Former Athens resident pleads guilty in $3.3 billion cryptocurrency fraud

A Hall County man who once resided in Athens recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in New York to the largest cryptocurrency theft in U.S. history.

James Zhong, 30, of Gainesville last week pleaded guilty to committing wire fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney in New York. Facing 20 years in prison, Zhong will be sentenced on Feb. 22, 2023.

The investigation into Zhong’s Bitcoin finances led to a November 2021 search of Zhong’s home in Gainesville that resulted in the seizure of more than $3.36 billion in Bitcoin, described by the U.S. Attorney as the largest financial seizure ever by the Internal Revenue Service.

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When federal investigators searched Zhong’s home they also seized Bitcoin in an underground floor safe, bitcoin loaded on a computer that was hidden inside a popcorn tin, along with $661,900 cash and 11 1-ounce bars of silver and gold.

Zhong was living on Ruth Street in Athens in March 2019, when he reported his home was burglarized while he was out of town between March 7-13. He came home to discover a window in a rear bedroom shattered and the thief had found a brief case that contained $400,000 cash and a USB thumb drive with personal information, according to the police report.

Zhong told the police officer he felt the person who stole the money apparently knew him because he had hidden the brief case behind an air vent.

Police Lt. Shaun Barnett said Tuesday that the cash was never recovered, nor was a suspect identified. However, he said the burglary and amount of money reported stolen “raised a red flag with the IRS.”

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Federal investigators said Zhong originally stole the Bitcoin by going into the Silk Road dark web marketplace, according to the report.

Silk Road is an online black market used by drug dealers and others to distribute illegal drugs and goods to buyers, according to the U.S. Attorney. Silk Road was created by an Austin, Texas native who is now serving life in prison.

“James Zhong committed wire fraud over a decade ago when he stole approximately 50,000 Bitcoin from Silk Road. For almost 10 years, the whereabouts of this massive chunk of missing Bitcoin had ballooned into an over $3.3 billion mystery,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement released Monday. “… 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.”

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Former Athens resident pleads guilty in to $3.3 billion Bitcoin theft