If there is one thing Jennifer Robertson wants to make clear, it’s this: She had no idea about the massive fraud her deceased husband, Gerald Cotten, pulled off.
She did not know their gilded lifestyle – the yacht, the airplane, the houses, the private Maritime island they planned to develop and luxurious jaunts around the world – was financed with money that did not belong to them. Ms. Robertson believed her husband’s company, a cryptocurrency exchange incorporated as Quadriga Fintech Solutions Corp., was a legitimate business.
There is something else, too. “I want the people that Gerry hurt to know that I’m hurt, too. I know they were very hurt, and I know I can’t make it better,” she said. “I wish I could.”
Ms. Robertson has never spoken publicly in the three years since her life was blown apart. In December, 2018, Mr. Cotten died at the age of 30 while the couple were celebrating their honeymoon in India. The destination was her choice. Mr. Cotten was not fond of the idea of visiting India – he didn’t like crowds and worried about his Crohn’s disease – but they had donated money to an orphanage there and wanted to attend the opening. They never made it.
Shortly after landing in the city of Jaipur, Mr. Cotten fell seriously ill and was rushed to a hospital. Ms. Robertson was in a panic, calling a relative back home for information about his medical condition and watching as he writhed in pain, growing more and more pale. He spent the night at the hospital, but his condition only worsened. By that evening, he was dead, owing to a perforated bowel that led to cardiac arrest.
His death plunged Quadriga into chaos, creating panic among its users. The company owed about $215-million to its 76,000 clients, and no one could locate Quadriga’s cryptocurrency reserves to pay them out. Mr. Cotten left no instructions, appointed no successor and kept few records. He ran Quadriga from his laptop, overseeing millions of dollars in trades from his home office outside of Halifax, or wherever he happened to be.
Without him, Quadriga collapsed. The bulk of the money was gone, and the Ontario Securities Commission later concluded Mr. Cotten essentially ran a Ponzi scheme.
“I used to be so proud of him,” Ms. Robertson said in her first ever interview. “Then to find out what happened, and then just be so ashamed – it’s heartbreaking.”
Ms. Robertson has written about these events in a forthcoming memoir, co-authored with journalist Stephen Kimber. Bitcoin Widow: Love, Betrayal and the Missing Millions, details her life with Mr. Cotten and the years-long deception he orchestrated on Quadriga’s customers – and on her, she writes.
The book is an attempt to tell her side of a scandal that fuelled conspiracy theories and culminated in calls for Mr. Cotten’s grave to be exhumed. Some people speculated he faked his death and Ms. Robertson was involved. The trauma of it all pushed her to attempt to take her own life.
She knows some people will not believe her account. “I have to respect everybody’s opinions,” she said. “All I can do is tell my truth.”
Some of the truths about Quadriga are stranger – and, in the end, more mundane – than fiction. Details that at first seemed unbelievable turned out to be correct: Mr. Cotten really did die, they really were in India and the orphanage really exists.
But other elements have remained unexplained. Mr. Cotten signed a will less than two weeks before his death, for example, and Ms. Robertson worked briefly for the very company she has professed to know nothing about. She also changed her name not once, but twice. (So did Quadriga’s co-founder Michael Patryn, who concealed a criminal past and a stint in a U.S. federal prison.)
“I understand that all of these events leading up made everything look very suspicious,” Ms. Robertson said via video call from her small bedroom. “Many days I wake up and I’m still like, wow, that happened.” Now 33, she lives in Halifax with her two chihuahuas, Nitro and Gully. (Mr. Cotten’s will stipulated that if both he and his wife died, $100,000 should be set aside for the care of their dogs.)
During an interview with The Globe and Mail, she is at turns bubbly and tearful, effusive with praise for Mr. Cotten at times, but condemns his actions.
Everything, she said, can be explained, starting with her name changes. She was born Jennifer Griffith, but was never fond of her last name because it wasn’t elegant enough. When she married for the first time in 2012, she took on her new husband’s name: Forgeron.
They moved from Nova Scotia to Hamilton, but the marriage did not last (he had an affair) and she did not want to revert back to Griffith. Her sister suggested she choose a new name. How about Robertson? (Their father’s middle name was Robert.) She went with it.
