Technology

He’s Misplaced His Marriage, His Followers and His Lamborghini

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With its streamlined curves and glow-in-the-dark sound system, the silver Lamborghini Huracán Performante was the stuff of teenage fantasy: $350,000 of aerodynamic metals and light-weight upholstery, packed right into a taut and highly effective physique. Ben Armstrong beloved it dearly.

When he began purchasing for a Lamborghini, Mr. Armstrong, a cryptocurrency evangelist with a couple of million YouTube subscribers, fearful that he’d should spend months looking out. “I feel I’ve to go to Italy to get the Lambo I need,” he texted a enterprise companion. “I don’t need to compromise.” However destiny smiled on him. Within the fall of 2021, a automobile dealership in Charlotte, N.C., shipped the Huracán to Mr. Armstrong’s manufacturing studio in an Atlanta suburb.

Because the Lamborghini was lowered from a delivery truck, Mr. Armstrong, higher identified by the nom de crypto BitBoy, let loose a joyful chuckle. “I could have shed a tear,” he stated on the time.

Again then, BitBoy was one of the vital standard figures within the wild, scam-ridden world of crypto influencers. Cultivating a persona as a straight-talking everyman, he filmed a livestream 5 days per week wherein he lectured his lots of of hundreds of listeners on the virtues of experimental cash with names like Polkadot or XRP. He stated that regulators have been fools, and that digital cash supplied a path to upward mobility. The Lamborghini was vivid proof: Crypto would make you wealthy and funky and profitable.

Two years later, Mr. Armstrong, 41, has misplaced his manufacturing firm and far of his wealth. His associates have turned on him, and his spouse has filed for divorce. Over the past 5 months, throughout numerous social media posts and movies, Mr. Armstrong has claimed to be the sufferer of a “criminal conspiracy” by “terrorists” who took over his YouTube channel. “BitBoy is lifeless,” he not too long ago declared.

The difficulty began in August when Mr. Armstrong was unceremoniously ousted from his firm, HIT Community, by a bunch of his associates and enterprise companions. Since then, the schism has expanded right into a wide-ranging scandal: In courtroom and on social media, the assorted antagonists have traded allegations of extortion, theft, sexual harassment and office violence. An extramarital affair has sparked significantly heated recriminations. And the Lamborghini is gone.

“I’m going by way of a midlife disaster,” Mr. Armstrong stated in considered one of a number of current interviews. “A religious disaster.”

Within the good occasions, BitBoy’s rise to YouTube stardom was propelled by the identical cultural forces that turned crypto right into a multitrillion-dollar sensation. With swaggering confidence, he spun a get-rich-quick narrative that held huge attraction at a second when intelligent memes have been driving thousands and thousands of {dollars} in deal-making and crypto was hyped in Tremendous Bowl commercials.

That period has ended. The dramatic collapse of Mr. Armstrong’s empire mirrors the arc of the trade — a once-high-flying sector now tarred by scandal and teetering on the sting of mainstream relevance. As crypto crashed over the past two years, thousands and thousands of individuals misplaced financial savings, their digital riches erased virtually in a single day. Most of that wealth, they realized, was by no means actual to start with.

Like every charismatic salesman, Mr. Armstrong has a rigorously honed pitch: He was once only a common man, he likes to say, till crypto modified his life. After present process remedy for a methamphetamine dependancy within the early 2000s, he attended a Christian school and ended up marrying his admissions counselor. For a number of years, he dabbled in a wide range of companies — from graphic design to a carwash he helped run — earlier than selecting the risky crypto markets.

He began making movies in 2017, principally low-tech monologues about crypto information, however his channel didn’t take off till three years later, when a growth in costs attracted thousands and thousands of newbie merchants who have been in search of recommendation.

In the course of the pandemic, Mr. Armstrong upgraded to knowledgeable studio and employed a small employees to provide slick, professionally edited movies. His funding portfolio was surging: On the market’s peak, he has stated, he had about $40 million of crypto. However the line between his private funds and the company accounts was blurry: Most of these belongings technically belonged to BJ Funding Holdings, an organization that he owned with T.J. Shedd, a fellow crypto fanatic who managed the manufacturing enterprise.

