SHEENA ROSSITER: Hi there. Just a warning, there are mentions of suicide in this episode, so please listen with care. Thanks.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to The Deep Dive, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look into the happenings at The Walrus. I’m Sheena Rossiter. On this week’s episode…
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I felt that Gerry had left me in this situation that I couldn’t fix, I had no knowledge of, and I felt that everybody was kind of just against me and expected that I would know these answers. And my reality felt so skewed because I had gone from middle class to this fairytale lifestyle.
SHEENA ROSSITER: We’ll hear from Jennifer Robertson, known as the Bitcoin Widow. She was married to Gerald Cotten, the founder of QuadrigaCX, which was believed to be the biggest cryptocurrency exchange in Canada, where users could exchange Bitcoin for Canadian dollars and vice versa. As the price of Bitcoin skyrocketed, Gerald became very wealthy. Jennifer, still in her twenties at the time, lived a lavish lifestyle alongside her tech entrepreneur husband, that is, until Gerald Cotten, or Gerry, suddenly died in 2018. He was 30, and he died while on an extended honeymoon with Jennifer in India.
Not long after his death, it was exposed that Quadriga was a Ponzi scheme. Quadriga owed more than 76,000 users a reported $215 million Canadian. That was over $160 million US at the time. Then many people started to question what really happened with Gerry’s death. That’s when Jennifer Robertson really enters the picture. Her fairytale life with Gerry turned into a nightmare after he died. She started to get trolled online, and many angry Quadriga users were looking to her for answers and their missing money. Now in her memoir, Bitcoin Widow: Love, Betrayal, and the Missing Millions, Jennifer tells her story for first time. Here’s my conversation with Jennifer Robertson.
SHEENA ROSSITER: So for people who don’t know the full story, I just kind of want to go back to the beginning a little bit. How did you and Gerry first meet, and how did you become romantically involved?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I had met Gerry on Tinder, and I had just separated from my marriage to Jacob. My friend said, “It’ll be fun. Go on. Meet new people.” And I met Gerry, and then I didn’t anticipate meeting my next husband on there. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love and just start our kind of whirlwind relationship.
SHEENA ROSSITER: How did your life change when you got together with Gerry and when you got married?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents were often living paycheque to paycheque. I had never come from money or had experienced what it was like at all. And then too, I was also struggling because I had been left with a lot of the debt from the divorce. Lots of money was something that I had never really had before.
And then when I met Gerry and his company kept growing and the money kept coming in, it was the relief that you kind of feel and the security that you feel when you have money, and you’re not living paycheque-to-paycheque lifestyle. It is really comforting. My life went from worrying and working three jobs to, all of a sudden, we could do what we wanted. And dreams that I thought would never happen for me started to happen. I always would say he was my prince charming, and he made all of my dreams come true.
SHEENA ROSSITER: You mention quite a bit that you really didn’t know much about what Bitcoin was or what Gerry really did for a living. In fact, you just mentioned that you didn’t really know much at all. Have you become more tech savvy, or do you have a better understanding of it now?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I have a bit of a better understanding of it, how it works, and how Quadriga worked. Before, I didn’t really understand exactly how the trading platform had worked. I was shocked that you could hold your money in there for longer periods of time than it took to make a trade, and I know that might sound for people who understand trades and finance and cryptocurrency a little bit better. But that would was something that was never my forte, so kind of learning about that was a shock to me. And Gerry never really explained it, and to be honest, I never really asked, again, because it wasn’t so much of interest. Gerry and I would talk about different things.
And also, I feel that for many people, cryptocurrency is very confusing. And I have heard a lot of people tell me that they’ve watched a documentary, or they’ve read a book on it. And they still don’t really understand it, and so that’s where I kind of was at too. And I just trusted that it was Gerry’s business and what he did, and I was kind of focusing on my own work and my own life.
