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Justice Department announces seizure of $3.4 billion in stolen bitcoin

A Georgia real estate developer pleaded guilty to stealing the crypto in 2012 from dark web marketplace Silk Road

A pedestrian walks past the Justice Department in D.C. The department’s recovery of nearly $3.4 billion in stolen bitcoin is one of its largest seizures of cryptocurrency. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

The Justice Department recovered bitcoin once worth $3.4 billion, now valued around $1 billion, that a Georgia real estate developer stole a decade ago from the dark web marketplace Silk Road, the department announced Monday.

James Zhong, the 32-year-old behind the theft, pleaded guilty Friday to a single count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Federal agents tracked down the stolen digital loot a year ago, when they searched Zhong’s house in Gainesville, Ga., and found devices storing the bitcoin in an underground floor safe and under blankets in a popcorn tin stashed in his bathroom closet, prosecutors said in an affidavit.

The haul of nearly 52,000 bitcoin, the world’s most popular digital asset, has lost two-thirds of its value over the past year.

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“Thanks to state-of-the-art cryptocurrency tracing and good old-fashioned police work, law enforcement located and recovered this impressive cache of crime proceeds,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. “This case shows that we won’t stop following the money, no matter how expertly hidden, even to a circuit board in the bottom of a popcorn tin.”

Michael Bachner, an attorney authorized to speak on Zhong’s behalf, said in a statement that his client is “extremely remorseful for his conduct that occurred over 10 years ago when he was just 22 years old.” He said Zhong returned “virtually all of the bitcoin” he stole. “Given the increase in bitcoin value over the past decade, the value of the bitcoin he returned exponentially exceeded the value of the bitcoin he took,” Bachner said. Zhong did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Justice Department said its action ranks as its second-largest crypto seizure ever, behind the $3.6 billion in bitcoin it seized in February from a New York couple that allegedly stole the assets in a 2016 hack of crypto exchange Bitfinex.

Prosecutors said Zhong defrauded Silk Road by rapidly executing transactions that fooled the online marketplace’s payment system into depositing bitcoin into his account. Silk Road launched in 2011 as a hub for people to transact in bitcoin for drugs and other illegal goods and services until federal authorities pulled the plug on it in 2013. Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht was convicted in 2015 of seven felony charges related to running the marketplace and sentenced to life in prison.