The Ballad of Heather Morgan and Ilya Lichtenstein, Bitcoin’s Bonnie and Clyde

It was round 3 a.m. the primary time they arrived. An unmarked, nondescript government-issued car pulled as much as the towering brown brick and blue glass constructing in downtown Manhattan recognized just by its deal with: 75 Wall Avenue. The town that by no means sleeps was in that uncommon second when the ostinato of automobile horns and rattling subway automobiles had been changed by a deep, albeit temporary, slumber. The brokers stepped out of their car and walked by means of the revolving doorways of the 42-story constructing, crossing the shiny white oak flooring of the foyer to achieve the doorman on responsibility that evening. It was 2021, within the midst of the second wave of the COVID pandemic, and the underside 18 flooring of “75,” which had initially opened because the Andaz Resort, had shuttered due to the virus. Seeing anybody at this hour was uncommon for the doorman, however seeing a bunch of federal brokers was an utter anomaly.

“We’re selecting up alerts that somebody on this constructing is trafficking youngster pornography,” one of many brokers mentioned to the doorman. “We have to go as much as the roof to see if we will monitor the place the sign is coming from.” The doorman, although barely stunned, obliged and pointed the way in which to the elevators.

Because the brokers stepped in one of many constructing’s 4 elevators, the doorman questioned which resident of the 346-unit constructing, the place condos can price as a lot as $7 million, could possibly be trafficking youngster porn. After some time, the brokers got here again to the foyer and left the constructing.

A few weeks glided by and the feds returned. And once more a couple of weeks after that. At one level, the evening doorman provided them a little bit investigative recommendation. “You certain you’re in the proper constructing?” he mentioned. “Appears extra like one thing you’d discover at 95 Wall Avenue?” Certainly, 95 was way more malefic than 75. Over that very same summer season of 2021, the shiny glass constructing throughout the road had been the location of a sequence of drug busts by the NYPD; opinions of the constructing on-line had referred to as it a haven for coke sellers, gangsters, and all-night Airbnb events. Most just lately, a high-end escort had been killed there, stuffed right into a 55-gallon drum and wheeled out the again door earlier than being dumped in New Jersey.

“Nope,” the brokers mentioned. “Undoubtedly this constructing.” And off they went to the roof once more. Then, one night, the sample modified. The brokers confirmed an curiosity in a single particular ground. The sign they have been after, it appeared, was getting stronger.

In actuality, the brokers weren’t at 75 due to youngster pornography. The crime they tracked there had initially taken place in Hong Kong in the summertime of 2016, when somebody had discovered a flaw within the code of the Bitfinex crypto trade and stolen 119,754 Bitcoin, price round $72 million on the time. Its worth had since grown 70-fold and was now within the billions. After a half decade monitoring and tracing, climbing on roofs and skulking by means of the lifeless of evening, the feds had lastly—lastly!—discovered the individuals who had one way or the other gotten their fingers on that stolen Bitcoin. A married couple of their early 30s, with a wild on-line presence and a Bengal cat named Clarissa (who had her personal Instagram account). The husband, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, a Russian-born émigré, was an investor and part-time mentalist magician. His spouse, Heather “Razzlekhan” Morgan, who was from the U.S., was an entrepreneur, journalist, and rapper.

That was just the start, as I found in additional than 50 interviews with mates and former colleagues of the couple, investigators near the case, and staff and residents of 75 Wall Avenue. Because the feds have been about to search out out, this might show to be one of many strangest circumstances within the ever-evolving world of crypto crime—and the primary clue of simply how weird this case would turn out to be was sitting proper there on the couple’s social media accounts.

“RAZZLE, DAZZLE, BITCHEZ!”

Ah, Bitcoin, a brand new period of cash. That invention-slash-ideology that promised to usher in an period of glittering, glowing, frolicking monetary technotopia. Our technology’s fiscal Woodstock! And by God, did the web want it. Again on the flip of the aughts, when this weird Bitcoin factor was slowly being squeezed from the start canals of the net’s most arcane boards, monetary anonymity merely didn’t exist on-line. To procure one thing digitally, and a database someplace was tattooed with each microscopic element about you.

Bitcoin, which made its hushed debut in 2009, promised to alter that. It went on to upend the worldwide monetary panorama in ways in which nobody might have ever believed potential (anybody who tells you they foresaw the world we stay in right now is both a liar or a Bitcoin billionaire). Crypto now makes up $3 trillion in wealth, and the world’s largest monetary establishments, together with Chase and the Financial institution of England, cite digital currencies as the way forward for finance, though a significant collapse in worth this 12 months has even some true believers questioning if that prediction will pan out.

The rise of cryptocurrencies additionally introduced with it a brand new period of crime not like something we’ve ever seen earlier than. Websites quickly popped up on the darkish internet that made it straightforward to purchase medicine, weapons, homicide, faux diplomas, ricin, physique components, bombs, rocket launchers, and even uranium, all utilizing Bitcoin. And some years later, due to that promise of monetary anonymity, got here the rise of a comparatively obscure crime referred to as the ransomware assault, the place an organization’s or particular person’s pc system is taken hostage and the one approach to unlock it’s by paying a payment in—you guessed it—crypto. Whereas this sort of pc hijacking dates to the early ’90s, cost was usually made by money or bank card, and as such, was few and much between. Final 12 months, the FBI launched a report saying there are actually 4,000 ransomware assaults every single day (in comparison with seven financial institution robberies a day), and that on-line perpetrators stole $14 billion in Bitcoin in 2021 alone (conventional financial institution robbers, by comparability, solely received away with a pair hundred million). Due to the convenience of crypto, hospitals are actually taken hostage and held at monetary gunpoint. Banks and hedge funds grind to a halt. Even a meatpacking plant was just lately pressured to pay $11 million in Bitcoin to get entry to its beef patties, hen cutlets, and pork sausages.

Then there are the opposite crimes, the place new waves of hackers phish, spoof, rootkit, worm, cloak, and brute-force their means into stealing all types of digital property, from NFTs to actually (and typically figuratively) making off with hundreds of thousands in digital gold.

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