Gerald Cotten was too good to be true. He had thick sweeps of strawberry-blond hair, boyish enthusiasm and the kind of sunny disposition that made people want to be around him.
When the 30-year-old died — unexpectedly and mysteriously — in 2018, some $250 million worth of Canadian cash and cryptocurrency also went missing. Around 75,000 customers of Cotten’s QuadrigaCX crypto exchange suddenly lost fortunes they had earmarked for everything from tuition to retirement funds, life savings and mortgages.
Cotten now stands accused of perpetrating an ultra-modern Ponzi scheme, powered by technology and 21st century cunning. And some investors are suspicious that he may have faked his own death.
The story, as chronicled in a new documentary, “Dead Man’s Switch,” streaming on Discovery+ Thursday, began in 2014 when Cotten and Michael Patryn launched Quadriga.
“It was one of the only games in town [for crypto enthusiasts],” Sheona McDonald, who directed the doc, told The Post. “You transferred them $1,000 and you could see the crypto in your account. I think there were a couple years when it ran legitimately … I don’t think Gerry could have imagined a future with money pouring in the way it eventually did.”
Few knew, however, that the two partners had already cut their teeth on identity frauds, money laundering, pyramid schemes and other questionable get-rich-quick gambits.
Cotten grew up in Belleville, Ontario, nicknamed the Friendly City. His parents owned an antiques shop and he graduated from Toronto’s York University with a bachelor’s degree in business economics.
In the early 2000s, he met Patryn, who was six years older and has a mysterious past. According to Vanity Fair, Patryn was arrested in Southern California, where he lived with his family, and pleaded guilty to conspiring to transfer stolen identity documents. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison before being deported to Canada in 2007.
By then, he and Cotten had already communicated with one another on a message board called TalkGold. It focused on high-yield investments, which promised impossibly fast and high returns. The site is said to have attracted a strange brew of people who ranged from gullible suckers to sharp hustlers hoping to rope them in.
At 15 years old, Cotten put his first pyramid scheme into motion. According to Vanity Fair, it was dubbed S&S Investments and promised returns of up to 150 percent in just 48 hours. The sham ran for three months before shutting down with investors’ money disappearing.
By the time Cotten and Patryn launched their company, Quadriga — promoting it as a cheap and easy way for people to buy, sell and trade crypto at a time when it was an ordeal for the uninitiated — in 2014, they were already well versed in the dark arts.
Vancouver, according to David Gerard, who authored “Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum & Smart Contracts,” was the perfect place. “Canada is notorious for having a lot of nice, trustworthy people — and a buttload of others who exploit them,” Gerard told The Post. “Gerry, the front man in the operation, was a very charming fellow and Bitcoin fans are gullible. Talk to them about the future of money, throw in a few buzz words and they believe any garbage.”
Patryn would soon split after an alleged spat about whether or not to go public.
It didn’t hurt that Quadriga entered the crypto game at an opportune moment. It launched when Bitcoin sold for less than $300 per coin. During 2017, when the exchange was up to speed and running, the currency’s value jumped to $13,000. Investors could not get in their money quickly enough.
By then, Quadriga ruled as the largest crypto exchange in Canada, putting through more than $1 billion of transactions in 2017.
And Cotten made it easy. Rather than leaving customers to maintain their own digital wallets with 64-character codes — known as private keys — that were impossible to remember and disastrous if lost, Quadriga often held onto the crypto for them.
That would later be a problem. As McDonald put it, “If you don’t own your crypto key, you don’t own your crypto.”
She added that cashing out was often problematic for clients. “There were legitimate banking issues. Banks did not want to deal with crypto companies. [Employees of] Quadriga would bring you cash when they could” — and, depending on how hard you pressed for payment, that could take weeks. “They would bring it to you in shoe boxes or big envelopes,” McDonald said. “Or else, they would send checks through third-party payment processors.”
But all of that happened during the good times, when crypto was enjoying its upward surge. One year later, in 2018, the party had (temporarily) fizzled out. By December 2018, Bitcoin had dropped to $3,700 — still not bad if you bought it early, but terrible for the great majority who got in during the meteoric ascent.
