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Missing Cryptoqueen Ruja Ignatova’s links to Bulgaria underworld – BBC.com

Image source, Shutterstock

Image caption, Ruya Ignatova has not been seen since flying from Sofia to Athens in October 2017.

  • author, BBC Eye Investigations, Panorama Team, The Missing Cryptoqueen Podcast
  • role, BBC World Service and BBC News

In September 2019, a BBC podcast began covering the incredible story of Ruja Ignatova, a Bulgarian woman wanted by the FBI for allegedly scamming investors out of $4.5bn (£3.54bn) using fake cryptocurrency before disappearing into thin air.

Now we follow in her footsteps and try to unravel her fate. BBC Eye Investigations and Panorama investigate her close ties to suspected Bulgarian organised crime bosses, and allegations that she was brutally murdered. Did Ms Ignatova enjoy the billions she stole, or was she killed by the people hired to protect her?

Oxford University graduate Ruya Ignatova was born in Bulgaria and raised in Germany, and had a successful career in finance before launching the cryptocurrency OneCoin in 2014.

Ignatova convinced millions of people around the world to invest in OneCoin, promising to surpass the huge profits made by early Bitcoin investors.

But in reality, Ignatova, known to many as “Dr. Ruja,” was orchestrating an elaborately disguised investment fraud without the digital records that underpin legitimate cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

German and US investigators were pursuing Ms Ignatova in October 2017 when she boarded an early morning Ryanair flight from Sofia to Athens and then disappeared.

Over the past year, the BBC World Service’s Eye Investigations and Panorama have been trying to find out more about what happened to her and whether she is still alive.

The key to this is finding out who her inner circle is.

Richard Reinhart, who launched the OneCoin investigation for the US Internal Revenue Service alongside the FBI, told the BBC about a key figure that investigators have not previously named publicly.

Missing Crypt Queen: Alive or Dead?

Ruja Ignatova, CEO of fake cryptocurrency OneCoin, is on the FBI’s most wanted list. She stole billions of dollars and then disappeared. New evidence sheds light on what happened. Did she disappear or was she murdered?

The BBC understands that the man in charge of keeping Ignatova safe is believed to be Christophoros Nikos Amanatidis, known as Taki.

“I was told a big-time narcotics agent was in charge of her personal security,” Reinhardt said in his first interview since retiring in late 2023.

“Taki came up a lot. It wasn’t a one-off, but a recurring theme.”

This matched information we already had: A U.S. government lawyer had said in 2019 that Ignatova’s security chief was a major organized crime figure in Bulgaria, without naming him.

“There is evidence that one of the most important, if not the most prolific, drug traffickers in Bulgarian history had close ties to OneCoin. [Ruja Ignatova’s] “Personal security,” the assistant lawyer said.

This was the same “security chief” that another U.S. government lawyer had said in court the previous day was “involved in the disappearance” of Ignatova.

Image caption, Former IRS agent who investigated the OneCoin case, Richard Reinhart

Reinhardt said Ignatova was a much more sophisticated criminal than most people realise.

“This is like a combination of a white-collar criminal, a drug dealer and a Mafia guy on steroids.”

This theory seems to be supported by leaked Europol documents seen by the BBC, which show that Bulgarian police had traced Ms Ignatova’s links to Taki before she disappeared in 2017.

According to the documents, police suspect Taki used OneCoin’s financial network to launder drug trafficking proceeds.

Taki has an almost mythical status in his native Bulgaria, akin to El Chapo or Pablo Escobar. He is widely suspected of being the head of Bulgaria’s organized crime gang and a drug trafficking mastermind. He and his associates have been investigated for armed robbery, drug trafficking and murder, but have never been charged with any crime.

Image caption, Taki was once the subject of an Interpol “red notice.”

“Speaking of Taki, he is the boss of the Bulgarian mafia. He has a lot of power,” said Ivan Khristanov, a former Bulgarian deputy minister who in 2022 investigated allegations that Taki was running a criminal network with the help of corrupt officials and believes that was the case.

“Taki is a ghost. You will never meet him. You will only hear about him. He speaks to you through other people. If you do not listen, you will disappear from the earth.”

The only person who can protect her is [Ignatova] All investigations, including those by foreign agencies, have shown that it was Taki.”

The BBC wrote to the Bulgarian government about the allegations about corrupt officials but received no response. The prosecutor’s office in the capital, Sofia, said it “does not cover up crimes or people who may have committed crimes”.

Taki is now believed to be living in Dubai, where Ignatova bought a luxury penthouse and where tens of millions of dollars were deposited into her bank account in the OneCoin scam.

