Slender, with a mild expression and sensitive green eyes, Alexander Vinnik doesn’t look like a criminal mastermind fought over by nations, or someone who laundered billions of dollars for criminals, or someone whose enemies would try to poison him.
He says he’s not those things. “I am innocent,” the 42-year-old Russian citizen told The Examiner in a Zoom interview from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
Yet he is the man at the center of what may be the most famous criminal case in cryptocurrency history, one that is set to unfold next month in a San Francisco courtroom.
A rumored plot to poison him in a jail in Greece prior to being extradited to the United States earlier this month is just one anecdote in a vault of lore around his case, in which the Justice Department has charged him with laundering more than $4 billion in cryptocurrency for criminals around the world.
The DOJ says a cryptocurrency exchange Vinnik helped to run processed criminals’ loot that came from “computer intrusions and hacking incidents, ransomware scams, identity theft schemes, corrupt public officials, and narcotics distribution rings. And was used to facilitate crimes ranging from computer hacking, to fraud, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption and drug trafficking.”
Vinnik, dubbed “Mr. Bitcoin” by the European press, is the lead actor in a saga that is part crime caper, part international courtroom drama and all cryptocurrency craziness.
Wanted by several nations for allegedly laundering stolen cryptocurrency, Vinnik was arrested during a beach vacation in Greece in 2017 at the request of the United States. The U.S. wanted him extradited to America, but France and Russia sought his extradition, too.
This set off an international dispute about where and when he should be prosecuted. Greek authorities ruled he should be extradited to France, then the U.S., then to Russia. Vinnik was prosecuted in France, served time in a French prison, then was sent back to Greece.
During all this, suggestions by experts that Vinnik may have laundered money for Russian nation-state hackers turned up the heat in the international dispute. Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking group involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, appeared to have laundered cryptocurrency through Vinnik’s company, BTC-e, a digital forensics company called Elliptic found in 2017, working with the BBC.
After that, Russia urgently pushed for Vinnik to be extradited back to Russia, prompting some to suspect ties between Vinnik’s company and Russian state espionage.
“Russia’s particular interest in Vinnik’s extradition might suggest some important higher-ups may have had their fingers in the BTC-e pie, if not Russian intelligence itself,” crypto crime expert Kim Nilsson told Radio Free Europe in 2019.
Then Vinnik’s famous Russian lawyer, Timofei Musatov, died mysteriously as he was about to go to Greece to seek Vinnik’s extradition to Russia. His law firm told the Russian news outlet Tass that Musatov was killed in an “accident in Moscow. This is all we can say.”
Now Vinnik sits in the East Bay jail, reading Stephen King novels and waiting for the wheels of American jurisprudence to turn. He says the saga to prosecute him has been grueling.
He isn’t worried about being poisoned or his lawyer dying mysteriously. There are a few books to read and he can go outside. But he wants to see his family.
“I haven’t seen my kids in five years,” he says wistfully. “I want to go home to Moscow.” Russia wants to prosecute him, too, but first America will have its turn.
He will be tried in a federal court near San Francisco City Hall with proceedings beginning Sept. 27. Vinnik faces 21 criminal counts from an indictment that alleges he stole identities, facilitated drug trafficking and helped to launder criminal proceeds from syndicates around the world.
He will be represented by public defender David Rizk, who declined to comment on the case. After the San Francisco proceedings, a civil case against Vinnik will take place in Oakland, seeking fines of $120 million against Vinnik and his company.
Why was he brought to San Francisco?
In a 2017 indictment used to extradite Vinnik from Greece, the DOJ notes that the crypto-currency exchange Vinnik ran, BTC-e, had numerous customers in Northern California, and used many local companies to “effectuate their operations.” Those companies included Tradehill, a now-defunct crypto exchange company that was based in San Francisco. The feds say Vinnik laundered cryptocurrency through Tradehill and his own company after hundreds of millions of dollars in Bitcoin were stolen from Mt Gox, a digital currency exchange founded in San Francisco that failed after being hacked.
To get a sense of the importance of Vinnik’s case to the U.S., consider how many different sections of the federal government have worked to reel him in.
The federal agencies contributing to that indictment include the Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.
Frédéric Bélot, a lawyer in Paris who says he worked pro bono to help Vinnik disputes all the allegations. “He didn’t know who he worked for” at BTC-e, Bélot said, and was unaware he was working with cryptocurrency from crimes. “He wants to know who put him in this bad situation.”
“He is definitely not the big fish,” Bélot told The Examiner in a phone interview. “He was arrested in a middle-class hotel, not on a yacht or in a Rolls-Royce.”
Despite all the headlines and notoriety, Vinnik is “just a normal person,” Bélot said.
Federal authorities disagree. The world will see who prevails soon.