How One Man Stole $3 Billion in Bitcoin and Got Away for Nearly a Decade

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From purchasing cocaine to uncovering a multimillion-dollar glitch, the story of James “Jimmy” Zhong reads like a dark comedy. Zhong, a computer science graduate, exploited a vulnerability on Silk Road to steal over 50,000 bitcoin, evading detection for nearly a decade while living a life of luxury.

The Unbelievable Tale of Jimmy Zhong: From Cocaine Purchase to Bitcoin Billionaire

This is a tale tailor made for the Coen brothers, ala “Fargo” or “Burn After Reading.” James “Jimmy” Zhong, a 28-year-old University of Georgia computer science graduate, executed the largest bitcoin theft in history. From the infamous dark web market Silk Road, Zhong pilfered over 50,000 bitcoin, valued at approximately $3.4 billion in 2023. Recently, a poster on X that goes by the pseudonym BTCGandalf, recounted Jimmy’s story with colorful details. Read the thread for a story-like recounting with many more details than this brief summary.

The Incredible Story of the Unlikely Man Who Stole 50,000 BTC ($3B) From the Silk Road
🧵 pic.twitter.com/mSwSPZPcPE

— GANDALF (@BTCGandalf) January 26, 2024

Between 2012 and 2014, exploiting a flaw on the Silk Road, Zhong was able to drain the site’s hot wallet of its massive bitcoin stash, over 51,680 bitcoin. In one of those stranger-than-fiction moments, Zhong later confessed to discovering and exploiting the glitch on Silk Road after purchasing cocaine.

Vinny D’Agostino, the FBI trial agent for the original Silk Road Case, said in a reply post to the thread that Ross Ulbricht, founder of Silk Road, “knew his security skills were weak and wanted to close any gaps. The loss of the 50,000 bitcoin was major.” D’Agostino provided an image of a spreadsheet Ross kept to log, among other things, his net worth. “The orange [is] his net worth, which took a big hit. All of this evidence was found on his Samsung 700z laptop which he was using at the time of arrest.”

Despite his lavish spending and previous run-ins with the law, including a DUI and a felony drug possession charge, Zhong remained undetected for almost a decade. However, his luck ran out when two things happened in 2019.

First, in March 2019 someone broke into his house stealing approximately $400,000 in cash and bitcoin. Inexplicably, Zhong called 911, asking the police to carry out an investigation. Second, around this time Zhong had made the mistake of transferring a small portion of his stolen bitcoin to a KYC-compliant exchange, catching the IRS’s attention.

The subsequent investigation by IRS agents, collaborating with local Athens police, who had previously believed Zhong’s story of being a savvy bitcoin investor, launched a covert operation to unravel the truth. This culminated in a search of Zhong’s property in November 2019, which unveiled the majority of the stolen Silk Road bitcoin hidden in a popcorn tin.

Zhong was arrested, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, and in 2022 was sentenced to 366 days in prison. His lawyer was able to successfully argue it was a victimless crime, as he stole from a criminal enterprise.

The rise and fall of James “Jimmy” Zhong was a comedy of errors. Or, as D’Agostino puts it,

“[T]he fact that Jimmy called the cops after having some of his bitcoin stolen highlights how many cyber criminals (including Ross) were brilliant but lacked street smarts.”

Do you think that Jimmy has some extra bitcoin squirreled away somewhere? Share your thoughts and opinions about this subject in the comments section below.

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