Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that JAMES ZHONG was sentenced today to one year and one day in prison for committing wire fraud in September 2012 when he unlawfully obtained approximaely 50,000 Bitcoin from the Silk Road dark web internet marketplace. United States District Judge Paul G. Gardephe imposed today’s sentence.
As part of the ZHONG investigation, the Government has obtained final orders of forfeiture for, among other items, 51,680.32473733 Bitcoin, valued at over $3.4 billion at the time of seizure and over $1.57 billion today.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “Back in 2012, James Zhong committed wire fraud by stealing 50,000 Bitcoin from Silk Road, and for the next 10 years, he managed to conceal what he had done and how he obtained his fortune. Zhong used a decentralized Bitcoin mixer, an overseas cryptocurrency exchange, and an impressive array of technological tools to frustrate tracing efforts. But thanks to the relentless and skillful efforts of law enforcement in following the money, the federal government uncovered Zhong’s scheme and obtained final orders of forfeiture for over 51,680 Bitcoin. Cyber-criminals should heed this message: we will follow the money and hold you accountable, no matter how sophisticated your scheme and no matter how long it takes.”
According to court filings and statements made in court proceedings:
ZHONG’s Scheme to Defraud
Silk Road was an online “darknet” black market. In operation from approximately 2011 until 2013, Silk Road was used by numerous drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute massive quantities of illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services to many buyers and to launder all funds passing through it. In 2015, following a groundbreaking prosecution by this Office, Silk Road’s founder Ross Ulbricht was convicted by a unanimous jury and sentenced to life in prison. United States v. Ulbricht, 14-cr-68 (S.D.N.Y.).
In September 2012, ZHONG executed a scheme to defraud Silk Road of its money and property by (i) creating a string of approximately nine Silk Road accounts (the “Fraud Accounts”) in a manner designed to conceal his identity; (ii) triggering over 140 transactions in rapid succession in order to trick Silk Road’s withdrawal-processing system into releasing approximately 50,000 Bitcoin from its Bitcoin-based payment system into ZHONG’s accounts; and (iii) transferring this Bitcoin into a variety of separate addresses also under ZHONG’s control, all in a manner designed to prevent detection, conceal his identity and ownership, and obfuscate the Bitcoin’s source.
While executing the September 2012 fraud, ZHONG did not list any item or service for sale on Silk Road, nor did he buy any item or service on Silk Road. ZHONG registered the accounts by providing the bare minimum of information required by Silk Road to create the account; the Fraud Accounts were merely a conduit for ZHONG to defraud Silk Road of Bitcoin.
ZHONG funded the Fraud Accounts with an initial deposit of between 200 and 2,000 Bitcoin. After the initial deposit, ZHONG then quickly executed a series of withdrawals. Through his scheme to defraud, ZHONG was able to withdraw many times more Bitcoin out of Silk Road than he had deposited in the first instance. As an example, on September 19, 2012, ZHONG deposited 500 Bitcoin into a Silk Road wallet. Less than five seconds after making the initial deposit, ZHONG executed five withdrawals of 500 Bitcoin in rapid succession — i.e., within the same second — resulting in a net gain of 2,000 Bitcoin. As another example, a different Fraud Account made a single deposit and over 50 Bitcoin withdrawals before the account ceased its activity. ZHONG moved this Bitcoin out of Silk Road and, in a matter of days, consolidated them into two high-value amounts.
