The Sacking Of a Crypto Mecc

August 2, 2021


Russell Brandom


The sky was still dark when the agents arrived at Leverett St. in Keene, New Hampshire, a leafy block of kit houses at the quiet edges of the small college town. They settled on a house at the corner, surrounding it with two armored BearCat G3s and a fleet of unmarked SUVs. Both BearCats had gunners stationed in a hatch on the roof, clad in camo fatigues. The only light came from the blue-and-red sirens, strobing off houses in every direction.

Inside, Ian Freeman was asleep with his girlfriend and their small dog Coconut. He woke to the sound of exploding glass. A ramming pole, tethered to the front of one of the BearCats, had plowed through a first floor window, tearing off the frame as it backed up. Freeman threw on a bathrobe and stumbled downstairs, still shaking off sleep. There was shattered glass everywhere. His first thought was that some stranger had thrown a brick. But then he heard a whirring sound, a small hovering drone that police had deployed to explore the house. He looked outside and saw blinding lights. Coming into focus beside the lights, men pointed rifles at him.

One mile east, Freeman’s talk radio co-host Aria DiMezzo stumbled downstairs in her underwear only to be met by a tactical assault team, who told her they would shoot her if she moved. At the town’s Bitcoin Embassy, a group of agents tore a Bitcoin dispenser from the concrete floor, leaving four symmetrical holes where it had been bolted down. They took another machine from the Campus Convenience in central Keene, another from a bar called Murphy’s Taproom, and a fourth from the Red Arrow Diner in Nashua. Together, they held more than $50,000 in cash.

There was even more money in Freeman’s home, seized by federal agents and later reported to the courts in a forfeiture filing: $180,000 in cash, a 100oz Swiss silver bar (worth roughly $3,000), and a platinum coin stamped with a portrait of Ron Paul. There were boxes full of gold-laced bills called goldbacks that were too obscure to even put a value on — some taken from Freeman’s home, others seized in transit by the postal service. The biggest prize was two Casascius physical Bitcoins, worth 100 and 1 btc respectively, first available in 2011 and now worth more than $4 million.

For police, the money was nearly as important as Freeman himself. For years, they had been tracking his Bitcoin business for evidence of money laundering or other crimes. As far as they were concerned, it was all part of an unlicensed money transmittal scheme processing millions of dollars a year. The purpose of the raid was to break that system, tearing out Freeman’s Bitcoin machines one by one and seizing any illegal proceeds along with them.

News of the raid spread fast. A local Linux developer and crypto activist named Christopher Waid rushed to Freeman’s house to film the last gasps of the raid, catching footage of the BearCats, the drone, and the bizarre militarism of it all. When he was done there, he headed to the Bitcoin Embassy, where a crowd had gathered to watch police carry out duffel bags and plastic tubs full of loose paper. Despite the name, the embassy was little more than a side room to a convenience store. The most radical part of it was the bookshelf, offering DevOps manuals alongside copies of Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

For years, Freeman had been warning about federal encroachment, broadcasting every night on the radio about the tightening fist of the state. His Bitcoin venture was part of a broader Free State movement in New Hampshire, turning a quiet corner of New England into a libertarian paradise. Now the counterforce was here, like a prophecy fulfilled, and the Free Staters understood their role perfectly. They were ready with cameras, asking for warrants and litigating precisely where they were allowed to stand while the raid dragged on. When police herded the crowd across the street, it just meant they had to yell that much louder.

“You guys are the fucking enemy!” one of the protestors told the agents, as they carried out another tub of papers. “You’re not protecting anybody’s fucking freedom. You’re all a bunch of gangsters.”

ByBy the end of the day on March 16th, six people were in custody: including Freeman, his girlfriend, and a married couple who lived nearby. Two co-hosts on the radio show were also named: DiMezzo and a man born as Richard Paul, who had legally changed his name to Nobody in protest of the bureaucratic state. According to the indictment, all six had been involved in Freeman’s Bitcoin dispenser business. An indictment filed under seal the day before the raid counted out thirteen instances when someone from the group had contacted a bank on behalf of the business since April 2017, listing each call or email as a count of wire fraud.

The defense lawyers describe the project in more idealistic terms. “The defendants were a loosely affiliated group of people with libertarian political leanings that included a strong belief that Bitcoin was a great development for those who champion human freedom,” one filing reads.

There are lots of people like that in Keene, although you might not guess it from driving through. A quiet college town of less than 25,000 people, the libertarian migration to New Hampshire (also known as the Free State Project) has turned it into a magnet for cryptocurrency buffs, some of whom have unexpectedly become millionaires after the Bitcoin boom of the past few years. In 2019, Forbes called the town a “crypto mecca,” citing more than 20 businesses accepting some form of cryptocurrency payment. Many of those businesses were solicited directly by Freeman and his cohort, who saw cryptocurrency as a kind of moral crusade against the belligerence of the US government.

