THE HIGH PRIEST OF CRYPTOPIA REGRETS NOTHING
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
Ian Freeman could have been a bitcoin billionaire. Instead, he built a renegade society in a small New Hampshire town—and could go to prison for the rest of his life.
SIMON VAN ZUYLEN-WOOD
THE CENTER OF THE CENTER OF bitcoin in the physical realm, one could argue, is a run-down two-story house on Leverett Street in the small New Hampshire town of Keene. Half-covered in peeling green paint, it’s got a wraparound porch crammed with rotting sofas, a satellite dish, bug-zapping devices, and some potted flowers. If billionaires have a scent, it is not the one you smell inside—a rainy-season Granite State musk of earth, sweat, and gorp.

On the last Sunday in May, ten days after posting a $200,000 bond and getting out of jail, the house’s primary occupant, Ian Freeman, sits down in a recording studio on the first floor to host an episode of “Free Talk Live,” the radio call-in show he founded two decades ago. At 41, dressed in a softball shirt, blue jeans, and an ankle monitor, he resembles Novak Djokovic, with short black hair, skeletal features, and the complexion of a white paper. The show begins, as it does seven nights a week, with a barrage of churning guitars—in contrast to Freeman himself, a serene presence who describes his life’s work as “advocating for peace.”

Although he was one of the first Americans to popularize bitcoin, ten years and several million percentage points of investment return ago, Freeman has been hawking cryptocurrency less for the money and more for the libertarian ideals he believes it represents. Here in rural New Hampshire, he has long been the figurehead of an activist collective called Free Keene, which agitates against state power in every form, from cops to taxes. He is also the co-founder of an upstart parish called the Shire Free Church, devoted to weaning his rural enclave off government money. Thanks to his efforts, Keene has credibly been called the per capita crypto mecca of the country, but Freeman’s zealous prioritizing of bitcoin’s on-the-ground social potential over its financial power has cost him. Forbes tracks 12 crypto billionaires on its list of the world’s largest fortunes; Freeman lives on Leverett Street with his girlfriend, Bonnie Kruse, and a revolving cast of roommates, the latest of whom is a gun enthusiast named Matt who sells pet insurance.

Matt is shirtless and playing video games in his room as Freeman begins his broadcast, joined by two of his regular cohosts: a metal-band guitarist who goes by the Reverend Captain Kickass and a massage therapist whose nom de crypto is Peakless Mountaineer. All three present as curious and hyperarticulate, if dogmatic in their politics, which verge on the anarchic. Tonight, they’re discussing nonfungible tokens, the cryptographic watermarks that have conferred a staggering degree of value on seemingly worthless digital images. Freeman is skeptical. He mentions the forgotten Cryptokitty fad of 2017, in which people transacted NFTs of virtual cats. “People seem to be kind of split on whether they’re a good idea or not, and I say more power to ’em,” he says placidly. “Personally, I have no attraction whatsoever.”

Peakless Mountaineer, though, wonders if NFTs could augur a golden age of decentralized record-keeping. “The very word register—like, to register a thing—I mean, the root is king,” he says. (The etymology is disputed.) “You are giving it to the king’s men so that they will keep track that you registered this piece of land or whatever it was. And we don’t need the king to register things now.”

Soon a caller from Texas asks Freeman whether holding someone in jail before being convicted of a crime violates the 13th Amendment and might be, technically, slavery. This is the kind of thing people talk about every night on “Free Talk Live,” which the radio-industry bible Talkers rates as the 25th-most-influential program in the country, six spots after Ben Shapiro. On the walls of the studio, Freeman has tacked up lists of preferred synonyms for government, including goons, tyrants, despots, parasites, thugs, mafia, idiots, liars, thieves, lunatics, killers, and gang members. “Well, we’re all already slaves,” Freeman tells the caller. In his view, anybody subject to government laws is chattel. Captain Kickass counters, “You are more of a slave right this moment than I am,” and Freeman readily concedes the point.

