Crypto Influencers and ‘Degenerates’ Flock to Sam Bankman-Fried’s Trial

A parade of powerful legal minds has gathered over the last three weeks at the criminal trial of Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced cryptocurrency mogul. Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, has sat for hours in the 26th-floor courtroom, alongside partners at prestigious law firms and a former deputy to Robert Mueller III, who served as special counsel in an investigation of President Donald J. Trump.

Then there’s a man who calls himself Taco.

A prolific YouTuber with a channel devoted to crypto, Taco, 39, has become an unlikely staple in the crowd of lawyers, reporters and curious observers who line up every morning before sunrise to get a seat at Mr. Bankman-Fried’s trial in downtown Manhattan. Many days, the streamer smokes a cigar or two before 6 a.m., then logs on to a crypto-themed video chat, regaling his roughly 5,000 online followers with the latest news about the case.

“Everyone talks about how important crypto is to them,” Taco said. “But then they don’t go to any events.”

Taco declined to reveal his real name, citing privacy concerns. “The government thinks I’m dead,” he explained. But he said he felt compelled to show up for “technically sort of like the trial of the century.”

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s trial — on fraud charges stemming from the collapse of his FTX crypto exchange — has brought two disparate worlds into a strange collision, unleashing a hyper-online horde of crypto obsessives (or “degenerates,” as some of them call themselves) into the staid and formal environs of federal court.

As the trial has unfolded, reporters have competed for seats with crypto influencers and online personalities — at least one of whom managed to smuggle a vape pen into the courthouse. Outside the building this week, a lawyer who specializes in working with crypto investors handed out a business card emblazoned with the title “DeFi Defense Lawyer,” a reference to an experimental type of crypto known as decentralized finance. And on the witness stand, FTX executives have had to explain jargon like “FUD,” an acronym for “fear, uncertainty and doubt” that crypto advocates use to dismiss criticism.

In the courtroom, I observed the culture clash up close while Caroline Ellison, one of the top figures in Mr. Bankman-Fried’s business empire, testified last week. At my right was Coffeezilla, a popular YouTuber who makes videos about crypto fraud and had traveled from Texas to see Mr. Bankman-Fried in the flesh. Behind him was Tiffany Fong, a crypto influencer who struck up an unlikely friendship with the FTX founder after he was arrested.

Tiffany Fong, a crypto influencer who has posted videos about Mr. Bankman-Fried’s trial on X.Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

“I’m kind of like, ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’” Ms. Fong said. “I don’t quite belong, and it doesn’t make much sense, but I’m very heavily invested in the case.”

Throughout the trial, Ms. Fong has released videos on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, with her thoughts about the proceedings. She has sometimes been joined by Carly Reilly, who runs a podcast about nonfungible tokens, the crypto collectibles known as NFTs. An anonymous account that calls itself Autism Capital has also provided a steady stream of analysis and conspiratorial speculation about the trial on X.

Much of the legal wrangling has failed to impress Taco.

Taco queueing up for another day of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s trial.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times
A crypto streamer who goes by the name Player1Taco setting a timer for his next stream.Credit…Sasha Maslov for The New York Times

During Ms. Ellison’s cross-examination last week, Taco leaned over one of the benches to tell me that Mr. Bankman-Fried would benefit from “degen counsel” — a lawyer who was immersed in the kinds of topics that crypto traders discuss all night on X.

But for all his crypto experience, Taco has not always had an easy time navigating courtroom protocols.

He showed up around 5 a.m. the Monday before last, only to learn that court was closed for a federal holiday. He sometimes has to be reminded to remove his baseball cap, which isn’t allowed in the courtroom. And on his first day at the trial, he was asked to leave after the guards caught him using a smartwatch that he had gotten through security. (Electronics are banned in the courtroom.)

By the end of Ms. Ellison’s testimony, Taco had mastered the routine — and was abiding by the judge’s strict prohibition on eating and drinking in the courtroom. During a break in proceedings, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a can of Red Bull.

“Got to go,” he said with a smile, and walked out the door.

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