febrero 23, 2024

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 lightweight upholstery, packed into a taut and powerful body. Ben Armstrong loved it dearly.

When he started shopping for a Lamborghini, Mr. Armstrong, a cryptocurrency evangelist with more than one million YouTube subscribers, worried that he’d have to spend months searching. “I think I have to go to Italy to get the Lambo I want,” he texted a business partner. “I don’t want to compromise.” But fate smiled on him. In the fall of 2021, a car dealership in Charlotte, N.C., shipped the Huracán to Mr. Armstrong’s production studio in an Atlanta suburb.

As the Lamborghini was lowered from a delivery truck, Mr. Armstrong, better known by the nom de crypto BitBoy, let out a joyful laugh. “I may have shed a tear,” he said at the time.

Back then, BitBoy was one of the most popular figures in the wild, scam-ridden world of crypto influencers. Cultivating a persona as a straight-talking everyman, he filmed a livestream five days a week in which he lectured his hundreds of thousands of listeners on the virtues of experimental coins with names like Polkadot or XRP. He said that regulators were fools, and that digital money offered a path to upward mobility. The Lamborghini was vivid proof: Crypto would make you rich and cool and successful.

Two years later, Mr. Armstrong, 41, has lost his production company and much of his wealth. His friends have turned on him, and his wife has filed for divorce. Over the last five months, across countless social media posts and videos, Mr. Armstrong has claimed to be the victim of a “criminal conspiracy” by “terrorists” who took over his YouTube channel. “BitBoy is dead,” he recently declared.

The trouble started in August when Mr. Armstrong was unceremoniously ousted from his company, HIT Network, by a group of his friends and business partners. Since then, the schism has expanded into a wide-ranging scandal: In court and on social media, the various antagonists have traded allegations of extortion, theft, sexual harassment and workplace violence. An extramarital affair has sparked particularly heated recriminations. And the Lamborghini is gone.

“I’m going through a midlife crisis,” Mr. Armstrong said in one of several recent interviews. “A spiritual crisis.”

In the good times, BitBoy’s rise to YouTube stardom was propelled by the same cultural forces that turned crypto into a multitrillion-dollar sensation. With swaggering confidence, he spun a get-rich-quick narrative that held enormous appeal at a moment when clever memes were driving millions of dollars in deal-making and crypto was hyped in Super Bowl commercials.

That era has ended. The dramatic collapse of Mr. Armstrong’s empire mirrors the arc of the industry — a once-high-flying sector now tarred by scandal and teetering on the edge of mainstream relevance. As crypto crashed over the last two years, millions of people lost savings, their digital riches erased practically overnight. Most of that wealth, they learned, was never real to begin with.

Like any charismatic salesman, Mr. Armstrong has a carefully honed pitch: He used to be just a regular guy, he likes to say, until crypto changed his life. After undergoing treatment for a methamphetamine addiction in the early 2000s, he attended a Christian college and ended up marrying his admissions counselor. For a few years, he dabbled in a variety of businesses — from graphic design to a carwash he helped run — before settling on the volatile crypto markets.

He started making videos in 2017, mostly low-tech monologues about crypto news, but his channel didn’t take off until three years later, when a boom in prices attracted millions of amateur traders who were looking for advice.

During the pandemic, Mr. Armstrong upgraded to a professional studio and hired a small staff to produce slick, professionally edited videos. His investment portfolio was surging: At the market’s peak, he has said, he had about $40 million of crypto. But the line between his personal finances and the corporate accounts was blurry: Most of those assets technically belonged to BJ Investment Holdings, a company that he owned with T.J. Shedd, a fellow crypto enthusiast who managed the production business.

If crypto is the Wild West of finance, then crypto influencers inhabit the wildest stretch of that frontier. The top YouTubers — veering between earnest soliloquies about the Federal Reserve’s rate cuts and impassioned endorsements of coins named after cartoon animals — command huge audiences and hold sway over the types of obsessively online day traders who drove the so-called meme stock frenzy in 2021. Competition for viewership is fierce. The result is something like a cross between professional wrestling and CNBC: a loose community of self-promoters, feuding over who offers the best financial advice.