Freeman is best known as the host of Free Talk Live, a libertarian talk radio show syndicated to 185 radio stations across the country. Many of the activists outside the embassy had appeared on the show at some point, including Waid. When the BearCat rammed through the window, it was ramming into Freeman’s studio, a maze of cables and audio racks where the show is recorded, mixed, and distributed.

Free Talk Live gave Freeman the power to draw together a community of crypto-minded libertarians in Keene, but it also amplified his ugliest mistakes. Most recently, it gave center stage to his still-active lawsuit against New Hampshire’s mask mandate. (“I was never really convinced that COVID was a particularly dangerous thing,” Freeman tells me when I ask about the case.) The show also gave an early home to the infamous “crying nazi” Christopher Cantwell, who appeared on Free Talk Live when he was still trying to brand himself as a libertarian anti-police activist. (“When he became a racist, I fired him from Free Talk Live,” Freeman says. “He just kept getting deeper into that world.”)

The chaotic world of libertarian talk radio made Freeman’s show a natural gathering point for the early Bitcoin community. Free Talk’s first call about Bitcoin came in December 2010, the same month Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from active development of the Bitcoin spec.


Hyped on the Free Talk Live site as the first consumer media mention of Bitcoin, the episode now comes off as a bizarre time capsule. The first 20 minutes are taken up with a discussion of voluntarist alternatives to the fire department and municipal road maintenance, after which the conversation turns to crystal meth and Venezuela. Around 40 minutes in, a caller named Jeremy from Australia chimes in to talk about a new digital currency called Bitcoin.

“It was about six cents for a Bitcoin in August and now it’s 26 cents, so it’s already increased quite a bit,” Jeremy says.

“My initial concern was that it’s essentially a fiat currency, because it’s not backed by anything,” Freeman responds. “It’s a neat idea. I don’t know if it’s yet a fantastic alternative.”

Freeman came around to Bitcoin in the months that followed, eventually fitting it into broader complaints about the way the US government controls the value of the dollar. The price kept rising: within three years it had cleared $1,000, then $10,000 four years after that. According to the forfeiture documents, Freeman’s cryptocurrency holdings are now worth well over $5 million.

As more money flooded into cryptocurrency, something else came with it. The version of Bitcoin that’s become popular in recent years is less political and more straightforwardly interested in making money. Venture capital has embraced the blockchain as an opportunity on the same scale as targeted advertising or independent-contractor labor schemes. It’s rare to hear concerns about the Federal Reserve at a Bitcoin conference these days, and few are interested in standoffs with regulators — there’s just no money in it.

But if you’re ready to work with regulators, the money is almost endless. Coinbase, an early adherent to federal Know Your Customer rules, is now processing more than $100 billion of transactions every month, while the company itself is valued at $50 billion. New wallet regulations are creeping forward from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and while some activists cry foul, most entrepreneurs have welcomed them with open arms. At the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, the Winklevoss twins promised a crowd of real estate moguls and retail investors that anyone who owns a Bitcoin will one day be a millionaire.

For true believers like Freeman, that shift has been bittersweet. “There’s nothing wrong with somebody seeing it from that perspective and just wanting to invest in a thing and be successful,” Freeman tells me. “But in the libertarian Bitcoin community up here, they see it differently. They see it as a dramatic transfer of power.”

But if Mt. Gox and the Silk Road represented a transfer of power, the power is now shifting back the other way. In 2017, international raids took down BTC-e (then the largest unregulated exchange), with a money laundering sting revealed the following year. An Ohio man was arrested last year for running a Bitcoin tumbler called Helix, which mixed blockchain records with obscure transactions; a month after the New Hampshire raid, a Russian-Swedish national was arrested for running a similar service called Bitcoin Fog.

In public statements, prosecutors refer to these as “darknet” cases, treating the unregulated Bitcoin system as a loosely organized criminal conspiracy. There is a lot of tainted money on the blockchain: money from drug sales, online scams, or stolen from individual users as part of a breach. Tumblers and anonymous exchanges let criminals escape with that money, so law enforcement agencies are trying to shut them down one by one, like plugging holes in a dam. With so much dirty money trying to get clean, the prosecutions take on a kind of fatalist logic. Any unregulated exchange will eventually be used for money-laundering; any unmonitored flow of coins will eventually be an accomplice to a crime.

For the Keene project, keeping those coins unmonitored was the whole point. Their goal was to maintain the privacy and freedom of Bitcoin’s original design while staying just inside the bounds of the law. But to the federal government, it just looked like one more hole to be plugged.

Original article by 

Russell Brandom

Start Your Journey with Casablanca Connect