Two months earlier, on the frigid early morning of March 16, two armored BearCats rolled up to Freeman’s house. Camo-clad federal agents spilled out, busted a window, and flew in a drone to make sure no one inside had a rifle or a suicide vest; then they stormed in, upending the studio, seizing computers, handcuffing people, and hauling Freeman away. In and around Keene, authorities also raided the homes of five of his associates. Later that day, in Concord, New Hampshire, Department of Justice prosecutors unveiled a 20-count indictment against them, the culmination of a five-year investigation.

The government alleged that Freeman had been running a sophisticated multimillion-dollar racket that enabled “hordes of cyber criminals” to scam victims and launder money. To do this, prosecutors said, Freeman and his crew used both online accounts and crypto vending machines to execute thousands of unlicensed transactions, trading the Shire’s bitcoin for cash without asking too many questions about its origins. Freeman was also charged with enlisting friends to stash his operation’s proceeds into newly created bank accounts under false pretenses. (Freeman and his co-defendants have pleaded not guilty.)

During the raids, agents seized more than $200,000 in cash as well as two novelty physical bitcoins embedded with the digital coordinates to what was then worth about $5.7 million. As for how much crypto Freeman or the Shire Free Church has socked away in digital wallets—well, the whole point of bitcoin is that the government has no idea. When I visited Keene, one well-connected member of the Shire told me that the church’s bitcoin reserves are in the four figures, which would translate to $50 million or more.

Impressive as that would be, the dollar amount isn’t what is significant about what is alleged to have transpired in Keene. (In May, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued five people for their involvement in a scheme measuring 40 times larger.) Freeman and his crunchy partners represent bitcoin’s founding politics—its anti-state origins, which have been all but forgotten thanks to the asset class’s vertiginous price swings; its overnight minting of a new and poorly understood set of billionaires; and sideshow manias like the one for NFTs. That side of bitcoin is all over CNBC. In the anti-government enclaves of New Hampshire, though, Freeman and his co-defendants have become a cause célèbre, martyrs dubbed the Crypto Six. Libertarians have rallied to their defense, printing T-shirts, establishing a legal fund, and picking apart the government’s case. “It sounds like he is guilty of free trade,” says Erik Voorhees, a pioneering crypto investor who used to run in the same New Hampshire circles.

Freeman’s plight has also generated Schadenfreude among the ordinary Keeners who see his movement as a blemish on their tidy town, population 23,000. Freeman & Co. have been pulling bush-league civil disobedience stunts for years, paying property taxes in stacks of $1 bills and serially harassing meter maids. (That undertaking was absurd enough to merit coverage on The Colbert Report.) Freeman’s co-defendants include someone legally named Nobody, as well as Aria DiMezzo, a self-identified “transsexual Satanist anarchist” who last year ran for county sheriff on a “Fuck the Police” platform. Lately, the antics have gotten more perilous. When covid-19 lockdowns hit, Freeman’s crew protested mask mandates and organized unsanctioned indoor gatherings, including a rave. For average New Hampshirites— those who don’t know Satoshi Nakamoto from John Sununu—all this fuss about bitcoin is a smoke screen for people who just want to troll the government.

As Freeman sees it, the two ideas are inseparable: Using bitcoin is provoking the government. Supplanting the dollar and weakening the central banks that print fiat notes with abandon: This was the shared vision of bitcoin’s founding generation of investors and evangelists, a cohort that included a significant number of “Free Talk Live” listeners. And this vision, Freeman reasons, was threatening enough to the government that it freaked out and threw him in jail. “For the first time in generations, if not most of human history, the individual can finally have control over money,” he says. “No wonder they’re upset.” The ultimate target, in other words, wasn’t Freeman or the Shire but cryptocurrency itself. His defenders portray his ascetic lifestyle as exculpatory, proof that he isn’t trying to line his own pockets—however much digital gold may be secreted in church coffers. “You’ve seen how he lives,” says Mark “Edge” Edgington, who co-founded “Free Talk Live.” “He could have moved anywhere in the world. He could have had women, and pools, and drinking. He could have had whatever lavish lifestyle you can imagine.”

At one point during “Free Talk Live,” a caller from Los Angeles asks Freeman if he’d have done anything differently had he known he would be indicted. “Is there something I regret? I mean, of course not,” he says. “This is my mission. I’ve been given this mission from God to get this alternative form of value into people’s hands.”

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