A New York judge granted bail for two people charged with trying to launder billions of dollars worth of Bitcoin stolen in a 2016 hack of the Bitfinex currency exchange.
Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan appeared in a lower Manhattan federal courtroom Tuesday after being arrested at 7am in New York. The US 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.
The government initially asked the judge not to allow them to be released on bail. Each is facing the possibility of a 20-year prison sentence, so they have the motivation to run, a prosecutor told the judge. 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."
The judge set bail for Morgan at $3 million and asked her parents to post their home as security. For Lichtenstein, bail was set at $5 million.
Lichtenstein, 34, holds dual US 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 this 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. 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 US 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. They face trial in Washington, where the charges were filed.
Lichtenstein's lawyer said 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.