If crypto is the Wild West of finance, then crypto influencers inhabit the wildest stretch of that frontier. The highest YouTubers — veering between earnest soliloquies concerning the Federal Reserve’s price cuts and impassioned endorsements of cash named after cartoon animals — command big audiences and maintain sway over the forms of obsessively on-line day merchants who drove the so-called meme inventory frenzy in 2021. Competitors for viewership is fierce. The result’s one thing like a cross between skilled wrestling and CNBC: a unfastened neighborhood of self-promoters, feuding over who affords one of the best monetary recommendation.

Widespread reveals can generate large cash. Crypto corporations pay influencers thousands and thousands of {dollars} to advertise monetary merchandise on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Telegram. In 2023, Mr. Armstrong signed a contract value $1 million a month with the playing firm Stake, which lets customers wager crypto in casino-style video games.

“That is the enterprise of leisure,” stated Aj Pleasanton, a crypto YouTuber who labored with Mr. Armstrong at HIT Community. “It’s not all the time about who has one of the best factual info. It’s not all the time about who has one of the best alpha on buying and selling. It’s about who has one of the best story.”

Within the crowded subject of crypto shock jocks, Mr. Armstrong carved out a distinct segment because the loudest and most aggressive. He typically wore a bright-green Gucci tracksuit, and appreciated to brag about his success available in the market. He inspired his viewers to put money into a slew of crypto merchandise, together with not less than one offered by a company that later collapsed, and predicted that Bitcoin would rise to $300,000 by the tip of 2021. (It didn’t.)

However whereas followers would mob him at trade conferences, Mr. Armstrong was often criticized for selling cash that crashed in worth and accepting funds from crypto corporations, together with one sponsorship he admitted wasn’t properly disclosed.

“Let’s be clear. I’m not going to jail,” he wrote on Reddit in 2022. “Perhaps some nice someday primarily based on shifting safety legal guidelines.” (The Securities and Change Fee has introduced a collection of circumstances in opposition to influencers who marketed dangerous crypto investments with out revealing that they have been compensated for the promotion.)

Because the crypto market cratered in 2022, Mr. Armstrong pivoted to an unlikely new persona — cop on the beat. Months earlier than the FTX crypto trade collapsed, he posted a collection of tweets and movies excoriating Sam Bankman-Fried, the corporate’s now-disgraced founder, calling him a “fox within the crypto henhouse” who was plotting to destroy rival start-ups. Mr. Bankman-Fried circulated a truth sheet claiming that BitBoy’s negativity was a part of a scheme by trade rivals to unfold misinformation about FTX.

After FTX folded that November, Mr. Armstrong flew to the Bahamas with a digital camera crew and tried to sneak round Mr. Bankman-Fried’s luxurious condo complicated there. “I killed this man’s complete profession,” he declared. “We saved crypto in America.”

However it was additionally round then that associates and colleagues began to fret about modifications in Mr. Armstrong’s habits, in keeping with interviews. BitBoy wasn’t an act. The recovered addict turned Christian household man had turn out to be unrecognizable in his private life. Soaking within the adulation of his followers, Mr. Armstrong was now a parody of a crypto bro — a man who spent a whole lot of time fascinated by Lamborghinis.

“Ben misplaced monitor of the individual he was once,” Mr. Shedd, his former enterprise companion, stated in a press release. “He brought about huge injury to each his skilled and private relationships.”

Final spring, because the crypto market struggled to rebound, Mr. Armstrong began selling a brand new cryptocurrency, BEN Coin, which he was creating with Cassandra Wolfe, a HIT Community contractor identified on social media because the Duchess of DeFi. Ms. Wolfe, 34, as soon as an aspiring influencer herself, had helped safe the profitable Stake sponsorship, however Mr. Armstrong’s employees thought BEN Coin was a nasty thought. They fearful that it was an clearly cynical cash seize and didn’t need him to advertise the enterprise on the BitBoy YouTube channel.

On the similar time, Mr. Shedd was beginning to hear different worrisome tales about his enterprise companion. In a September lawsuit, he accused Mr. Armstrong of “unlawfully directing and diverting” as a lot as $50,000 a month to Ms. Wolfe, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Mr. Armstrong had additionally stolen tens of hundreds of {dollars} in crypto from the agency, the grievance stated, together with a number of digital collectibles referred to as NFTs. Mr. Shedd triggered a clause within the holding firm’s working settlement that allowed him to purchase out Mr. Armstrong’s majority stake.