SHEENA ROSSITER: How secretive was he about what he did for a living in his business?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: It wasn’t like he was secretive with his business because his business was a registered corporation in Canada. He had thousands of users. He was the largest cryptocurrency exchange in Canada. He was registered with FINTRAC. I know that he worked with the RCMP whenever they provided him with a warrant for somebody’s account. So to me, all of these things made sense. It’s a legitimate company. And for people to say that, “How did you not know?” I was like, “Well, I there’s no way I could possibly …” I didn’t have access to the inner workings of the business, and I would never been able to see all of his trades and what he was doing. And to be honest, even with cryptocurrency, even understanding how the trades are even working and what he was doing with client funds that were coming in … because it’s cryptocurrency. It’s not our normal currency.
SHEENA ROSSITER: So it’s 2018. You get married, and you go on your honeymoon, which is supposed to be extended honeymoon to India, also to check in on an orphanage project that you are working with. During that time, Gerry suddenly dies in a very shocking way in hospital. Can you take us through what happened there?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I believe we were about a week into our honeymoon, and Jaipur was going to be the last stop before we flew into the city where the orphanage was. And I think we were about to spend maybe three days in Jaipur, and when we land in Jaipur, he had said that the plane ride was terrible and that his stomach really hurt. But for the past six months, he had been saying that a lot, his stomach hurt, that he wasn’t really feeling well. The doctors assumed that his medication wasn’t working anymore, so they had switched him onto a new medication. And we were at the belief that it would just take some time to work. It wasn’t uncommon for Gerry to feel sick, especially when travelling, even at home. It wasn’t as concerning as maybe it would be if he hadn’t had Crohn’s disease, and this wasn’t kind of a common occurrence that happened to him.
And then the evening kind of went on, and I could tell that this was much more serious than normal. I was like, “We have to go to the hospital,” and when we went to the hospital, I was very vocal with the doctor saying that he has Crohn’s disease. I called his sister-in-law, saying, “This is what’s happening.” The medical staff and his sister-in-law deemed that this is food poisoning, and we’re going to do everything we can to help him. And the hospital was great. The doctors seemed to take good care of Gerry. He was immediately seen in the ER. Then all night, it didn’t seem like he was really getting any better. They wanted to keep him one extra night, and they were going to give him an X-ray the next day.
And then assistant manager from the hotel said like, “Do you want to drive to get some things?” And Gerry really wanted his laptop, and I knew that. I think that was the longest time Gerry’s ever been separated from his laptop because we left in such a hurry from the hotel the night before. I took the offer to take a ride back and kind of have a shower, get Gerry’s laptop, and anything else that he might need. And then by the time I got back to the hospital, everything just went … It was just like, I left, and he had food poisoning. And we’re going to get out the next day. And all of a sudden, he was in critical condition. And a doctor turns to me, and he says, “Loss of life is a possibility.” And I’m like, “What? He was fine yesterday. We were out for lunch and laughing and enjoying being a newly married couple.” And to hear that this person might die is just … It’s so overwhelming. It’s like a tsunami. And I ended up faint team because I just couldn’t couldn’t understand what was going on.
And so then he ended up having … They told me. They had shown me an X-ray, and in the X-ray, they had seen that there must be some form of hole in his intestines, like a perforation that was leading to a bacterial infection in his abdomen, which then was causing sepsis. And the sepsis had gone so far that it was starting to cause his organs to fail. And so he ended up having two cardiac arrests, and they were able to revive him. And then the third one, they were unable to revive him, and he passed away. And it was the loneliest feeling of my entire life.
SHEENA ROSSITER: What happened next? And why did you wait a month to say anything after he died?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: Why we didn’t mention anything with his company was because, at first, obviously I was not truly thinking about Quadriga. I was missing Gerry. I was in shock. I was trying to arrange his funeral. In January, before we announced that Gerry had passed away. I had many conversations with Aaron Matthews, who was Gerry’s top, number-one contractor. I had told him that we have a responsibility to absolutely everybody, his clients, his contractors, and me, to do everything by the book. And so that’s what we did. That’s what we went with. I followed the lawyers’ advice. Everything that they said that we should do, we did promptly, and we took their guidance. And as much as I regret the backlash that happened against me for that, I don’t think I would’ve changed anything because I did everything right and by the book. And that is how I typically would move through my life, and I don’t regret making those decisions.