Popular shows can generate big money. Crypto companies pay influencers millions of dollars to promote financial products on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Telegram. In 2023, Mr. Armstrong signed a contract worth $1 million a month with the gambling company Stake, which lets users wager crypto in casino-style games.

“This is the business of entertainment,” said Aj Pleasanton, a crypto YouTuber who worked with Mr. Armstrong at HIT Network. “It’s not always about who has the best factual information. It’s not always about who has the best alpha on trading. It’s about who has the best story.”

In the crowded field of crypto shock jocks, Mr. Armstrong carved out a niche as the loudest and most aggressive. He often wore a bright-green Gucci tracksuit, and liked to brag about his success in the market. He encouraged his viewers to invest in a slew of crypto products, including at least one offered by a company that later collapsed, and predicted that Bitcoin would rise to $300,000 by the end of 2021. (It didn’t.)

But while fans would mob him at industry conferences, Mr. Armstrong was often criticized for promoting coins that crashed in value and accepting payments from crypto companies, including one sponsorship he admitted wasn’t properly disclosed.

“Let’s be clear. I’m not going to prison,” he wrote on Reddit in 2022. “Maybe some fine one day based on shifting security laws.” (The Securities and Exchange Commission has brought a series of cases against influencers who advertised risky crypto investments without revealing that they were compensated for the promotion.)

As the crypto market cratered in 2022, Mr. Armstrong pivoted to an unlikely new persona — cop on the beat. Months before the FTX crypto exchange collapsed, he posted a series of tweets and videos excoriating Sam Bankman-Fried, the company’s now-disgraced founder, calling him a “fox in the crypto henhouse” who was plotting to destroy rival start-ups. Mr. Bankman-Fried circulated a fact sheet claiming that BitBoy’s negativity was part of a scheme by industry competitors to spread misinformation about FTX.

After FTX folded that November, Mr. Armstrong flew to the Bahamas with a camera crew and tried to sneak around Mr. Bankman-Fried’s luxury apartment complex there. “I killed this man’s whole career,” he declared. “We saved crypto in America.”

But it was also around then that friends and colleagues started to worry about changes in Mr. Armstrong’s behavior, according to interviews. BitBoy wasn’t an act. The recovered addict turned Christian family man had become unrecognizable in his personal life. Soaking in the adulation of his fans, Mr. Armstrong was now a parody of a crypto bro — a guy who spent a lot of time thinking about Lamborghinis.

“Ben lost track of the person he used to be,” Mr. Shedd, his former business partner, said in a statement. “He caused enormous damage to both his professional and personal relationships.”

Last spring, as the crypto market struggled to rebound, Mr. Armstrong started promoting a new cryptocurrency, BEN Coin, which he was developing with Cassandra Wolfe, a HIT Network contractor known on social media as the Duchess of DeFi. Ms. Wolfe, 34, once an aspiring influencer herself, had helped secure the lucrative Stake sponsorship, but Mr. Armstrong’s staff thought BEN Coin was a bad idea. They worried that it was an obviously cynical money grab and didn’t want him to promote the venture on the BitBoy YouTube channel.

At the same time, Mr. Shedd was starting to hear other worrisome stories about his business partner. In a September lawsuit, he accused Mr. Armstrong of “unlawfully directing and diverting” as much as $50,000 a month to Ms. Wolfe, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Mr. Armstrong had also stolen tens of thousands of dollars in crypto from the firm, the complaint said, including several digital collectibles known as NFTs. Mr. Shedd triggered a clause in the holding company’s operating agreement that allowed him to buy out Mr. Armstrong’s majority stake.

Mr. Armstrong contested the claims and filed a series of lawsuits challenging the buyout; he argued that the payments to Ms. Wolfe were perfectly legal, and that the missing NFTs belonged to him. But his world was collapsing. The legal fight, which is still unfolding, turned up numerous allegations of misconduct: Mr. Armstrong had been abusing steroids, one suit said, and had engaged in a range of inappropriate and sometimes violent behavior at the office, from sexual harassment to “throwing filled bottles of protein shake” at staff. (Mr. Armstrong has denied the accusations.)

Then came the ultimate blow. In September, a crypto investor named Carlos Diaz, who moved in the same social circles as the HIT Network executives, asked Mr. Armstrong to sign over the title to the Lamborghini. Mr. Diaz was a onetime BitBoy superfan. “There was a spiritual connection,” he said in an interview. “I really felt like this was God talking to me through him.”