Mr. Armstrong contested the claims and filed a collection of lawsuits difficult the buyout; he argued that the funds to Ms. Wolfe have been completely authorized, and that the lacking NFTs belonged to him. However his world was collapsing. The authorized combat, which continues to be unfolding, turned up quite a few allegations of misconduct: Mr. Armstrong had been abusing steroids, one swimsuit stated, and had engaged in a spread of inappropriate and generally violent habits on the workplace, from sexually harassment to “throwing stuffed bottles of protein shake” at employees. (Mr. Armstrong has denied the accusations.)

Then got here the last word blow. In September, a crypto investor named Carlos Diaz, who moved in the identical social circles because the HIT Community executives, requested Mr. Armstrong to signal over the title to the Lamborghini. Mr. Diaz was a onetime BitBoy superfan. “There was a religious connection,” he stated in an interview. “I actually felt like this was God speaking to me by way of him.”

How precisely Mr. Diaz ended up asking his religious information for a $350,000 sports activities automobile stays the topic of appreciable authorized dispute. Mr. Diaz stated he had misplaced cash on a big funding in BEN Coin, whose worth had plummeted, and needed to promote the automobile to recoup the funds. Mr. Armstrong insists that Mr. Diaz introduced himself as an agent of HIT Community who was serving to the corporate increase cash. In any case, Mr. Armstrong stated, he felt bodily threatened and needed to achieve some sort of settlement.

BitBoy’s two-year tenure as a Lamborghini proprietor led to a Walmart car parking zone, the place he met Mr. Diaz to finish the paperwork.

Within the risky world of crypto, a YouTuber’s inventory can rise and fall as erratically as any cartoon-inspired meme coin. By December, Mr. Armstrong was trying a comeback. With Ms. Wolfe by his aspect, he flew to Las Vegas to announce his participation in “influencer combat membership” — a crypto-themed boxing occasion scheduled for February in Mexico Metropolis.

One night, Mr. Armstrong mingled with Ms. Wolfe and some different crypto influencers on the patio of Gold Spike, the downtown bar the place he was selling the occasion. Largely he needed to speak concerning the lacking Lambo.

“It’s in a showroom in Fort Lauderdale,” he defined to his associates, together with a YouTuber referred to as Crypto Keeper. “I’ve images.”

Because the dialog turned to much less thrilling matters, Mr. Armstrong pulled Ms. Wolfe shut and stroked her hair. Crypto Keeper leaned over to whisper in Mr. Armstrong’s ear.

“The duke and the duchess,” he stated. Mr. Armstrong grinned. “The duke and the duchess,” he repeated.

Behind the scenes, BitBoy’s issues have been mounting. He was streaming once more on a brand new YouTube channel, Ben Armstrong Crypto, shorn of the outdated BitBoy branding, however viewers had reacted to his downfall with a mixture of amusement and schadenfreude. “He’s all that’s cringe about crypto,” a columnist for the trade outlet CoinDesk wrote.

Mr. Armstrong was additionally below rising authorized strain. He had misplaced lots of his belongings and had spent greater than $150,000 on attorneys because the summer time. Again in Georgia, three male workers at HIT Community had gone to the native authorities to accuse him of touching them sexually, together with by grabbing them within the crotch or rear finish, in keeping with police experiences reviewed by The New York Occasions.

Mr. Armstrong acknowledged that his studio had a “locker room” surroundings; he blamed his outdated colleagues for by no means hiring a human-resources officer. However he denied harassing anybody, and he hasn’t been charged.

After the publicity of his affair, Mr. Armstrong released a video wherein he and his spouse, who’ve three younger youngsters, pledged to work by way of the disaster and maintain their household collectively. For some time, Mr. Armstrong thought each ladies would assist him: At an early listening to in his lawsuit in opposition to HIT Community, he sat within the courtroom with Ms. Wolfe on one aspect of him and his spouse, Bethany, on the opposite.

Then, in October, Ms. Armstrong filed for divorce. Courtroom data present that she has employed a forensic accountant to evaluate the scale of her husband’s crypto holdings.

Mr. Armstrong denies concealing any funds. However he’s defiant concerning the affair with Ms. Wolfe. “I like her higher than my spouse,” he stated. “To not be too crass, however we’ve a extremely, actually nice relationship.” (A lawyer for Ms. Armstrong stated she “seems ahead to presenting her aspect of those occasions in courtroom, if it results in that.”)

Because the summer time, Ms. Wolfe has been working with Mr. Armstrong to rebuild his fan base and combat for management of his firm. Earlier than she acquired inquisitive about crypto, she thought of legislation college, she stated, and ran a small clinic for individuals who needed to symbolize themselves in courtroom — principally males in divorce circumstances.

