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Is Gerald Cotten, the late CEO of Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX really dead?
That's just one of the questions explored in the documentary Dead Man's Switch a crypto mystery (part of the 2021 Hot Docs festival), which takes you on a deep, but explanatory, dive into the mysterious death that left $215 million dollars in cash and cryptocurrency missing.
Back in 2018, 30-year-old Cotten took a trip to India with his now widow Jennifer Robertson for their honeymoon and to open an orphanage. Nine days later Cotten is believed to have died due to complications of Crohn's disease, with Robertson announcing the death publicly a month later.
It was determined that Cotten was the only person who could access QuadrigaCX funds, the cold wallet, with his widow not even able to unlock his personal computer, leaving people without their money, including entire life savings for some.
Cotten's death came after Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) froze an account controlled by QuadrigaCX with around $25 million. Previous reports found that co-founder Michael Patryn is actually convicted felon Omar Dhanani, who served time in the U.S. for his role in the Shadow Crew identify theft and credit card fraud ring.
The Ontario Securities Commission found that Cotten was operating a Ponzi scheme, ultimately crediting himself with false currency and crypto-asset balances, which he traded with unsuspecting clients of QuadrigaCX.
The timing of Cotten's death led many to question whether he really did die in India or if this is a "dead man's switch" situation, the concept of something becoming activated or deactivated if the human owner dies. In the film, the question arises of whether a mechanism was setup where, for example, if someone doesn't put their password in for 30 days, the private keys can be sent to someone else.
'It's no Tiger King, it's Canada and people like their privacy'
The film's director, Sheona McDonald, kind of fell into the idea when she went to dinner with a broadcaster and asked if they had a film about cryptocurrency. It turned out they didn't and that led her on a journey to dive deep into this world. She started dabbling in cryptocurrency with QuadrigaCX and saw the notice that Cotten had passed away and everything was frozen.
"I thought, this is why I have this development money, this is what I'm supposed to be doing," McDonald told Yahoo Canada.
The filmmaker speaks to several cryptocurrency experts in the film, in addition to reporters who covered QuadrigaCX extensively before, during and after Cotten's death, and people who were directly impacted and lost significant amounts of money.
Canadian Tong Zou is one QuadrigaCX creditorfeatured in Dead Man's Switch a crypto mystery, who lost his life savings, more than $500,000, and had to sell his apartment in San Francisco to try to crawl out of debt.
"Finding the characters or the people whose lives were really directly impacted by it was very hard to do," McDonald said. "It's no Tiger King, it's Canada and people like their privacy."
The filmmaker also lost a little bit of money when she was "messing around" with cryptocurrency, and admits that she fell into many of traps that she was warned about.
"That was good just to realize the vulnerability and if you don't have it, don't play with it," McDonald said. "And if it's too good to be true, it probably is."
"I realized as much as I know, I don't know anything, and there [are] always people who know more. So it's a really interesting world, but be careful."
Robertson did not accept the filmmaker's request to be interviewed for the film, neither did other members Cotten's family, which McDonald admits would have helped "humanize" the widow as a character in this story.
"It would have been great to chat with her, to hear perspective," she said. "The more information you have, the more you can do with the story."
"There's only two people who really know what happened in India."
Even without that key voice, the film is still an intriguing look at this odd cases, and McDonald is able to explain the cryptocurrency concepts that anyone would need to really understand how that world works, in a way that doesn't impact the pace of the story.
"I do not want to lose sight of the fact that Gerald was a person and there was a widow left behind and a family grieving," the filmmaker said. "I think using his videos, where you actually see him, hopefully make him more human, even though those people wouldn't talk to us."