US judge halts bail for ‘crypto couple’ in $4.5BN Bitcoin hack

The husband and wife are accused of trying to launder billions worth of Bitcoin stolen in a 2016 hack of the Bitfinex currency exchange.

The Bitfinex website
Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, and Heather Morgan, 31, allegedly conspired to launder 119,754 Bitcoin, currently valued at about $4.5 billion, stolen after a hacker breached Bitfinex’s systems [File: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg]

A Washington judge halted a decision to grant bail to two people charged with trying to launder billions of dollars worth of Bitcoin stolen in a 2016 hack of the Bitfinex currency exchange.

Late Tuesday, the judge granted an emergency request by the U.S. government to continue to hold Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan in jail while the bail decision is reviewed. “The defendants are sophisticated cyber criminals and money launderers who present a serious risk of flight,” prosecutors said in their filing. The government said that while the majority of the stolen funds have been seized, there are several other virtual currency addresses that the government believes the couple control that hold about 7,506 Bitcoin, valued at more than $328 million.

Lichtenstein and Morgan had been granted bail by a judge in lower Manhattan Tuesday night, after being arrested at 7 a.m. in New York. They face trial in Washington. The U.S. government said it seized about $3.6 billion worth of cryptocurrency from the married couple, the largest financial seizure ever. The two allegedly conspired to launder 119,754 Bitcoin, currently valued at about $4.5 billion, stolen after a hacker breached Bitfinex’s systems.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra C. Freeman had set bail at $5 million for Lichtenstein and $3 million for Morgan. Both bonds were to be secured by their parents’ homes. But prosecutors asked a judge in Washington for an emergency delay to allow that court to consider whether Lichtenstein and Morgan should be released. Chief Judge Beryl Howell agreed with the government Tuesday night in a one-page order.

The government had initially asked the judge in New York not to allow them to be released on bail. Each defendant is facing the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence, so they have the motivation to run, a prosecutor told the judge in court. When the judge indicated she would set a bond, the government requested it be set at $100 million, an amount one of the defense lawyers called “laughable.”

Lichtenstein, 34, holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship. He wore jeans and a gray shirt in the courtroom, his brown hair was slightly messy and he sported a paunch. Morgan, 31, appeared in court wearing a white hooded sweatshirt, her long hair down. They both wore masks, as did everyone else in the room, per court requirements.

They looked at the magistrate judge as she read them their rights. Neither of them spoke publicly during the initial appearance. Their lawyers — they have retained separate counsel — did the talking in court.

Morgan, who was born in Oregon and grew up in California, has foreign ties, the prosecutor said in court. She has lived in Hong Kong and Egypt and is studying Russian, according to her social media. She’s a journalist and economist and travels internationally for work, according to the government. Her father is a retired U.S. government biologist and her mother worked as a librarian. Morgan’s parents were in the courtroom Tuesday.

Lichtenstein moved to the U.S. at the age of 6 to escape religious prosecution. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where his mother was a biochemist at Northwestern University. His father worked for Cook County. His parents were also willing to put up their home as bond.

They have been a couple since 2015, the government said.

Lichtenstein’s lawyer told the New York judge that his client didn’t flee despite being fully aware of the investigation for months, after being informed in November by an Internet service provider. His lawyer also said there was no proof against Morgan.

But prosecutors argued they shouldn’t be freed, noting that the defendants used false identities in their crimes. Lichtenstein had a folder named “personas,” and there was a file on a computer with the name “Passport_ideas” with links to phony identification and passports, the government alleged. A search of their apartment found a plastic baggie under the bed labeled “burner phones,” according to a prosecutor.

A lawyer for the defendants, Anirudh Bansal, declined to comment on the case outside the Manhattan courtroom.

Source: Bloomberg