It is unclear how Taki and Ignatova met or whether Taki was involved with OneCoin from the start, but multiple sources say the two had a close personal relationship and that Taki was the godfather to Ignatova’s daughter.

A Bulgarian source close to Ms Ignatova told the BBC that she may have been paying Taki €100,000 a month in protection money.

There appear to be other financial ties between Ignatova and Taki.

The Europol documents mention a complex deal linking one of Ms Ignatova’s companies to Mr Taki’s wife, selling land on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

The secret police documents were given to the BBC by Frank Schneider, a former spy and adviser to Ignatova, who is now missing.

He said his old boss worked with “scam artists” and “gangsters.”

Image caption, Just a few months after speaking with us, Frank Schneider also disappeared.

When we interviewed Schneider at his home in France, he was under house arrest awaiting extradition to the United States in connection with the OneCoin fraud case, but he would not reveal his name.

“I’m not going to say who is responsible because I have a family. This is really serious organised crime.”

But in the end, Ignatova’s protectors may have turned into her attackers.

In 2022, Bulgarian investigative journalist Dimitar Stoyanov and his colleagues at investigative media outlet bird.bg were handed a police report found in the home of a murdered Bulgarian police officer.

In the documents, a police informant detailed that he had overheard Taki’s brother-in-law drunkenly say that Ignatova was killed on Taki’s orders in late 2018 and that her body was dismembered and dumped from a yacht in the Ionian Sea. Stoyanov called the story “highly plausible.”

The authenticity of the police documents has been confirmed by Bulgarian authorities and several of Taki’s criminal associates believe the story that he murdered her is true, Stoyanov said.

However, the BBC was unable to independently verify the claim.

Sources say that Ignatova, who was wanted by the police, was a burden to Taki, and that Taki felt this way because he wanted to sever his ties with the OneCoin scam.

These associates include Krasimir Kamenov, known as Kuro, who is wanted by Interpol on suspicion of murder.

According to Stoyanov, Kuro said he heard Taki discussing criminal activity in Ignatova’s presence and when he confronted her about whether she should do such a thing, Taki replied: “Don’t worry, she’s as good as dead.”

Kuro also claimed to have spoken to the CIA about Taki, including about allegations that Taki had ordered the murder of Ignatova. A source close to Kuro confirmed to the BBC that the meeting took place in late 2022.

In May 2023, Kuro was assassinated at his Cape Town home along with his wife and two of his subordinates. South African police are still searching for the killers, but Bulgaria’s former deputy minister, Khristanov, believes Kuro’s murder was linked to Taki.

“Certain people who knew too much about Taki had to be eliminated.

“It was kind of a public execution, but it seemed like a statement: be careful who you associate with,” he told us.

Journalist Dimitar Stoyanov says he and his colleagues have faced death threats since publishing Ignatova’s alleged murder, forcing him to temporarily leave Bulgaria for the fourth time in his career.

Stoyanov claims he does not know the motive for the murder, but property records and witness testimony suggest that since Taki’s disappearance, many of her properties in Bulgaria have been used by people with connections to Taki.

Image caption, Evidence suggests that Ruya Ignatova’s mansion is currently being used by people connected to Taki.

Taki has never been arrested on suspicion of murdering Ignatova: her body has never been found and investigators have said they don’t have enough evidence to charge him.

But former IRS agent Richard Reinhart believes Ignatova is likely dead, and while he has seen no evidence linking her death to Taki, he says it’s consistent with how drug cartels operate.

“There is no honor among thieves…If you know how violent the cartels are; [Taki] He thought she was a threat to him… He would probably rather eliminate her than get caught.”

The BBC has written to Mr Taki’s lawyers about the allegations in the investigation but has not received a response.

In 2022, Ignatova was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list and remains on that list.

The BBC team behind the podcast “The Missing Cryptoqueen” has received various sightings and tip-offs about Ignatova’s whereabouts since her alleged murder, including details of a failed police operation to capture her in Greece in 2022.

The rumors of her death may just be an elaborate ploy to divert everyone’s attention.

If this is the case, it is likely to become increasingly difficult for her to remain at large as the years go by.

“At some point, it’s possible that Elvis Presley might still be alive … but in reality, that’s not very likely,” Khristanov said.

According to Reinhardt, the FBI is “trying to get people to [the] “Top 10 list just for fun.” But they will only remove someone if there is “conclusive evidence” that they are deceased. And given the circumstances, in Ruja Ignatova’s case, we may never get that evidence.

So, for now at least, the missing Crypt Queen remains a woman being hunted.