When Gerald Cotten and Jennifer Robertson made plans to honeymoon in Jaipur, India, last December, they had a lot to look forward to. They had a reservation at the Oberoi Rajvilas, a luxurious resort where peacock calls echo across the verdant grounds. The self-professed “lifelong travellers” had recently been married, and the couple told the hotel they were coming to celebrate their nuptials in the Pink City, where marvels of historical architecture and riches collide with the pell-mell of life in modern India.
They arranged for a luxury SUV to pick them up at the airport, where their flight was scheduled to touch down at 5:15 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2018.
Fifty-five minutes later, they arrived at the Oberoi, where guards salute visitors and lead them to an entrance where water burbles down a stone channel into a basin filled with rose petals, a fragrant homage to the nearby palace that was a royal residence for centuries of maharajas.
Arriving here they were, for a moment, a modern-day king and queen, the latest adventure for a couple whose lives were studded with signs of affluence.
But Mr. Cotten, the head of the QuadrigaCX cryptocurrency exchange, was unwell, and the events that would unfold over the next 24 hours would leave him dead in a Jaipur hospital – thrusting him and the circumstances surrounding his death into the international spotlight. The exchange, now under creditor protection, owes roughly $250-million to 115,000 people – and almost three-quarters of the funds cannot be located. Only Mr. Cotten held the passwords to encrypted vaults that could offer clues to the whereabouts of that money.
In the weeks since Quadriga Fintech Solutions Corp. belatedly made his death public, the exchange’s furious users have raised questions about what happened, why Mr. Cotten was in India – and even whether he was actually dead.
What happened to him is a mystery with profound consequences, not only for users whose life savings hang in the balance, but also for the future of Canada’s trade in digital currencies, an unregulated industry whose lack of investor protections has been exposed in ghastly fashion by Mr. Cotten’s passing.
Globe and Mail reporters travelled to Mr. Cotten’s childhood home in Ontario, to the places he lived and worked – and occasionally flaunted his wealth – in Nova Scotia and to the Indian city where he breathed his last breath in a bid to better understand how he died, but also to get a glimpse at how a man who carried the keys to vast sums of other people’s money lived.
That Mr. Cotten did indeed die is a certainty among police and medical professionals in India, and The Globe reviewed hotel, hospital and embalming records that give no suggestion of anything abnormal. Each record contains images of Mr. Cotten’s passport. Jayant Sharma, the doctor who treated him and produced a medical report about his death, confirmed that the man he saw matched photos of Mr. Cotten.
Still, Mr. Cotten died under circumstances that Dr. Sharma and a local embalmer – who refused to prepare his body for transport from India – found unusual, and the details The Globe uncovered about his final hours only add to the enigma surrounding Mr. Cotten.
To friends and family, the couple had described their trip as an act of charity. Quadriga released a statement on Jan. 14 saying Mr. Cotten had gone to India to open “an orphanage to provide a home and safe refuge for children in need.”
But the couple only planned to spend two hours of a weeks-long honeymoon at the orphanage they had paid to build – though their donation was insufficient to equip the home with doors, even to its bathroom, and leaves the man caring for the orphans in crippling debt.
And The Globe’s reporting reveals a man with an appetite for luxury, who, together with his new wife, spent as if money was no object.
“The guy had more money than he knew what to do with,” said Eric Schletz, who got to know Mr. Cotten at a small flying club in Nova Scotia. “I’ve seen Gerry walk through an airport with $50,000 in cash. That’s the scale of money the guy had. He was a very reasonable person. But if he was going to spend the money, he was going to buy something nice.”
In India, that included stays at some of the finest accommodations, on a tour that would be the envy of most travellers.
Documents gathered by The Globe show that the couple arrived in New Delhi on Nov. 30, entering the country on tourist visas. An image posted to Instagram shows the couple beaming at the Taj Mahal in Agra, one of the country’s best-known attractions. They also spent time in Varanasi, the ancient city on the banks of the Ganges that is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites.
On Dec. 8, they landed in Jaipur.