AUDIO CLIP (CBC): Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange is in hot water, and thousands of clients have millions of dollars in frozen assets with little information. The company is QuadrigaCX, and it announced it had filed for creditor protection with Nova Scotia Supreme Court. This is just one in a series of bizarre financial and legal twists that started last year that have included recently the apparent sudden death of the company’s young CEO, just 30 years old.
SHEENA ROSSITER: How has your life changed since Gerry’s passing?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: To all of a sudden be the centre of attention and to be so unbelievably hated. I had felt in my mind that I hadn’t done anything. He died. It was his company. I listened to the lawyers, and I followed everything by the book. And I was just so shocked that the story went viral about me. That was really difficult for me because, of course, I mean, reading terrible things about yourself on the internet is hurtful. And to not be used to that … you’re not a public figure … was really hard for me to kind of accept and push aside, so it really hit me really quite hard. And then I felt like nobody … I felt that Gerry had left me in this situation that I couldn’t fix, I had no knowledge of, and I felt that everybody was kind of just against me.
AUDIO CLIP (CTV): The parent company of the BC-based QuadrigaCX says it lost access to the cryptocurrency after the death of its 30-year-old CEO, Gerald Cotten, in December. The missing coins are held in so-called cold wallets, and that’s a type of offline storage that protects against hackers. Cotten had the only virtual keys to those wallets when he died, leaving thousands of investors in limbo.
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: And they expected that I would know these answers, and my reality felt so skewed because I had gone from middle class to this fairytale lifestyle. And the thing is too that it wasn’t just always the money. Gerry was a really thoughtful, loving husband. The way he treated me, the way our relationship was, our conversations, our experiences, everything about Gerry was just … It was just perfect. And I look back now, and I’m wondering, “Was that him? Or was that just the him that he wanted me to believe he was?” And so I had also deal with that.
And I’m feeling terrible about the users that need money and that want their money, and they’re out of their money. Then having everything kind of taken away from me was really hard because in my world, all of those things were ours. The house was mine. My company that I built was mine, everything I believed with all my heart that they were mine, and they would never be taken away. So to be this realization that you were going to lose everything after actually already losing your husband, who was the love of your life, it is devastating, absolutely devastating.
SHEENA ROSSITER: With all the trolling that has happened after his death, do you feel that you’ve been sort of a scapegoat in this whole situation?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I understand what Gerry did was absolutely terrible, and I do understand how the users have felt very wronged, how they’re hurt. And I do sympathize with them, and I do hope that they understand. Some might believe me. Some might not, but I really did everything I could by the book to help them with all the knowledge that I had at the time. I do feel that people wanted someone to blame, and I feel that the person to blame this situation is Gerry. And because he’s not here, someone else had to seemingly, I think, take the blame. And I do think that I took on more of that than I think was reasonable or fair.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Why did you decide to go public with your story in this book?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: So I decided to go public because there were so many conspiracy theories, and there were so many misinformation in the media. And I wanted to provide the users that Gerry had stolen from that this is what happened, and this is what we tried to do. This is how he died, so that there would be some answers for them in the wake of all of their financial losses. I had hit bottom. Everything in my life basically was taken away from me, my husband, my house, my job, everything that I could possibly could think that was safe and secure. And I felt so, so alone in all of this that when I tried to take my own life … and it didn’t work. And I came back from the other side, and I’ve actually been able to rebuild my life. I really wanted to share that with the general public as well, because I know that there is lots of people suffering with losses too, and they feel like there’s nothing left in the world. And that’s how I felt. I felt like there was nothing left for me.
SHEENA ROSSITER: When were things able to turn around for you?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I had given a lot of thought, and I wanted to get out of the drama and the mess and the legal procedures that were happening against Quadriga. And when I reached out to my lawyer and we tried to come to a very low settlement, just so that I would have enough to be able to start a new life, that’s when I felt that things started to be able to turn around, when I was able to really start grieving the loss of Gerry, when I was able to have more privacy. I moved. I started a new job, so I had all these kind of new things that were leading me down a new path. That was when things, I felt, started to turn around.
