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Two Secret Service Raids Later, Previous Holder of Over $4m in BTC in Good Spirits
One man's world has been inarguably changed, for the better, and the worse, by Bitcoin. Through a shrewd and, what some have claimed dubious, business deal, Nashville, TN resident Michael Brown (known online as “Knightmb”) acquired 371,000 Bitcoins (then worth roughly $20,000 in a market which couldn't bear downward pressure) for $5,000. As of this writing, the 371,000 Bitcoins he purchased in 2011 are currently worth approximately $4m. Now, however, he may not only be Satoshi-less, but may also (again) be at risk of a stay in federal prison.
Who Is Michael Brown? Brown lives in TN with his wife and child, working in just about everything technical. He provides wireless Internet service, designs hardware for other his company and other Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) to use, as well as software. Brown also works as network, email, and website administer for multiple SMBs. Brown is quite familiar with Bitcoin and within the earlier online community. Around 2010, Brown even wrote and published an abstract on “Timekoin,” a proposed Bitcoin alternative he still uses.
Brown's Bitcoins Around the time of Bitcoin's birth, Brown collected money (the project had roughly $12,000 in total funding) and bought hashing power to accumulate Bitcoins. By the time the money had run out, the project owned approximately 371,000 Bitcoins. However, even while the price of Bitcoins were roughly $.06 each, there was only very weak market demand. According to Brown, “It is easy in hindsight to think of how foolish anyone would be to sell that large amount of bitcoins for such a small amount, but back then there were articles written all over the Internet about bitcoin being a pyramid scam or a fools investment. The people (investors) that originally got into it, thought they had made a huge investment mistake and just wanted to get out.” And get out they did, allowing Brown to buy the project and its 371,000 Bitcoins for “only” $5,000.
However, while this collection of Bitcoin would be worth roughly $4,000,000 USD as of this writing, Brown states he did give away most of his holdings, including a large chunk to Wikileaks when they began accepting BTC donations, with Brown adding the quip “At the time though, I might as well have been sending power points from pokemon cards as far as what actual value they would get from it.“ Brown also gave much of his holdings away to those finding his contact information, with the remainder being sold once the Bitcoin market skyrocketed, allowing him to “make back my initial investment plus a lot of interest.“
There have been claims of foul play by Brown's previous partners, who were primarily members of electric bicycle forum Endless-Sphere. Bitcoin Magazine reached out to Justin, the current owner of the forum (Brown previously owned the forum while the Bitcoin accumulation project was ongoing). However, as of this writing, no evidence was brought up indicating Brown had done anything morally questionable. While there was “a three day mutiny” against Brown while he owned the forum, it appears this was solely related to the sale of the forum to another person (not Justin) who wanted the forum to be monetized.
Tax Document Theft In mid-2012, Mitt and Ann Romney's tax documents were stolen from their accounting firm, PWC. Later, PWC received a flash drive and ransom letter demanding $1m worth of Bitcoins to keep the documents private. These documents, as of today, were never released, though it would appear the Romneys never paid the ransom. BitInstant, for their part in grabbing the media's attention in this ordeal, offered the Romney campaign a free USD-to-BTC conversion should they be interested.
The flash drive in the envelope sent to PWC did not just contain copies of the documents the ransomer was threatening to release, but also included two pictures of cats around furniture. The cat pictures were heavily scrutinized by the US Secret Service and considered to be the smoking gun of the case, which Brown says “has kind of turned into a running joke now among friends and family.” The Secret Service then decided, likely with evidence not yet presented to the public, to conduct a raid against Michael Brown and his family's home (again).
Likely taken into consideration by the United States SS was Brown's previous acquaintance with SS agents during their last raid of his house, which occurred in 2009. At the time, Brown worked for an insurance company to help them neatly organize customers' personal information into a spreadsheet. Brown alleges that part of the information he was to organize were social security numbers, which he wasn't sure if was legal. Brown contacted the insurance company but wasn't given proper attention until he threatened to tell national media. Brown says, “They explained that no one should have access to any customer's social security number, but I was trying to show them it was wrong assumption. Soon afterward, instead of fixing the issue, they called the federal government and told them I had stolen their customer data which contained tens or hundreds of thousands of social security numbers.“ It was at this point Brown first experiences the joy of a federal raid, where only his workstation was seized (he would not be so lucky in the future). According to Brown, “After many months and many visits to the Secret Service office in Nashville, the case was finally closed for being a waste of time and resources for the Secret Service and my workstation was returned (damaged). No charges were ever filed and the case dropped.“
The 2012 Raid It was September 14th, 2012 when Brown and his wife would again awake to bright flashlights being shone in their faces by Secret Service agents. This time, agents demanded answers about the pictures of cats written to the USB drive included with the ransom letter sent to the Romneys' tax firm.
Unfortunately for the Secret Service, they soon found neither the cats nor the furniture pictured. This didn't prevent them from further interrogating Brown and his family, however. His daughter would later be able to identify the cats as being owned by one of Brown's former clients, Janine Bolin, whose computer he backed up for her while helping repair her system. The Secret Service left Brown's house after crawling around his attic and confiscating any electronics they could find. They then paid a visit to Bolin's house, where they'd again confiscate all electronic equipment in case it might have evidence.
Brown states legal fees may be as high as $6,000, with other damages including what was done to his house (including the stereotypical broken doors), and says the situation the US Secret Service has created is similar to if “your local plumber has his entire truck taken, along with all the tools he uses for the trade.” Brown appears in good spirits, however, saying “if I ever do get any/all of my equipment back, I'm going to have a lot of extra of the same thing at least.” Brown ends responding to my questions with “Overall, the Federal government is made up of regular people like myself. The Federal government makes mistakes and bad things happen because of it. The most our family can do is pick up our life and move on. That is why we were reaching out for help. There have been many times when I've donated money or resources to help those in need, I guess it is time I ask the same in return of my fellow man.”
Brown has created a site for donations at
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