They planned to spend four nights in the city, according to their booking with the Oberoi, which sent an Audi Q7 to the airport to pick them up, according to e-mails obtained by The Globe. A hotel built as a modern-day palace, the Oberoi was ranked the second-best resort hotel in the country last year by Travel + Leisure, outranking even the city’s actual palace, the Rambagh, where Jacqueline Kennedy once stayed.
Ms. Robertson had booked a deluxe room at $923 a night (the Oberoi does not accept bitcoin for payment). Asked by the hotel to specify if they were travelling for a special occasion, she wrote: “Our honeymoon.”
Jaipur has long been a city of royal pursuits, studded with palaces and jewellers. At the Amber Fort, a palace overlooking the city, exquisite marble decorations – delicate butterflies and flowers etched into white stone, with inlaid accents of black that echo the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Taj Mahal – offer a vivid testament to the privilege that has accumulated here.
The Oberoi offers a chance not just to imagine a historic life of opulence, but to relive it, with service worthy of monarchs and 13-hectare grounds deliberately established at a remove from the city. “It was built in the memory of a fort,” said Abhishek Sharma, the hotel’s general manager.
Arriving guests are greeted by staff who offer chilled towels and flutes of a sandalwood rosewater infusion.
Mr. Cotten and Ms. Robertson checked in at 6:10 p.m.
But soon after, Mr. Cotten “complained that he has got some pain in his stomach,” said Anand Srivastava, Jaipur’s police commissioner. A hotel doctor saw him, “but could not do much” and, not long after they arrived, the couple left the hushed solace of their resort for the frenetic streets of the city, where tuk-tuks and motorcycles dart past sidewalk vendors, occasionally dodging a cart pulled by a camel.
They headed to Fortis Escorts Hospital, part of a private health-care chain. Other hospitals in Jaipur are grim places, with bathrooms that have no soap and patients milling about in hallways. Fortis, located behind a high wall along a tree-lined street, is a more modern operation. It boasts that it offers some of the best medical care in the country.
Mr. Cotten and Ms. Robertson arrived at 9:45 p.m. He “was admitted with symptoms of acute gastroenteritis,” said Dr. Sharma, a gastroenterologist.
Mr. Cotten had vomited 10 times, reported 15 episodes of watery stools, had experienced “crampy abdominal pain and some back discomfort,” was feverish and had a background of Crohn’s disease, according to a death report prepared by Dr. Sharma.
Still, the initial diagnosis pointed to little more than traveller’s diarrhea. Mr. Cotten showed no signs of distress. His blood pressure and pulse were both normal. Medically speaking, he was stable. Dr. Sharma prescribed antibiotics. Mr. Cotten spent the night in a private room, where Ms. Robertson also stayed.
Some time around noon the next day, with his condition little changed from the night before, hospital staff took Mr. Cotten for an ultrasound.
Then his condition took a sharp turn. He became “fulminant,” Dr. Sharma said, a medical term describing a rapid and severe deterioration.
“He became restless and developed respiratory stress as well. We shifted him to the intensive-care unit immediately,” Dr. Sharma said. Mr. Cotten’s abdomen showed signs of stiffness, a potential indication of perforation.
By that point, neither a CT scan nor surgery were possible. “There was no option, because first we had to stabilize him. He didn’t give enough time,” Dr. Sharma said.
At 2:45 p.m., Mr. Cotten went into cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated, but his blood pressure was low, and he was placed on a ventilator. He went into cardiac arrest again and was resuscitated once more.
“But the third time he could not be revived,” Dr. Sharma said.
At 7:26 p.m., Mr. Cotten was declared dead.
Dr. Sharma listed the cause as sudden cardiac arrest stemming from a perforation. Blood tests showed elevated levels of white blood cells, an indication of sepsis.
It is a medically credible conclusion. Mr. Cotten’s rapid demise is consistent with what might happen to someone with Crohn’s disease who was suffering from septic shock, said Brian Feagan, a London, Ont.-based doctor who specializes in the illness.