SHEENA ROSSITER: What’s life like now for you?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: I’m soon going to graduate in the spring with my bachelor of education. So I’ve started a new career, and I’m 35 weeks’ pregnant right now. So I’m so looking forward to being a mother. I’m having a little girl, and I just can’t wait to meet her. So it’s hard to imagine. Three years ago, I felt like my life was completely over, and now it’s starting again in so many different new ways. And I feel like I have control of it this time.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Congratulations on the new pending edition. Is there anything that still haunts you about this, or are you worried that it will follow you throughout life?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: Sheena, I do. I feel like everything that happened with Gerry and Quadriga is this black cloud. And some days, it’s right above me, and then some days, it’s a little bit behind me. And then other days, it’s farther, but I’m constantly worried if somebody knows and if I’m getting treated differently because of what happened with Quadriga. And I feel like I’m never going to get this sense of peace again, because I’m constantly kind of living in this mystery of, why did Gerry do this? Who was Gerry? Did Gerry actually even … Did he really love me? What kind of person was he really? And I feel like those questions, they continue to haunt me.
And I was just reading this book the other day, and they mentioned how calming it is to just kind of sit in your own thoughts with a cup of coffee and just feel this peace. And part of me is like, “I really hope that I can one day just sit in peaceful thoughts instead of anxious, worrisome thoughts and just kind of find peace again,” because even though I have moved on with bettering my life and rebuilding, I feel like I don’t have that peace of mind. I don’t have that feeling of being safe still, and I’m really trying to focus on getting back to that place.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Are there any concerns that you think that the trolling might be reignited from the release of the book? Or are you not concerned about that?
JENNIFER ROBERTSON: Yes, I’m concerned about it, but I feel like I’ve already been exposed to so much. And I am much stronger in regards to reading or hearing comments about other people’s opinions or what I might have known or didn’t know. And I’ve really come to the realization now that I know exactly what happened, and I’ve said the truth. And this is all that I can do. And that actually has even helped me to be able to face any kind of the trolling because I’m able to just be like, “Well, I’ve said the truth, and this is all that I can do,” whereas before, I wasn’t saying anything. I didn’t know what was going on. I felt very, very confused. So now I feel like I have a lot more control.
SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s my conversation with Jennifer Robertson. Her book, Bitcoin Widow: Love, Betrayal, and the Missing Millions is out now. In the March-April issue of The Walrus, we ran an excerpt of the book called Confessions of a Bitcoin Widow. It’s as-told-to piece by Stephen Kimber. Carmine Starnino was an editor for it. The March-April issue of the magazine is out now, and you can read Jennifer’s excerpt on thewalrus.ca.
JONAH BRUNET: I’m Jonah Brunet, and here’s what we’ve been talking about this week at The Walrus. We were impressed but not surprised by the reaction to Jennifer Robertson’s story, “Confessions of a Bitcoin Widow”. This excerpt was shared widely, finding way to the far reaches of the internet, and some readers went even further down the cryptocurrency rabbit hole by reading some older crypto stories we’ve done at The Walrus. If you want to read more on the strange world of cryptocurrency, check out Ethan Lou’s articles, “North Korea’s Mysterious Cryptocurrency Ambitions”, and “Will Cryptocurrency Be Alberta’s Next Big Boom?” We were also watching closely as Ottawa police moved in and arrested Freedom Convoy protestors. This got some of us talking about political division in this country, a theme we visited several times over the past few years, such as in Sarmishta Subramanian’s 2019 article, “Is Canada Broken?” We are currently working on a story related to the recent trucker protest in Canada’s capital. Keep an eye out at thewalrus.ca for that upcoming article, and as always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.
SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by Angela Misri, and me, Sheena Rossiter. I also edited this episode.
Thanks so much to Jennifer Robertson for joining us this week.
Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, and Podcast Intro by Inplus Music. You also heard “Moment” by Serge Quadrado, “Piano Moment” by Zakhar Valaha, provided by Pixabay.
Additional sources for this episode were provided by CBC and CTV.
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