Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have announced a seizure of nearly $3.4 billion in Bitcoin from a 32-year-old real estate developer named James Zhong. Zhong recently pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with a scam pulled against the infamous "dark web" marketplace Silk Road some ten years ago before it was itself shut down by federal authorities.
The figure is enough to make the action the second-largest cryptocurrency seizure ever carried out by the Department of Justice. The raid happened back in November of last year, when investigators traced more than 50,000 bitcoins to Zhong that were the cyber-property of Silk Road founder (and convicted felon currently serving a life sentence) Ross Ulbricht. At the time of the seizure, Bitcoin was trading in the neighborhood of $60,000 which gave the cache a total value of $3.4 billion. At today's Bitcoin price of just under $19,000, the 50,000+ coins are worth around $900 million.
Side note: I just was alerted to an amazing Twitter thread that gets into all the nitty gritty details of James Zhong's story. Check this out if you're interested:
The US Government stole $3.6 Billion in #Bitcoin from Bitcointalk user Loaded, who stole it from Silk Road in 2012.
My man held 50k BTC through EVERY bear market, in Aug 2017 maxi dumps ALL his forked bcash for bitcoin, & HODLs that too! Let's dig into exactly what happened… pic.twitter.com/vWMazDv7jH
— FractalEncrypt ∞/21M (@FractalEncrypt) November 8, 2022
So here's what happened…
A decade ago, when he was still in his early 20s, James Zhong allegedly carried out a complex scheme against Silk Road by creating several phony Silk Road accounts and orchestrating more than a hundred automatic transactions that essentially tricked the platform into releasing large amounts of cryptocurrency into his own accounts. After transferring the money to his own legitimate accounts, the money was basically his – for the decade it took for the authorities to catch up to him, anyway.
Damian Williams is the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and he had this to say about the seizure in a press statement:
"For almost ten years, the whereabouts of this massive chunk of missing Bitcoin had ballooned into an over $3.3 billion mystery…Thanks to state-of-the-art cryptocurrency tracing and good old-fashioned police work, law enforcement located and recovered this impressive cache of crime proceeds."
The crypto was found in a popcorn tin tucked away in Zhong's bathroom closet, authorities say. Following the seizure, Zhong voluntarily surrendered another 1,000 bitcoins to investigators, and he's also pledged to cooperate to find the remaining missing tokens and provide technical know-how to access them.
In stealing from Silk Road, Zhong was essentially engaged in a Simon Templar-like activity of stealing money from a criminal enterprise, and since the money he stole came from crimes that Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence for, he's not on the hook for any victim restitution. Instead, he's agreed as part of his plea agreement to sign over the 80 percent stake he owned in a development company to the government.