It’s rare for people to die of Crohn’s – in recent years, mortality rates have declined, Dr. Feagan said. But, he noted, it can happen. “If he perforated [his bowel] – well, people can get really sick really fast.”
In a statement released Friday, Ms. Robertson confirmed her husband’s medical condition and said he was “no stranger to this kind of discomfort.” As to why he made a will just before the trip to India, she said he did so on the advice of their lawyer. She also confirmed some of the details of their trip, but declined to speak to The Globe.
No autopsy was done on Mr. Cotten and, two months later, his rapid death still troubles Dr. Sharma. “I revisited it many times in my mind. We did everything we could,” he said.
Still, what happened was “medically unusual,” he said, “the way he got serious suddenly.” Asked if he was certain about what happened, he said: “Not at all.” His conclusion was based on “one of the best guesses” of what took a 30-year-old man from a luxury hotel to his deathbed in little more than 24 hours.
“We are not sure about the diagnosis,” he said.
It was only the beginning of the macabre uncertainties that would unfold.
On the morning of Dec. 10, Anoop Singh’s phone rang, with a request from Fortis Escorts Hospital for a “no objection certificate,” a police declaration that clears a death of suspicion of foul play. A body can’t be removed from the country without it.
Mr. Singh is the station house officer for Jawahar Circle, the district in which the hospital is located. He works out of the second floor of a small police station, where a bundle of roses lies next to a wall hanging of a Hindu scene lit with flashing pink LEDs. His conversation is regularly interrupted by two phones that ring every few minutes and a radio that chirps loudly.
The day Mr. Cotten died, he did not meet Ms. Robertson, nor did he speak with her. But he recalls speaking with the superintendent of the hospital about Mr. Cotten. He issued the no objection certificate soon after.
“We just need to know that it’s a natural death or not, and we took the copies of the passport and we got the records from the hospital, which said it was a natural death. After that, we don’t need any other documents,” Mr. Singh said.
“It was a very natural case. We only learned it was suspicious when media started asking questions.”
Others, however, found cause for questions.
One of them was Simmi Mehra, who works out of an office deep inside the cement corridors of Mahatma Gandhi Medical College & Hospital, where she heads the anatomy department.
Dr. Mehra had no difficulty remembering Mr. Cotten’s death.
“I was asked to embalm his body – and I refused,” she said.
Bodies need to be embalmed for transport, and Fortis Escorts Hospital often sends the non-Indian dead to her; last year, she embalmed four foreign babies. Usually bodies are brought to her by ambulance.
But Mr. Cotten’s body, she was told, was in the hands of the hotel, and some time on Dec. 10, a hotel representative arrived at her office.
He said Mr. Cotten had died of a heart attack, but he had no other documentation and couldn’t answer Dr. Mehra’s questions about whether the dead man had suffered from AIDS, or cancer or other ailments. Dr. Mehra performs embalming herself – a two-hour procedure that costs $131 – and says even a perforated intestine is important information, as it affects the embalming procedure.
When the person from the hotel had no further information, Dr. Mehra turned him down, telling him to go instead to the SMS Medical College, a state institution. At public embalming operations, police are often present, she said. But she works at a private hospital, away from police scrutiny, and has developed a wariness over the bodies sent her way. She recounts an episode of a soldier who arrived covered in bruises – including on his toes – which she saw as evidence of torture.
She had no proof of anything untoward with Mr. Cotten – and admitted she tends to be especially vigilant.
But the circumstances nonetheless left her feeling uncomfortable.
“That guy told me the body will come from the hotel. I said: ‘Why the hotel? I’m not taking any body from the hotel, it should come from Fortis.’ ”
Staff at SMS Medical College, where the Oberoi workers went next, asked fewer questions.
“As far as the cause of death is concerned, it is none of our business. Our business is just to infuse the chemicals in the body for preservative purposes,” said Dhiraj Saxena, an anatomy professor at SMS.
The college is located in a low-slung building that opens to a verdant inner courtyard, where corridors are lined with biographies of Nobel laureates and other medical notables, including Hippocrates. In one room, two skeletons stand in wood-and-glass cases – one of them with what look to be orange Ping-Pong balls in its eye sockets – under a sign that spells “ANATOMY WELCOMES YOU” entirely in bones. The room is a museum, and embalming is done elsewhere, the department’s head, Sangita Chauhan, said.
