‘Bitcoin Maven’ sentenced to a year in prison for money laundering

By James Koren

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have for years been a preferred payment method on the so-called dark web — anything-goes corners of the internet where you can find drugs and other illegal products and services.

But once a drug dealer accepts crytocurrency, how do they turn that money into real currency? The case of Theresa Tetley is instructive.

The Marina del Rey woman exchanged millions of dollars in cash for bitcoin, including for a suspected online drug dealer. She was sentenced Monday to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to money laundering.

Tetley, a former stockbroker turned bitcoin enthusiast who called herself “Bitcoin Maven,” will also pay a $20,000 fine and give up nearly $300,000 in cash, 25 gold bars and 40 bitcoin — worth about $270,000 as of Monday afternoon — that federal authorities seized last year.

From 2014 to last year, Tetley exchanged as much as $9.5 million in cash for bitcoin, meeting clients at restaurants, coffee shops and other public places to hand over envelopes of cash in exchange for the virtual currency, the Justice Department said in court filings.

She was arrested in March 2017 after a sting operation orchestrated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. She offered to exchange $300,000 in cash — carried in two Trader Joe’s paper grocery bags — for bitcoin held by an undercover DEA agent posing as a drug dealer, prosecutors said.

The Justice Department also alleged that Tetley made $6 million worth of bitcoin-for-cash exchanges with William James Farber, a Los Angeles man charged last summer with running an Altadena drug ring that sold cannabis on dark-web marketplaces Silk Road and AlphaBay.

Tetley was charged with money laundering and operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business and pleaded guilty to both charges in January.

It’s not illegal to exchange bitcoin or other digital currencies for cash, but Tetley did so without obeying federal rules that require banks and other financial firms to report suspicious activity and large cash transactions — measures that aim to curb money laundering by drug traffickers or other illegal businesses.

Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, which are not issued by governments and can be directly exchanged from person to person without going through banks or other regulated institutions, are a preferred payment method for dark-web transactions.

But those who accept virtual currency payments for illicit transactions may have a difficult time exchanging those holdings for real currency — unless they find someone like Tetley who would not report suspicious activity to federal regulators.

Brian Klein, one of Tetley’s attorneys, called the 12-month sentence a victory, noting that it is substantially shorter than the 30-month sentence sought by federal prosecutors. In a sentencing document submitted to the court, her attorneys argued that Tetley, though guilty, “did not set out to engage in a broad-ranging criminal enterprise.”

“We are pleased the judge made such a dramatic departure,” Klein said.

The U.S. attorney’s office argued in court filings that Tetley should have received a longer sentence because her conduct showed she knew or should have known some of her clients were engaging in illegal activity.

“Providing cash in envelopes (and in the significant amounts she did), in coffee shops and restaurants, is no way to conduct legitimate business, certainly when that volume exceeds the millions,” government attorneys said in court filings. “Her decision to continue to proceed in this manner highlights the seriousness of the offense.”