Ms. Wolfe, who has been married and divorced 4 occasions, met Mr. Armstrong at a convention in 2022 as she was making an attempt to make her means within the crypto trade. A number of months later, an astrologer she had discovered on the gig work web site Fiverr advised her that somebody was about to “change the trajectory” of her profession.

“Primarily based on the eclipse diploma, she’s like, ‘ this individual, however you don’t know concerning the alternative,’” Ms. Wolfe recalled. “She was speaking about him.”

In Las Vegas in December, Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Wolfe acquired matching tattoos of the BEN Coin brand, a collection of intersecting arrows illustrating the foreign money’s slogan, “Be In all places Now.” Ms. Wolfe stated BEN Coin was a severe enterprise, a method to encourage individuals to dabble in crypto. She and Mr. Armstrong are engaged on a deal to supply the coin in specialised A.T.M.s plastered with images of BitBoy, tooth clenched, elevating his fist in defiance.

However whilst he talked up his future, Mr. Armstrong couldn’t assist lingering on the previous. Practically each dialog in Las Vegas circled again to the identical long-winded theories concerning the manifold methods he was betrayed and the simmering jealousies which may have motivated the scheme to dethrone him.

Mr. Shedd all the time acted as if his sports activities automobile, a Nissan GT-R, was “higher than my Lamborghini,” Mr. Armstrong complained. “I didn’t even know what a GT-R was till he purchased it.”

Every week later, the duke and duchess returned to courtroom. Mr. Armstrong had begun the day with a collection of posts accusing one other distinguished influencer of becoming a member of a “pedophile ring” in Thailand. “Ben is on one this morning,” Ms. Wolfe stated as she stopped at a Starbucks close to the courthouse in Marietta, Ga.

Mr. Armstrong has sued half a dozen of his outdated colleagues. However probably the most private battle entails his Lamborghini — the image of his success as a YouTuber and crypto’s potential to generate life-changing riches. In courtroom filings in Georgia, Mr. Armstrong has argued that he was bullied and extorted into transferring the automobile’s title to Mr. Diaz, the BEN Coin investor.

In September, Mr. Armstrong had pushed to Mr. Diaz’s dwelling outdoors Atlanta, bringing a gun. Wanting matted in a sleeveless shirt, he stood on the road and started to livestream a rant concerning the lacking automobile.

“This man is extorting me,” Mr. Armstrong advised the police after they arrived to intervene. “He stole my Lamborghini.”

Now he was getting ready to argue that case in a Cobb County courtroom.

Underneath cross-examination by Mr. Diaz’s lawyer, Mr. Armstrong answered a collection of questions concerning the Lamborghini. Everybody agreed that the title to the automobile had been in his title, however Mr. Armstrong wasn’t certain whether or not the fee for it had come from his private funds or his firm’s accounts. He stated he had been fearful of Mr. Diaz, and solely reluctantly signed over the title.

Mr. Diaz’s lawyer requested concerning the livestream incident, which led to Mr. Armstrong’s arrest on still-pending misdemeanor prices.

“Did you repeatedly scream, ‘Carlos, Carlos, I’m not afraid of you anymore, Carlos’?” he inquired.

After about two hours, Choose Jana Edmondson-Cooper dominated in favor of Mr. Diaz. An extortion case requires the misappropriation of somebody’s property, and the choose concluded that Mr. Armstrong had didn’t show the automobile was “not an organization automobile.”

The Lamborghini of BitBoy’s goals had by no means belonged to him within the first place. Mr. Armstrong slammed his hand on the desk. “The choose is corrupt,” he stated as he marched onto the elevator. Two members of his authorized group exchanged seems; their shopper had a monitor document of intemperate posting. “Take his telephone,” considered one of them advised Ms. Wolfe.

BitBoy was wounded. He wasn’t getting the automobile again. Screenshots from the arrest video have been offering grist for infinite memes. And the brand new channel was languishing at 90,000 subscribers, a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million who had adopted BitBoy at his peak.

“There’s no win ever for me,” Mr. Armstrong fumed as he stormed away from the courthouse.

However the outdated bravado was again earlier than lengthy. After a number of days, BitBoy — like everybody within the crypto world — was wanting towards the subsequent large alternative, the day costs would surge once more.

“I’m a really complicated, misunderstood individual,” he stated. “I’m going to be wealthy once more. Everyone sort of sees that. It’s only a matter of how and when.”

Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed analysis.