A junior staffer processed Mr. Cotten’s body, and SMS issued an embalming certificate at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 10. Dr. Chauhan did not see the body. But she laughed at rumours that Mr. Cotten has faked his demise.
“Oh, he’s dead,” she said.
SMS records examined by The Globe show the body was delivered and picked up by Oberoi representatives. The records include a copy of an Oberoi employee’s driver’s licence, along with a phone number that rang through to the Oberoi security department. A person who answered the phone said it was inappropriate for a journalist to be asking questions about what happened. Mr. Sharma, the hotel’s general manager, did not respond to a request for comment on the hotel’s involvement.
But if the handling of Mr. Cotten’s body was unusual, Jaipur police see no reason to believe anything out of the ordinary took place, said Mr. Srivastava, the police commissioner.
His wife “didn’t complain. If something [bad] happened to him, his wife should complain,” Mr. Srivastava said.
He added that the hospital called the death a natural one, and “we don’t have any suspicion.“
On Dec. 13, Mr. Cotten’s death was registered with the Government of Rajasthan Directorate of Economics and Statistics, which works out of a cramped ground-floor office on a busy street stacked high with colourful paper files. The death certificate, obtained by The Globe, lists his address at time of death as the Oberoi Rajvilas.
But by the time his death was registered, Ms. Robertson was long gone. She had checked out of the Oberoi at 3:04 p.m. on Dec. 10, reimbursing the hotel by credit card for $1,640 in cash sent to the hospital.
Before she left Jaipur, she sent an e-mail to staff at the orphanage, saying the couple could not attend the opening because Mr. Cotten had died. She was, she wrote, “bringing his body home to Canada.”
“Gerry passed away from cardiac arrest,” she wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Globe.
“He was a really beautiful human being and passed away so young. I am heart broken but trying to stay strong for him.”
On her way home with the body, she was met in New Delhi by staff of the Canadian High Commission, she said in her statement on Friday. She landed in Toronto and flew back to Halifax on Dec. 11, where a funeral service was held on Dec. 14.
Not long after arriving home, Ms. Robertson had another aviation issue to worry about: her husband’s plane.
On Dec. 14 or 15, she called Denyse Sibley, a radio host who manages the Truro Flying Club as a second job and can’t recall the exact date of the call.
The club operates out of a building at the end of 44 Spitfire Rd. in Debert, N.S., a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it farming community about 100 kilometres northwest of Halifax.
This is where Mr. Cotten parked the plane he bought in 2017. Transport Canada records show the Cessna 400 was registered in February of that year by a company called Megacorp Inc., which has a Toronto mailing address and is connected to Mr. Cotten. The plane’s market price at the time was about half a million dollars.
Mr. Cotten rarely made the hour-long drive to Debert and kept to himself when he did, making few friends. Everyone, however, noticed his gleaming, enviable plane. They also noticed that the machine seemed perpetually grounded.
“It’s like the upscale Cadillac of Cessnas,” Ms. Sibley said. But “it didn’t fly much.”
Mr. Schletz was managing the club when Mr. Cotten bought his plane. The pair became friendly. Mr. Schletz said in a telephone interview that he was reluctant to speak about his deceased friend.
Still, he did confirm that Mr. Cotten rarely flew the plane.
“What happens is a guy buys a cool plane, something a bit too powerful, and it scares him,” Mr. Schletz said. “Flying is a perishable skill. Anyone who buys a hot plane needs to fly it every weekend to be safe and good. If you don’t, you get scared. And then you stop flying altogether.”
When Ms. Sibley took over as manager in December, 2017, part of her job involved figuring out who Mr. Cotten was – and why he wasn’t paying his bills.
“I tried to track him down for months. I couldn’t find him. He’s just a mystery guy,” she said. While it only costs about $50 a month to tie down a plane at Debert, Mr. Cotten was always behind on his invoices. She said he did not fly his plane at all during her time as manager.