“People wanted to withdraw and they couldn’t,” said Gerard, explaining that the shortfall was exasperated by a computer mishap that resulted in $14 million of Ethereum disappearing from Quadriga — and by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce freezing $21 million of Quadriga’s funds due to perceived financial irregularities.
“Gerry was smiling and telling people not to worry, promising them that they would get paid,” Gerard said. “But Quadriga was running out of money.”
As the crypto market tanked, month by month clients saw their life savings evaporating.
However, one person seemed perfectly flush through all of this: The Talented Mr. Cotten.
“He spent money like it was water,” said Gerard. “He and his wife [Jennifer] traveled the world. Gerry did everything [for the company] from his laptop.”
The couple jetted, often via private planes, to places like Paris, Hawaii and Morocco. There was the purchase of a $600,000 yacht, 17 homes in Canada (some of which were rented out), a Cessna 400 airplane that Cotten never got around to flying and a top-of-the-line Lexus.
“He would tell you that he ran a fabulous Bitcoin exchange,” Gerard said. “He would say he has money because he is a fabulous businessman.”
But, in reality, Gerard alleged, Cotten was nothing more than an old-fashioned embezzler with a modern angle: “He co-mingled customer funds and company funds. He dipped into customers’ money [to fuel his lifestyle].”
In December 2018, Cotten and Jennifer traveled to India for what was said to be a honeymoon. While there, they planned to fund an orphanage to be named in Cotten’s honor. Before leaving, according to Vanity Fair, he bragged about money going further in India than it does in Canada.
According to the documentary, Cotten had long suffered from Crohn’s disease but kept quiet about it. On Dec. 8, nine days after landing in India and having checked into the luxurious Oberoi Rajvilas Hotel in Jaipur, he was hit with severe stomach pain. Doctors at a nearby hospital initially wrote off the malady as traveler’s diarrhea. But blood work showed Cotten had developed septic shock. Within 24 hours, he suffered three heart attacks. The last one killed him.
On Jan. 14, 2019, more than a month after Cotten had passed away, the Quadriga community was notified of his death. They responded with shock and mourning — one described him as “a kind man with fine taste” — even as they struggled to withdraw money from his company.
On Jan. 31, as Quadriga filed for creditor protection, sadness turned to anger. A source in the film, identified only as “Ryan, a Quadriga creditor,” describes the overall feeling as “panic, worry, just a cocktail of negative emotions.”
“As soon as I saw that notice [on Quadriga’s Web site], I knew the money was gone,” said McDonald, who was not only making a movie about cryptocurrency but also modestly investing in it through Quadriga. “They were suspending payments.”
This was for good reason. According to a court filing, c$180 million was missing, c$250 million was owed to customers and the passcodes for company accounts were known only by Cotten. There was no “dead man’s switch,” which would have sent the codes to a predetermined source in the event that accounts went unopened for a period of days.
Among the hard-hit was Tong Zou, who works in technology and put money in Quadriga. “I ended up losing my life savings — I lost $400,000,” he said in the documentary. “I took out three loans from the bank and put it all into crypto. I put myself into a deep hole and the only way to dig out of it was to sell my house.”
Three years after Cotten’s murky death, most of the missing money has yet to materialize; the majority of what was found can be tied to funds frozen by the Canadian bank. Some believe that he unsuccessfully gambled with his clients’ money, shifting it into different currencies and trying to arbitrage — buying and selling securities or currencies simultaneously to capitalize on price differentials.
“Who knows?” said McDonald. “It could have been moved to other exchanges or sent to other people or converted to cash.”
Some have even questioned whether or not Cotten really died. In fact, jilted investors have requested to have the body exhumed.
A source in the doc goes so far as to bring up a substance known as “Haitian zombie powder” that can supposedly be used to fake death: “You appear dead for a few days, until you get the cure.”
Zou is “80 percent sure that [Cotten] is dead.”
McDonald agreed: “If he had been cremated in India, I would be more suspicious.”
According to the film, Cotten was embalmed in the anatomy department of a Jaipur medical college, no autopsy was done and the body got shipped back to Canada. He was buried five days after passing away. The closed-casket funeral took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Gerard takes a more fanciful view. “It is actually plausible that he is not dead — even though I have no idea how likely that is,” he told The Post. “I like the notion of there being an island out there, somewhere, where Gerry Cotten is sipping a cocktail.”