Nova Scotia

Quadriga CEO's widow speaks out over his death and the missing crypto millions

Gerald Cotten died suddenly in 2018 and took keys to $250 million in cryptocurrency assets to his grave. After his death, investigators discovered he used the money as his own personal slush fund.

Gerald Cotten died suddenly in 2018 and took keys to $250 million in crypto assets to his grave

Bitcoin fraudster’s widow breaks silence about the missing crypto millions

5 months ago
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More than three years after the sudden death of Quadriga CEO Gerald Cotten and the revelations that the company was a massive cryptocurrency scam, his widow, Jennifer Robertson, tells her side of the story.

The widow of the man behind what was once Canada's largest cryptocurrency exchange is finally sharing her side of the story after his sudden death three years ago.

Gerald Cotten was just 30 when he died in India in December 2018. He took to his grave the passcodes that locked about $250 million in other people's assets in his exchange, QuadrigaCX.

In the months that followed, investigators uncovered that Cotten had been moving money from the exchange into his personal accounts and engaging in other suspicious behaviour. 

Jennifer Robertson told CBC's The National she knew nothing of the widespread fraud her husband had committed. 

"I just really hated the questions, like, it seemed that I should have known," Robertson told CBC's Andrew Chang.

"I've already said it a million times now: I don't know.… I'm tired of defending myself for something I didn't do."

Jennifer Robertson and Gerald Cotten married in 2018. Cotten died later that same year of complications from Crohn's disease, when the couple was on a honeymoon in India. (Candace Berry Photography)

Robertson isn't under investigation and has never faced criminal charges. After Cotten's death, she agreed to forfeit $12 million in assets that included vehicles and real estate. She was allowed to keep $90,000 in cash, $20,000 in retirement savings, a 2015 Jeep Cherokee, $15,000 in furniture and some jewelry, including her wedding band. 

She said she wants to move on with her life and hopes her new book, BitCoin Widow: Love, Betrayal and the Missing Millions, is the final chapter of the Quadriga scandal. 

Love story began by swiping right

The couple's relationship began in 2014 when Robertson swiped right on Cotten's Tinder profile. 

Cotten, 26 at the time, said he worked in bitcoin. As the cryptocurrency soared in value, Robertson and Cotten lived a life of luxury that included exotic vacations, luxury vehicles, a yacht and a Cessna aircraft. 

Robertson and Cotten had previously travelled to exotic locations, staying in expensive hotels. (Submitted by Jennifer Robertson)

Using Cotten's money, Robertson started her own real estate company and managed more than a dozen properties.

Early on, Robertson was also processing funds — acting as a funnel for customer money — on behalf of QuadrigaCX.

Robertson maintains she knew little about the company's inner workings, and largely did as she was told.

"I hadn't understood how Quadriga had held money in the first place; I thought it was just a trade," she said. "There [were] many things about Quadriga that I didn't understand."

Cotten ran Quadriga like a Ponzi scheme

Investigative journalists Amy Castor and Takara Small have spent years following and reporting on the Quadriga scandal. 

Castor said Cotten operated Quadriga like a Ponzi scheme. "Whenever people put their money into the exchange, he sort of used it as his personal slush fund," she said.

Small said people were bringing duffel bags of cash to the home Cotten and Robertson shared. She wonders why Robertson didn't think to question what was going on. 

Robertson said she trusted Cotten, and any questions were explained away because banks were very "anti-bitcoin" and there were problems exchanging cryptocurrency for cash through traditional means. 

"It never occurred to me [that he was breaking the law]," said Robertson.

"He was the nicest, caring, most loving husband. He was my best friend.… It's a possibility that I was wearing rose-coloured glasses."

Cotten's kitchen counter, displaying cash that was delivered to him by a Bitcoin ATM company. (Ontario Securities Commission)

Robertson said she understands many people have been hurt and lost large sums due to the collapse of QuadrigaCX. 

"It has been the most unbelievable pain that I could ever imagine," she said. 

The crypto crash

The year after Robertson met Cotten, the value of cryptocurrency plummeted. As Quadriga customers tried to pull their money from the exchange, they were met with long waits to access their funds. 

It didn't take long for the withdrawals to become greater than Quadriga's profits.

There were other financial problems for Cotten, too: CIBC had frozen $26 million of the company's funds because of "suspicious activity" and another $10 million was locked away by a software bug. 

Cotten is shown with his two dogs. He left $100,000 in his will for their care. (Jennifer Robertson)

Amid turmoil in the cryptocurrency market, Cotten and Robertson got married and decided to travel to Jaipur, India, for their honeymoon. Just days before they left, Cotten made out a will, leaving everything to Robertson, except for $100,000 he left to take care of his two dogs. 

Robertson said something Cotten said around the time they were drawing up the will didn't sit right with her. 

"He also mentioned that the business would die without him," she said. "And I remember asking him that in the car, like, 'What do you mean by that? You don't have like … Aaron Matthews [Quadriga's director of operations] or anybody that would be able to keep the company on?'

"And he was like, 'No, I'm the only one with banking connections, I'm the only one that knows how to work it.' And I did think that was odd."

When Quadriga CEO Gerald Cotten died suddenly in 2018, the passcodes for his cryptocurrency exchange died with him. His clients were locked out of about $250 million, and investigators later found widespread fraud. Matt Galloway talks to his widow, Jennifer Robertson, about what she did and didn’t know.

Questions surrounding Cotten's death

The circumstances around Cotten's sudden death left investors with questions.

How could a seemingly healthy young man die suddenly from complications with Crohn's disease? Why did Robertson wait a month to notify investors of his death? 

Robertson said "everything was crazy" after Cotten died and her lawyers were the ones who decided to wait weeks before letting investors know about Cotten's death.

"I did let that go to the lawyers and the contractors, and I trusted that they knew what to do," she said.

Other red flags raised by investors surrounding Cotten's death included his name being spelled incorrectly on the death certificate and his closed casket funeral. That led to speculation that Cotten may have faked his own death.

Cotten is shown on his laptop during one of his trips with Robertson. (Jennifer Robertson)

After Michael Perklin met Cotten at a cryptocurrency meetup, they became friends and Perklin later became an investor. While he lost thousands of dollars when Quadriga shut down, he said adding up the losses of friends and family to whom he had recommended the trading platform, the total sits at more than $1 million.

Perklin said he has no evidence Cotten is still alive, however. "Everything that I knew about Gerry seems to have been a lie. But looking at the information that I do know now, I do think he'd be the type of person who could orchestrate that."

Small said exhuming the body would be one way to lay those theories to rest.

"Some people think Gerald is still alive, somewhere — he's at the beach, sipping a Mai Tai; he's benefiting from all of the millions that were stolen from investors. And exhuming the body would be a really huge step. It'd be a form of closure for some people," said Small.

Robertson told CBC News she knew nothing of the widespread fraud her husband had committed.  (Submitted by Jennifer Robertson )

Robertson said while she isn't firmly against the idea of an exhumation, she was with Cotten when he died. "I saw Gerry die, I was holding his hand when he passed away. It was a terrible, terrible moment," she said.

Roberston said she's sorry for Cotten's actions and the harm he's caused. 

"I would have never, ever stolen from other people. And the fact that he did what he did — I carry his shame with me. And I'll carry that shame with me, probably, every single day for the rest of my life," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. She lives in Halifax. In 2018 she helped lead a team of reporters and editors to win the RTDNA Ron Laidlaw Continuing Coverage Award for work on the Deep Trouble series. The series delved into the plight of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. She can be reached at cassandra.williams@cbc.ca, on Twitter @cassiehwilliams

With files from Andrew Chang and CBC's The National

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