides the kind of people who read CoinDesk religiously knows anything about Quadriga. They may know bitcoin and a few other cryptocurrencies. They may have a Coinbase account. They may have seen influencers on YouTube peddling some sketchy alts (altcoins). They have heard that hackers use crypto in ransomware. Maybe an oligarch or something has some crypto in Russia he got that way. That’s what they know.
What they don’t know is just how damn sketchy seemingly legitimate exchanges can be.
This film works because it starts viewers off on a path that leads to dead ends and false positives but also gives them a lot to ponder. Is Michael Patryn dodgy? Ask the folks who put money in Wonderland or watch this documentary and see what kind of a past he had. Is Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s wife (note: I didn’t say “widow”) someone who may know more than she’s letting on? This film explains all the misgivings QuadrigaCX account holders have. Did Cotten really die in India or did he abscond with the money? Or did he just lose everything and disappear rather than own up to his blunder? And how checkered a past did he really have?
We who have been keeping an eye on this case since the previous decade have our theories about it. But try making a documentary about it. It’s not interesting to show text messages and Telegram chats for a couple of hours straight, but the filmmakers managed to keep the story moving with their use of interviews and clips. There has to be something to engage non-crypto viewers. I think this film does a decent job of it.
So maybe you don’t watch it, you know-it-all, but have a normie friend watch it. A real civilian. It’s better than "Emily in Paris."
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