She met Mr. Cotten on Tinder in 2014 while they were both living in Mississauga. His opening line was awkward – ”You have really white teeth” – and she was not impressed at first. He was too skinny and aloof, and she got the sense he was trying to show off that he operated an exchange for bitcoin, which she had never heard of.
But Mr. Cotten grew on her. He was smart, funny and knowledgeable about politics and current affairs. The pair would talk for hours “about everything and anything.” Before long, she realized she had never felt so close to anyone before.
As their lives intertwined, he asked her to help with Quadriga. Banks were wary of cryptocurrency companies owing to concerns about money laundering, and Mr. Cotten’s solution was to hire contractors to handle transactions for Quadriga customers on the company’s behalf.
To assist, she set up a firm called Robertson Nova Consulting Inc. to process payments for Quadriga. Mr. Cotten told her where to send funds and paid her a commission that typically amounted to $1,000 a month. She never made an effort to understand any more than that, she said.
Ms. Robertson said she stopped processing payments in 2016, after the couple moved to Nova Scotia and bought their first home in Fall River, a suburb of Halifax. However, customer receipts obtained by The Globe show that Robertson Nova Consulting continued to send payments in 2017. Ms. Robertson said she had turned everything over to Mr. Cotten by then. “I didn’t look at those accounts ever again.”
She was more interested in travelling at the time, and enjoying their newfound wealth. As Quadriga added customers and cryptocurrency prices soared, the couple amassed properties and jetted off to exotic locales. They stayed in expensive hotels, gambled in casinos and celebrated their wedding at a castle in Scotland in 2018. With money from Mr. Cotten, she started a property management business.
The couple had been discussing drawing up a will for months by that point, but always put it off. Shortly before their honeymoon in India, however, Ms. Robertson’s brother suffered a heart attack, finally spurring them into action. “I remember Gerry kind of being annoyed because we were about to go away and he didn’t want to go in together and sign,” she said. But their lawyer insisted.
Around that time, Mr. Cotten’s Crohn’s symptoms worsened. About $26-million of Quadriga’s funds were frozen by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in a dispute over who owned the money. Mr. Cotten was stressed and drinking heavily, two factors that can exacerbate the disease. Ms. Robertson planned to speak to him about his drinking after their honeymoon. She never got the chance.
After Mr. Cotten died, Ms. Robertson wanted to disappear into her grief, but she couldn’t: She had to help sort out the colossal mess he left behind. A Quadriga contractor she had never met before flew in from Britain, desperate to access Mr. Cotten’s laptops for the necessary information to keep the company running. She soon learned from the contractor that Quadriga was short more than $200-million.
More than a month passed before the company notified users that Mr. Cotten was dead. Quadriga was then placed in creditor protection and Ernst & Young (EY) appointed to oversee an investigation.
The delay fuelled suspicions among the exchange’s users that Ms. Robertson was hiding something. Some began to speculate that Mr. Cotten was not actually dead, and had absconded with their money. Searching for someone to blame, a vocal contingent settled on her. Ms. Robertson received threatening phone calls and text messages; on Reddit, some users fantasized about murdering her.
Part of the reason it took more than a month to announce his death, Ms. Robertson said, has to do with something called a “dead man’s switch.” Mr. Cotten set up a simple program that required him to check in periodically to provide proof of life. If he didn’t, an e-mail with passwords and account information would be sent to Ms. Robertson. That’s what he told her, anyway.
The e-mail never arrived. “That was another betrayal,” Ms. Robertson said. “He never set one up.”
In the days and weeks after his death, Ms. Robertson started learning troubling details about her deceased husband. An investigator hired to crack into Mr. Cotten’s devices prepared a psychological report describing him as someone who suffered from emotional distress, suppressed his feelings and did not experience relief from being close to others – all “psychopathic tendencies,” she writes in her book. She discovered from media reports that Mr. Cotten had a history of running online Ponzi schemes dating from the time he was 15 years old.
He was also incredibly private and paranoid about security, insisting on picking up his own mail and keeping his office door locked.
Today, she wonders if she should have questioned his secrecy, but notes that he bristled when his integrity was under scrutiny. Once, at a party, Ms. Robertson grew jealous when he talked to another woman and confronted him. “It is incredibly insulting that you would think that of me,” he told her. “I felt so much shame within that moment for not trusting him,” she recalled. “Now looking back, I feel that it was more manipulative.”