“Even long before that, it sat out there on the lot. Everybody looked at it and admired it,” she said.
Mr. Cotten did not respond to her e-mails, but was quick on text communications. Ms. Sibley said she contacted him more than once about moving the plane to protect it in severe weather and about paying his bills. Her last communication with him was on Nov. 20, 2018, according to a text message archive.
It reads: “I’m currently in Toronto about to fly to India to open an orphanage. I’ve somewhat overextended myself. My apologies for any extra burden I’ve placed on you. Feel free to move my plane further from the fuel tanks or alternately I can send my assistant up ASAP.”
That was 10 days before they landed in India.
Ms. Sibley next attempted to text Mr. Cotten in mid-December. He never responded.
Then Ms. Robertson called.
Ms. Sibley recalled saying, “ ‘How’s the orphanage going?’ That’s when she said, ‘Gerry’s dead. Promise not to tell anybody.’ ” Ms. Robertson did not specify why her husband’s death had to be kept secret.
On Jan. 10, Ms. Sibley called Ms. Robertson because someone was interested in buying the plane. She asked Ms. Robertson if she wanted to sell the aircraft.
“She said, ‘Yes, as soon as possible.' "
Ms. Sibley said she wanted to let the potential buyer know why the plane was for sale, so she asked Ms. Robertson if she could disclose that Mr. Cotten had died. Ms. Robertson agreed.
None of Ms. Robertson’s family members have responded to requests for comment. Little is known about Ms. Robertson, who appears to have used three different surnames since she began buying real estate in Nova Scotia with Mr. Cotten in 2016.
Both worked out of their home in Fall River, N.S.
While Mr. Cotten ran Quadriga, Ms. Robertson worked as a property manager for Robertson Nova Property Management. As the company’s sole director, she incorporated in June, 2017, and acquired more than $6-million in properties in and around Halifax.
Signs of Mr. Cotten’s wealth occasionally appeared as well at his childhood home in Belleville, a Southern Ontario city of 50,000 located at the mouth of the Moira River. His parents, Bruce and Cheryl, ran Quinte Antiques there and live in a large brick house with blue siding and arched windows and doorways. Everyone on their tree-lined street pitches in for snow-removal services, and they take turns picking up each other’s mail.
Neighbours described how, in recent years, Mr. Cotten’s dark-blue Lexus would occasionally appear in his parents’ driveway. Just months before his death, his parents were excitedly heading off to Scotland for a celebration of their son’s wedding, one said. He had an air of being successful, but he wasn’t flashy, said the neighbours, all of whom declined to be named out of respect for the grieving family.
Online, however, the couple left signs of a jet-set lifestyle. On an Instagram account that appears to have been operated by Ms. Robertson, she describes herself as a “travel addict and globetrotter,” noting she has visited 35 countries. The pictures, posted between January, 2016, and April, 2017, reveal a whirlwind travel schedule. There are shots from more than a dozen countries, including a market in Oman, pagodas in Myanmar and a beachfront resort in the Maldives, often with the hashtag #luxurytravel.
“Sippin’ Singapore Slings on my 28th!” reads the caption next to a poolside shot posted from the Hilton Hotels & Resorts in Dubai. Mr. Cotten does not appear in any of the pictures, though “Gerry” is mentioned in a comment on a photo from Austria.
But in Belleville, Quinte Antiques has been shuttered. A sign affixed to its storefront, roughly nine kilometres west of the family’s home, directs visitors to its online auction house. And when The Globe visited the Cottens’ house on a snowy weekday morning, the driveway was unshovelled and no one answered the door. No one had seen the Cottens in about three weeks; some said they were on vacation, but no one seemed to know where.
In India, meanwhile, even the couple’s act of charity has left questions – and financial pain.
Mr. Cotten and Ms. Robertson planned to leave Jaipur for Hyderabad on Dec. 12 and spend the night at the ITC Kohenur, a five-star hotel overlooking a lake in the southern city, which has become a high-tech metropolis.