Nearly five years after ZHONG’s fraud, in August 2017, solely by virtue of ZHONG’s possession of the 50,000 Bitcoin that he unlawfully obtained from Silk Road, ZHONG received a matching amount of a related cryptocurrency — 50,000 Bitcoin Cash (“BCH Crime Proceeds”) — on top of the 50,000 Bitcoin. In August 2017, in a hard fork coin split, Bitcoin split into two cryptocurrencies, traditional Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash (“BCH”). When this split occurred, any Bitcoin address that had a Bitcoin balance (as ZHONG’s addresses did) now had the exact same balance on both the Bitcoin blockchain and on the Bitcoin Cash blockchain. As of August 2017, ZHONG thus possessed 50,000 BCH in addition to the 50,000 Bitcoin that ZHONG unlawfully obtained from Silk Road. ZHONG thereafter exchanged through an overseas cryptocurrency exchange all of the BCH Crime Proceeds for additional Bitcoin, amounting to approximately 3,500 Bitcoin of additional crime proceeds. Collectively, by the last quarter of 2017, ZHONG thus possessed approximately 53,500 Bitcoin of total crime proceeds (the “Crime Proceeds”).
The Government’s Seizure of Over 50,000 Bitcoin
On November 9, 2021, pursuant to a judicially authorized premises search warrant, law enforcement agents recovered approximately 50,491.06251844 Bitcoin of crime proceeds from ZHONG’s Gainesville, Georgia, house. Law enforcement located these crime proceeds in an underground floor safe and on a single-board computer that was submerged under blankets in a popcorn tin stored in a bathroom closet. In addition, law enforcement recovered $661,900 in cash, 25 Casascius coins (physical bitcoin) with an approximate value of 174 Bitcoin, 11.1160005300044 additional Bitcoin, four one-ounce silver-colored bars, three one-ounce gold-colored bars, four 10-ounce silver-colored bars, and one gold-colored coin. Photographs of the popcorn tin, single-board computer, underground floor safe, and some of the seized items are included below:
Beginning in or around March 2022, ZHONG began voluntarily surrendering to the Government additional Bitcoin that ZHONG had access to and had not dissipated. In total, ZHONG voluntarily surrendered 1,004.14621836 additional Bitcoin.
Using a conservative estimate of the lowest spot price of Bitcoin on the seizure dates, the total value of all Bitcoin seized for which the Government has obtained final orders of forfeiture is approximately $3.4 billion.
On February 7, 2023, in United States v. Ross Ulbricht, S1 14 Cr. 68 (S.D.N.Y.), District Judge Lorna G. Schofield entered a final order of forfeiture as to the below property seized from ZHONG, vesting all right, title, and interest in the below property in the United States:
- 50,491.06251844 Bitcoin seized from ZHONG’s home on November 9, 2021;
- 825.38833159 Bitcoin provided by ZHONG on March 25, 2022; and
- 35.4470080 Bitcoin provided by ZHONG on May 25, 2022.
On March 14, 2023, District Judge Gardephe entered a final order of forfeiture as to the below property, vesting all right, title, and interest in the below property in the United States:
- ZHONG’s 80% interest in RE&D Investments, LLC, a Memphis-based company with substantial real estate holdings;
- $661,900 in United States currency seized from ZHONG’s home on November 9, 2021;
- Metal items, consisting of four one-ounce silver-colored bars, three one-ounce gold-colored bars, four 10-ounce silver-colored bars, and one gold-colored coin, all seized from ZHONG’s home on November 9, 2021;
- 11.1160005300044 Bitcoin seized from ZHONG’s home on November 9, 2021;
- 25 Casascius coins (physical Bitcoin) with an approximate value of 174 Bitcoin, collectively, seized from ZHONG’s home on November 9, 2021;
- 23.7112850 Bitcoin provided by ZHONG on April 27, 2022;
- 115.02532155 Bitcoin provided by ZHONG on April 28, 2022; and
- 4.57427222 Bitcoin provided by ZHONG on June 8, 2022.
* * *
ZHONG, 32, of Gainesville, Georgia, and Athens, Georgia, previously pled guilty to one count of wire fraud before Judge Gardephe.
Mr. Williams praised the outstanding work of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation’s Western Cyber Crimes Unit of the Los Angeles Field Office. Mr. Williams also thanked the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in Athens, Georgia, for its support and assistance with the case.
The prosecution of this case is being overseen by the Office’s Money Laundering and Transnational Criminal Enterprises Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney David R. Felton is in charge of the case.