He Emptied an Entire Crypto Exchange Onto a Thumb Drive. Then He Disappeared

He told the court that he grew his beard down to his clavicle, shaved his head. He said that when he learned about the prosecutor’s indictment—that his brother and sister were charged with fraud, that they would stand trial in a month, and that without Özer they would most likely take the blame for Thodex’s fall and spend the rest of their lives in prison—he had a wild idea: If every claimant were paid back, did a crime ever really happen? He did, in fact, have the Thodex cold wallet on him, he told the judges, though he claims to not remember how much was in it. He asked Erarslan to help him pay back the roughly 2,000 plaintiffs who had lost their money.

And they did, in part. In total, while on the run, he paid approximately 185 million lira ($10 million at the time) to more than 1,000 claimants. As Özer tells it, when the cold wallet was empty, he threw it into the Ionian Sea.

When he addressed his use of other people’s accounts to trade crypto—an action at the center of the case—he started to sound defiant and a little condescending: “Startup founders take all responsibilities, as the nature of startups requires,” he said. He underscored that they had no authority in the company and no access to these accounts. “There is no lawlessness or irregularity. Moreover, I am neither the first nor the last nor the only person to arbitrage the cryptocurrency market.”

Near the end of his address, Özer’s frustrations seemed to turn to bitterness and hubris. He faced the judges and said it was “absurd to think that the IQ level of the person who made such a stupid escape plan” was the same as that of a criminal mastermind allegedly capable of deceiving Turkish financial regulators for four years. “I am smart enough to lead any institution on earth,” Özer said. Then he had Erarslan pull up an image of a cartoon mocking the court. Visibly annoyed, the chief judge ordered him to remove it.

The verdict came quietly on a balmy Thursday in September 2023 to an almost empty courtroom. Özer stood and solemnly read the lyrics from a Turkish folk song, “The End of the Road Is Visible.”

The chief judge handed Güven, Serap, and Özer the same sentence: 11,196 years in prison—for establishing and managing a criminal organization and laundering assets. Most of the other defendants were released. It was the longest sentence in Turkey’s history, handed out the month before the Republic’s centennial.

Faruk Fatih Özer became a poster child of crypto crimes, but he also became an accidental representation of a particular economic era—and the lengths people will go through to flee it. To the Turkish regime, he was not so much an opponent as an unfortunate product of flawed economic policies. In that light, the draconian sentence is punishment not only for a crime but also for shining a spotlight on decades of embarrassing failures, ones that were made clear to the entire country the day that Özer disappeared.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Turkey remains a haven for cryptocurrencies. In the year after Thodex went bust, inflation in the country hit a 24-year high of 85.5 percent. Prices for goods nearly doubled—and so did the percentage of Turks who owned bitcoin, ether, and other currencies. In terms of trade volume, the country ranks fourth globally, behind the US, the UK, and India. After decades of watching their currency devalue, their businesses and nest eggs get scrambled, the Turkish people aren’t going to pass up the dream so easily. Earlier this year, the country’s finance minister said the government was working to finalize new regulations on crypto, “to make this field safer and to eliminate possible risks.” So although Özer picked a fight with an authoritarian regime and lost—whether because he believed too fully in the gospel of decentralization, because he was a naive kid, because he was a cynical hustler, or some combination of all three—the flames of economic revolution that he helped fan aren’t going out anytime soon.

Jenna Scatena is an independent journalist from San Francisco who is currently based in Istanbul.

Additional reporting by Beril Eski, Gülşah Karadağ, and Vladimir Karaj.

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