Crypto · Vanity Fair · San Quentin

Plus: A "mommy blogger" on her role in shaping the child sex-trafficking narrative

A new podcast seeks to cover the mysterious death of a cryptocurrency millionaire. I feel like we talked about Vanity Fair’s great 2019 piece on the death of Quadriga founder Gerald Cotten, who — brace yourself for a bitcoin shocker — might have been a bit of an alleged scammer. Now Longform co-founder Aaron Lammer has turned the tale into a podcast called Exit Scam. The show launched Monday, and will run weekly through June 28.

Here’s the summary, via a press release:

Gerald Cotten died in 2018 while on a honeymoon trip to India. His customers were told that the $215 million they’d deposited on the exchange was lost forever — because Gerry had forgotten to leave behind his passwords.

But soon accountants discovered it wasn’t actually frozen. It was gone. The vaults had been emptied out 8 months before Cotten died.

And that’s not all: Not everyone believes Gerry is dead.

Lammer says he spent two years investigating the case, and the result is this eight-episode show. Those interested in subscribing can find a link to their platform of choice here. — EB

Writer Meg Conley has publicly reversed her stance on Operation Underground Railroad. Conley, a self-described “writer of a mommy blog” whose work has appeared in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, was a stay-at-home parent in 2014. That’s when Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security special agent who founded independent anti-child trafficking operation Operation Underground Railroad, reached out to Conley via their mutual connections within their shared Mormon faith, and asked Conley to join him on a raid in the Dominican Republic.

Part of a proposed TV show to document Ballard’s strike force-style, paramilitary work, the raid “haunts me now,” Conley writes for Slate. This, even after penning a glowing report on the group and eventually participating in planning meetings for the organization. So, what changed her mind?

OUR centered Black and Latino children in its fundraising work but ignored requests from Black activists to change the organization’s name. At the same time, Ballard called an Operation Underground painting by Utah artist Jon McNaughton “an early Christmas present.” McNaughton, who had famously painted Barack Obama burning the Constitution in 2012, depicted Ballard, his wife, and other white people carrying Black and brown children rescued from trafficking along a literal railroad. Harriet Tubman stands to the side in reverence along their path.

Disillusioned and disturbed, I sought more understanding of the group’s place within the anti-trafficking world. I reached out to anti-trafficking experts. When I told an international anti-trafficking expert about the 2014 raid I attended, she immediately said, “Do you know how wrong all of that was?” The research, I learned, tells us our 2014 raid was most likely just another childhood trauma for those 26 kids. We made their lives worse.

But what she grasped in a moment, it took me years to understand. When Ballard called me into that house, he put me in harm’s way so that I could write a story about him. (Ballard did not respond to specific questions about the raid.) A condemnation of Ballard? Yes. But it’s a condemnation of me, too. I’d imagined myself the same way he did, or said he did—as a savior of these children. I tried to find meaning in my own life on the backs of exploited kids.

Conley’s essay is a really interesting account of how her eyes were opened to the allegedly problematic nature of OUR, and is really worth a read — especially since, she says, we can expect to see a lot more of Ballard and OUR coming across the true-crime airwaves in the coming months. She says that his book, Slave Stealers, will be developed as a TV show “and a new action movie about him, Sound of Freedom, is forthcoming.”

A look at IMDB confirms the latter claim: the movie doesn’t have a release date, but stars Jim Caviezel as Ballard…which might be a problem! As you might recall, Caviezel just made headlines for spouting egregious QAnon misinformation as fact while ostensibly promoting the movie at the COVID-denying, vaccine opposing “Health Freedom Summit” last month, an event that closed with a public mask burning. So, this is the audience the film’s creators want to attract, which hardly raises confidence in Ballard as a force for good. Sorry, Mira Sorvino and the rest of the cast, this one’s a pass from me. — EB

As usual, I am way behind on my magazine reading. That’s why I’m telling you about two March items now — I just read them last night! Both are from Vanity Fair, both are true crime-related, and both are worth your time. — EB

  • Peter Jackson and the Airplane Thief. The director of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit blockbusters put much of his earnings into a “fantasy force” of historic airplanes. Curated by Eugene DeMarco, a pilot who shared Jackson’s passion for ancient military aircraft, their 14-year relationship ended in criminal court, with DeMarco the focus of six criminal charges, including the theft of a couple of Jackson’s planes for over $1 million in alleged profits.

  • Dear Mrs. L’Engle. I suspect I’m not the only person who screamed “how did I not know this” as they read this account of the Wrinkle In Time author’s longstanding mail relationship with unjustly incarcerated Black Panther member Ron Irwin, who later converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmad Rahman. Their written discussions of race and the criminal justice system are truly remarkable, and will leave you feeling even more respect for the fantasy author — as well as a stunning sense of loss regarding what Rahman could have contributed to the world, were he not imprisoned by our (still) racist system.

Attention, jail/COVID-19 nerds. First, hello friends, how nice to finally be with my people. Now, let’s get to it:

As you likely recall, the world-famous San Quentin State Prison gained a new level of infamy in 2020, when a shocking set of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decisions prompted an out-of-control outbreak of the then-novel coronavirus. Over 2,200 inmates were sickened and 28 died, CNN reports, prompting over $400,000 is OSHA-related fines for the facility.

According to a press release from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, a slew of law firms and defense attorneys have filed “habeas corpus” petitions against the prison, “alleging unlawful incarceration under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.” As of Monday, May 17, evidentiary hearings that are “expected to last several weeks” will begin at the Marin County Superior Court…and we can all watch from home, as the proceedings will be livestreamed throughout.

I’m told that we can expect to hear not just from criminal justice experts and decisionmakers within the corrections system, but from doctors and epidemiologists who’ll explain how the virus spread across the prison population. This is especially of interest as Quentin has been pointed to by some as a functional model of how dangerous a policy of herd immunity (the plan proposed by the previous president, I’ll note) would have been for the nation.

According to the LA Times, “the disastrous situation unfolding at San Quentin State Prison over the last two months has become the latest of several cautionary tales that show how any effort to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is available would come with enormous costs in terms of illness and death.” Even after 75 percent of the prison’s population was infected (the typical benchmark for herd immunity), new cases continued even after that, which suggests that the 75 percent number might not apply here. The prison’s case rate translates to “767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons. If that same rate occurred across California, that would translate to a staggering 300,000 deaths statewide — many times larger than California’s cumulative death toll of more than 10,400. Nationally, that would be equivalent to 2.5 million deaths.”

If you’re as interested in watching the hearings as I am, bookmark this page and keep an eye on it. According to a spokesperson from the SF Public Defender’s office, that’s where they’ll post the livestream link when it’s available. The hearing kicks off on May 17, at 9 AM PT. — EB

Wednesday on Best Evidence: Vincent Chin, perhaps?

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