The New York hipster couple charged in one of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency thefts had quietly opened bank accounts in Russia and traveled to Ukraine in order to obtain fake IDs, the authorities said. authorities.
Federal prosecutors have presented new details of the couple’s financial and travel movements as part of the government’s appeal of a judge’s decision earlier this week to grant bail to Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan.
The judge granted Lichtenstein, 34, $5 million bond and Morgan, 31, $3 million bail, but the couple remain in custody as the government appeals the decision, arguing that the couple posed a serious flight risk.
Prosecutors said they believe the couple still had control over crypto accounts containing $328 million and had experience creating fake identities and obtaining fake IDs via the dark web in order to create bank accounts under false names.
““The defendants not only have a strong incentive to flee, but the means to do so, and they appear to have taken significant steps to establish new identities and financial accounts in Ukraine and Russia to enable this flight.””
Earlier this month, investigators were able to seize $3.6 billion worth of bitcoin from crypto wallets controlled by the couple. They said the money was directly attributed to that stolen in a hack of the Bitfinex exchange in 2016. The Department of Justice said it was the largest cash seizure of its story.
In the new court filing, prosecutors detailed a trip Lichtenstein and Morgan took to Ukraine in 2019 during which they appeared to have received several packages containing fake Ukrainian identity documents, bank cards and SIM cards for their phones. laptops.
“The couple’s activities in Ukraine sometimes seem like something out of the pages of a spy novel,” the court filing reads.
Prosecutors said they believe the trip was a trial run for the couple’s eventual plan to leave the United States. They also said they determined that Lichtenstein and Morgan had opened numerous accounts with Russian financial institutions.
Lichtenstein is a dual US-Russian citizen and renewed his Russian passport in 2019, prosecutors said. Russia does not extradite its own citizens and Morgan would be eligible for Russian citizenship because of her marriage to Lichtenstein, prosecutors said.
“The defendants not only have a strong incentive to flee, but the means to do so, and they appear to have taken significant steps to establish new identities and financial accounts in Ukraine and Russia to enable this flight,” wrote the prosecutors. “The defendants’ access to hundreds of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency, the ability to obtain false identity documents on the darknet, and a history of numerous deceptive behaviors weigh heavily in favor of detention.”
A lawyer for the couple declined to comment on the new court filing, but previously argued in court papers that the couple knew they were under investigation as early as November and made no effort to flee and noted that both parents of the couple were required to provide their home as collateral as part of the bail conditions.
The filing also stated that Lichtenstein had left Russia with his family when he was 6 years old to flee religious persecution and that the family had been living in suburban Chicago ever since.
The couple have been serious globetrotters for years, traveling extensively in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Morgan had lived for long periods in Egypt and Hong Kong. People who knew the couple said they had become very cautious during the pandemic and severely limited their movements.
The couple’s lawyers said Morgan had previously contracted the MERS virus during an outbreak in the Middle East in 2012 and suffered from asthma, which put her at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.
Many electronic devices seized
The new state court filing also detailed what was seized from the couple’s Wall Street apartment during the execution of a search warrant on January 5. Investigators said they found bags containing several cellphones and SIM cards under the couple’s bed, including a bag marked “engravable phones”. A total of 50 electronic devices were removed from the home, some of which are still being investigated, according to the court filing.
Prosecutors also said that at one point Morgan attempted to lock a phone to make it harder for investigators to examine it and that the device had to be moved away from her.
Investigators also seized some $40,000 in cash, both in US dollars and foreign currencies. They also uncovered evidence that the couple had acquired some 70 gold coins, but were unable to locate them,