Was OneCoin’s Missing Cryptoqueen Murdered by Mobsters?

New documents may reveal Ruja Ignatova’s grim fate, and stand as a bleak warning for other crypto scammers.

AccessTimeIconFeb 22, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 28, 2023 at 2:28 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconFeb 22, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 28, 2023 at 2:28 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconFeb 22, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 28, 2023 at 2:28 p.m. UTC

New documents suggest that infamous crypto scammer Ruja Ignatova, co-founder of the OneCoin fraud and one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, was murdered by a notorious drug lord as long ago as 2018. OneCoin, a Ponzi scheme that never launched a blockchain, ran from 2014 to roughly 2017, and allegedly fleeced victims of around $4 billion.

Though inconclusive, the new evidence would be consistent with prior hints that Ignatova and her fake crypto were entangled with organized crime. The story could also be a dire premonition of the danger facing other crypto scammers who may have dallied with high-level thugs – a group possibly including some of the most recognizable crypto-fraudsters of 2022.

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The evidence of Ignatova’s murder came in documents acquired by the Bureau for Investigative Reporting and Data, or BIRD. BIRD has shared documents seized after the shooting of Lyubomir Ivanonov, a former Bulgarian police commander. According to BIRD, the documents suggest that Ignatova was murdered in 2018 on orders from Christophoros Amanatidis-Taki, a notorious Bulgarian drug lord usually referred to simply as “Taki.” BIRD also claims the documents implicate the head of Bulgaria’s national homicide investigators, one Mikhail Naumov.

The documents also contain details about drunken statements made by a Taki affiliate. According to those statements, Taki ordered Ignatova’s murder, which allegedly occurred in November 2018 on a yacht in the Ionian Sea. According to the statements, Ignatova’s body was dismembered and thrown into the ocean. Finance Magnates has a good summary of the BIRD report here.

Ignatova has not been seen in public for more than five years, and intense speculation has swirled around her disappearance, including the possibility that she may have changed her appearance. Speculation flared again recently when a London apartment owned by Ignatova went on sale, but the BBC reports that sale was conducted by German prosecutors who had apparently seized the property, not by Ignatova.

The new evidence is tentative and partial, but BIRD is a seemingly reputable investigative organization focused on corruption in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Balkans. It is an affiliate of the respected International Consortium for Investigative Journalism.

The crypto-mafia connection

Prior to BIRD’s findings, the BBC’s Jamie Bartlett had assembled a variety of hints that Ignatova and OneCoin were either a front for organized crime or had become entangled with mobsters. Such a relationship could have seemed mutually beneficial for a time.

Taki’s apparent influence over high-level police officials in Ignatova’s native Bulgaria could have sounded like a path to safety for the so-called Cryptoqueen. And a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, which included vast, opaque and entirely off-chain accounting, would have been an incredibly useful channel for both laundering illicit funds and generating its own profits.

This would not be the first time a high-profile scam (crypto-inspired or otherwise) was linked to organized crime and official corruption. As we explore in the first season of CoinDesk’s new “Crypto Crooks” podcast, for instance, there is significant evidence that the infamous BitConnect scheme was linked to corrupt officials in India.

But the main nexus of crypto and organized crime has long appeared to be in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Balkans (these are also hotbeds of traditional banking fraud). Meanwhile, there have been rumors of dark connections to more recent high-profile frauds – particularly those whose founders have fled to far-flung, non-extradition countries to evade prosecution in jurisdictions with strong rule of law. Speculation has swirled that investment funds or projects may have taken emergency loans from gangsters as the crypto market declined, for instance.

It is particularly suggestive that Terra founder Do Kwon, a South Korean national, has allegedly made the unlikely flight to Serbia, which shares a long border with Bulgaria. Recent U.S. Security and Exchange Commission charges have clearly established the fraudulent intent of the Terra project, and claim that Kwon has cashed out huge amounts of bitcoin after the scheme’s collapse.

We already know that many of the con men and hucksters who stole vast sums in 2022 were fundamentally very dumb people with little concept of risk management. That certainly could have led to entanglements with the kind of people who are willing to dismember your dead body and literally throw you to the sharks.

Time, as it has in the case of Ruja Ignatova, will tell.

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David Z. Morris

David Z. Morris was CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.