Early the next day, representatives of Angel House, a California-based charity that has built 191 orphanages in India, planned to pick them up in a Toyota Innova and drive them east, passing the entrance to Ramoji Film City, the world’s largest studio, past rice paddies with egrets and water buffalo – perhaps even past a colourful religious procession with transgender dancers offering praise to the Hindu goddess Poleramma.
Eventually, they would have come upon a small industrial region where a cluster of tin-roofed factories hoist giant granite boulders and slice them into thin sheets.
In Venkatapuram, the asphalt gives way to a road of granulated cinder blocks impassable by car.
This is where, on Dec. 13, Rama Rao Cherukupalli had erected a tent for a grand opening ceremony outside a small new concrete building, painted mint green with orange trim. It is Jennifer Robertson & Gerald Cotten House, an orphanage largely built with money the couple donated to Angel House. The charity tells donors they can build a 12-child home like this one from just US$21,350.
“As lifelong travelers, we wanted to offer our assistance,” Ms. Robertson said in her statement.
It was this orphanage that Mr. Cotten and Ms. Robertson said they were coming to open. It was made “possible because he worked so hard. He built his company from the ground up,” Ms. Robertson wrote in an e-mail to Angel House.
The couple planned to ”spend two hours there for dedication, and we planned for them to eat with the children,” said Stephen Chittibabu, who works with Angel House in India, where its homes house 4,285 children.
The charity regularly posts to Facebook pictures and videos of people opening orphanages, surrounded by smiling children. Donors “want to see their money being used. And they want to meet their angels,” Mr. Chittibabu said. “We don’t call them orphans. Once you and I are taking care of the children, they are no more orphans.”
Others spend as many as three days at the orphanages their dollars have built. The brevity of Mr. Cotten and Mr. Robertson’s itinerary was ”probably because of the honeymoon,” he said.
Yet even without their presence, the orphanage opened on Dec. 13, and Mr. Cherukupalli and his wife, Rajitha, are now taking care of a dozen children here. On a recent evening, the children sat on the floor in perfect lines, quietly doing homework and giggling at a visitor. “I like this place,” said Mounika, 13, in hesitant English. The interior was spartan, but spotless.
But Mr. Cotten’s involvement here has been a mixed blessing. Mr. Cherukupalli is a Christian pastor who began to care for local orphans two years ago, buying a tract of land and erecting a temporary shelter.
“My wife and I both had the same dream – to do something for orphans and give our lives in service,” he said. He took on debt to build the small orphanage, but the monthly payments were manageable.
Then, through another pastor, he was asked if he would be interested in becoming involved with Angel House, which promised a concrete structure that wouldn’t leak when it rained.
He accepted. Unknown to him, the Angel House donation came from a Canadian cryptocurrency entrepreneur.
Mr. Cotten’s money, however, did not buy an orphanage. It bought materials, but Mr. Cherukupalli had to arrange the construction himself. And the materials were insufficient – there was enough for walls and furnishings, but not enough to complete the roof, equip the kitchen or install interior doors. Mr. Cherukupalli began to accumulate more debt as he secured labour and additional materials. The orphanage is still missing seven doors – including one to its bathroom – because he does not have the money.
He now owes almost $11,000, equivalent to seven years of average income. The monthly payments have gotten so high that he has quit trying.
Mr. Cotten’s donation “provided materials. That’s a good thing, and it’s good for the kids,” Mr. Cherukupalli said. “But financially, I have gone under. And I’m suffering.”
He has also yet to receive the stuffed bears that Ms. Robertson had brought for the grand opening. She left them at the Oberoi with instructions that they be shipped to the orphanage.
Still, for Ms. Robertson, the existence of Jennifer Robertson & Gerald Cotten House seems to have provided some solace.
In mid-January, she sent an e-mail to Angel House, saying she hoped she could still visit the orphanage one day and acknowledging receipt of some pictures from Venkatapuram.
They “are lovely,” she wrote. “It helps me feel better knowing my husband helped these children before he died.”
With reporting by Tripta Narang and Joe Castaldo and files from Stephanie Chambers