Heather Morgan is free, for now. The 31-year-old fraudster was offered bail on Valentine’s Day, releasing her from incarceration while her husband, Ilya “Dutch” Liechtenstein, remains in federal bondage.
Morgan is at the centre of a psychedelic cryptocurrency saga, that began when the pair were arrested on suspicion of laundering $4.5bn worth of stolen bitcoin. That money was originally pilfered from a Hong Kong-based crypto exchange firm called Bitfinex, and it breaks the record for the most digital currency that’s ever been seized by a criminal sting operation. (The pair allegedly spent the money on NFTs, gold and a Walmart gift card.) It’s the first major crime saga of the Web3 era – Blockchain noir, ripe for a Safdie Brothers film – and each twist in the storyline is more implausible than the last.
But who is this Bitcoin crime queen and what does she tell us about the future of organized crime and the stark new inequalities that it might create?
The money that Morgan and Lichtenstein are accused of laundering was originally pilfered six years ago, and honestly it’s a minor miracle that the Department of Justice was capable of digging it up in the first place as crypto is notoriously difficult to recover. So far they have seized $3.6bn. So if you are already the sort of person who might be seduced by the grifter’s lifestyle, cryptocurrency is a natural hideout point.
Everything about this case is more evidence of the worryingly psychotropic texture our monetary system has taken on in 2022 – a year when late-night hosts are dropping thousands of dollars on cartoon apes and YouTube prankster Logan Paul is making $20m per boxing match. It is hard to articulate how it feels to be alive in an age of massive wealth disparity and multiple deregulatory lines of questionable crypto minting, but I think watching an alleged Bitcoin embezzler struggle through painful rap bars in a flat-billed cap that reads “0 FCKS” is a good summation of the overwhelming confusion.
Let’s begin with the many layers of Heather Morgan’s business portfolio. It turns out that when The Crime Queen of Bitcoin is not conducting her digital heists, she’s also an ascendent TikTokker, a self-help YouTuber, an economic columnist and most impressively, an amateur rapper. The alias she uses for her artistic ventures: “Razzlekhan.”
After her arrests, the world was briefly subsumed by Razzlekhan’s mesmerizing public brand as reporters around the world splunked through the tranches of content left behind in Morgan’s wake. In one memorable music video, she gallivants through Wall Street in John Lennon sunglasses and a leopard-print scarf, ready for a fight. “I’ve got pallid blood, I’m a real risk-taker,” she rhymes in the shadow of a bronze George Washington statue.
There’s also a 14-minute YouTube soliloquy where Razzlekhan doles out higher-education advice. “I’m not trust fund,” she says. “My parents both work for the government. I’ve been totally broke and homeless. Money, in my mind, comes goes. Sometimes you have it and sometimes you don’t.” She makes no reference as to the exact nature in which she found herself with money.
Morgan was upfront about her financial avarice in a column she wrote for Inc. in 2021 entitled: 4 First-Time Founder Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs, Morgan asks readers to remember that your desire to hustle should never run dry. “The first million dollars in revenue is so exciting,” she wrote. “But once you hit that, you’re thinking about how to get to $5m, $10m, and suddenly $100m.”
At one point she asks her viewers to consider a goal, and find the “easiest path” to achieve it. Pinned to the top of her Twitter page is a quote that is erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something in your life.”
It is unsurprising that Morgan surfaced within the burgeoning blockchain underground.She embodies a ubiquitous type in the world of crypto – the chronically posting hustle-entrepreneur who has consolidated every available publicity stunt and duplicitous business undertaking within reach to brute-force a hollow, demi-influencer’s subsistence. To think that those music videos might’ve been funded by freshly laundered crypto credit is ghoulishly predictable. The couple is “a perfect synecdoche for everything anyone doesn’t like about an attention economy in which anything can be financialized”, argues Vice in their investigation into her rap career. Unsurprisingly, this week also brought news that Netflix was already hard at work on a docuseries about the couple. Who knows? Maybe Razzlekhan is destined to become the next Tiger King.
Heather Morgan and Dutch Liechtenstein have not pleaded guilty. Their defense attorney has taken an adversarial stance in the proceedings thus far, claiming that the government’s case is “thin.” So perhaps normalcy will return, justice will be served and the world can breathe easy knowing that a mediocre rapper and her husband are not capable of participating in the largest crypto heist in human history. But for now we do not have that privilege and I think that’s why everyone keeps tumbling down the Razzlekhan rabbit hole.
The lasting legacy of Morgan and Lichtenstein may be that they’ve killed the image we hold of a criminal kingpin in our heads. It’s been a long time since the mob ran New York City, in part because traditional organized crime, with its body counts, turf wars and punitive sentencing measures, is far too risky for the expected gains. In their stead, we have received a generation of crypto eccentrics who have moved operations to the arctic regions of the American economy. The blockchain was always going to attract the most unbridled dreamers of the population, and now we are watching one of them morph into a supervillain dressed in leather pants and a flight jacket, calling themselves the Turkish Martha Stewart in some of the worst hip-hop ever recorded.
As we get deeper into our uncertain metaversal future I expect that the rise and fall of figures like Morgan will become increasingly common. There are so many skeletons lingering in the closets of Manhattan high-rises, especially the ones lined with Bitcoin.
Source: The Guardian