Ms. Robertson learned about the extent of her former husband’s deception during a phone call from her lawyer in 2019. EY, she was told, had completed its investigation and found that Mr. Cotten created fake Quadriga accounts, credited them with fake funds and made real trades, betting on the value of cryptocurrency.
His bets went the wrong way, creating a financial hole that grew by the day. He essentially treated Quadriga like a personal casino, mixing the company’s funds with his own. Ms. Robertson was shocked, and initially thought investigators had gotten it all wrong.
EY moved to seize Ms. Robertson’s assets to help compensate creditors. What she had thought belonged to her – including her real estate company – was now being wrested away from her. Ms. Robertson agreed to an asset preservation order and ultimately turned over $12-million worth of property and other belongings.
“I was trying so unbelievably hard to fix it and make it right for everybody,” she said. Her book makes clear she had no choice, however. Had she not agreed to the order, EY would have asked the court to put even more serious financial restrictions on her in its effort to recover assets.
The bleakest moment came in April, 2019, when, alone in her Halifax home, Ms. Robertson drank wine and swallowed multiple Ativan pills in hopes she would never wake up. She did, though, and called an ambulance and spent time in a short-stay psychiatric unit. Not even her mother knows about her suicide attempt. “I don’t even have the guts to tell her until she reads the book,” Ms. Robertson said.
She left the hospital grateful to be alive. Her feelings for Mr. Cotten, though, were as conflicted as ever. When Ms. Robertson turned over her assets to EY, she did not fight to keep her $80,000 engagement ring. Giving it up, she wrote in her book, “offered a small measure of vengeance” for all Mr. Cotten had done. Still, she kept her wedding band.
In the three years since her husband’s death, Ms. Robertson has been working to rebuild her life. She works part-time as a waitress while studying to become an elementary school teacher, and hopes to graduate in April.
One reason she wanted to write a memoir is to tell anyone else who is struggling that it’s possible to put the pieces together again. “It was really, really hard,” she said, “and some days I had wanted to absolutely give up.”
Ms. Robertson knows that putting herself back in the spotlight comes with risks, especially given that the book details her former ritzy lifestyle while Quadriga’s creditors have yet to receive any money back. (EY has recovered only $33-million, and the Canada Revenue Agency is assessing the company’s unpaid tax bill.)
This time, however, she’s prepared for any negative comments she might receive. “I feel that I’ve come so far in healing,” she said. “I don’t feel so vulnerable any more.” She now has other people to be strong for, she adds: Ms. Robertson is in a relationship, and she and her partner are expecting a daughter in March.
She is still trying to reconcile the two sides of Gerald Cotten. There is the man she said deceived her, whose name is infamous in crypto circles. Then there is the man she loved, who died in front of her. She has tried to honour him, commissioning a handcrafted wooden bench that now sits in their favourite spot, overlooking a lake on a walking trail in Mount Uniake, N.S. “I love the Gerry that I knew,” Ms. Robertson said. “I don’t know who this other person is, but he’s let me down so much.”
In retrospect, there were signs something was off. He once told her that if he dies, Quadriga dies with him. Millions of dollars in physical cash, destined for Quadriga customers making withdrawals, flowed through their house. Mr. Cotten personally stuffed envelopes with bills. He once asked Ms. Robertson to pick up cash from a Quadriga client, and she retrieved thousands of dollars in cash. Did she really not suspect anything?
”I feel like he kind of went above and beyond to make everything look up to par,” she said. He complained to her about paying corporate taxes (even though Quadriga did not) and the company was registered with Canada’s anti-money-laundering agency. She is not the only person he fooled, she said. Quadriga, she adds, was entirely his endeavour. “I just felt like I really didn’t need to know – and bitcoin was really confusing.”
She is haunted by one question: Why did Gerry do what he did? Some days, she thinks he was just a gambler trying to bet his way out of a hole. Other days, when she’s feeling angry toward him, she thinks he acted out of a selfish desire to get rich. Ms. Robertson hopes his motivation was not as sinister as that, but she will never know. “I can’t get any answers from him,” she said. “I have to live in that mystery every day.”
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