How exactly Mr. Diaz ended up asking his spiritual guide for a $350,000 sports car remains the subject of considerable legal dispute. Mr. Diaz said he had lost money on a large investment in BEN Coin, whose value had plummeted, and wanted to sell the car to recoup the funds. Mr. Armstrong insists that Mr. Diaz presented himself as an agent of HIT Network who was helping the company raise money. In any case, Mr. Armstrong said, he felt physically threatened and wanted to reach some kind of settlement.

BitBoy’s two-year tenure as a Lamborghini owner ended in a Walmart parking lot, where he met Mr. Diaz to complete the paperwork.

In the volatile world of crypto, a YouTuber’s stock can rise and fall as erratically as any cartoon-inspired meme coin. By December, Mr. Armstrong was attempting a comeback. With Ms. Wolfe by his side, he flew to Las Vegas to announce his participation in “influencer fight club” — a crypto-themed boxing event scheduled for February in Mexico City.

One evening, Mr. Armstrong mingled with Ms. Wolfe and a few other crypto influencers on the patio of Gold Spike, the downtown bar where he was promoting the event. Mostly he wanted to talk about the missing Lambo.

“It’s in a showroom in Fort Lauderdale,” he explained to his friends, including a YouTuber known as Crypto Keeper. “I have photos.”

As the conversation turned to less exciting topics, Mr. Armstrong pulled Ms. Wolfe close and stroked her hair. Crypto Keeper leaned over to whisper in Mr. Armstrong’s ear.

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

Behind the scenes, BitBoy’s problems were mounting. He was streaming again on a new YouTube channel, Ben Armstrong Crypto, shorn of the old BitBoy branding, but viewers had reacted to his downfall with a mix of amusement and schadenfreude. “He is all that is cringe about crypto,” a columnist for the industry outlet CoinDesk wrote.

Mr. Armstrong was also under growing legal pressure. He had lost many of his assets and had spent more than $150,000 on lawyers since the summer. Back in Georgia, three male employees at HIT Network had gone to the local authorities to accuse him of touching them sexually, including by grabbing them in the crotch or rear end, according to police reports reviewed by The New York Times.

Mr. Armstrong acknowledged that his studio had a “locker room” environment; he blamed his old colleagues for never hiring a human-resources officer. But he denied harassing anyone, and he hasn’t been charged.

After the exposure of his affair, Mr. Armstrong released a video in which he and his wife, who have three young children, pledged to work through the crisis and keep their family together. For a while, Mr. Armstrong thought both women would support him: At an early hearing in his lawsuit against HIT Network, he sat in the courtroom with Ms. Wolfe on one side of him and his wife, Bethany, on the other.

Then, in October, Ms. Armstrong filed for divorce. Court records show that she has hired a forensic accountant to assess the size of her husband’s crypto holdings.

Mr. Armstrong denies concealing any funds. But he is defiant about the affair with Ms. Wolfe. “I like her better than my wife,” he said. “Not to be too crass, but we have a really, really great relationship.” (A lawyer for Ms. Armstrong said she “looks forward to presenting her side of these events in court, if it leads to that.”)

Since the summer, Ms. Wolfe has been working with Mr. Armstrong to rebuild his fan base and fight for control of his company. Before she got interested in crypto, she considered law school, she said, and ran a small clinic for people who wanted to represent themselves in court — mostly men in divorce cases.

Ms. Wolfe, who has been married and divorced four times, met Mr. Armstrong at a conference in 2022 as she was trying to make her way in the crypto industry. A few months later, an astrologer she had found on the gig work site Fiverr told her that someone was about to “change the trajectory” of her career.

“Based on the eclipse degree, she’s like, ‘You know this person, but you don’t know about the opportunity,’” Ms. Wolfe recalled. “She was talking about him.”

In Las Vegas in December, Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Wolfe got matching tattoos of the BEN Coin logo, a series of intersecting arrows illustrating the currency’s slogan, “Be Everywhere Now.” Ms. Wolfe said BEN Coin was a serious enterprise, a way to encourage people to dabble in crypto. She and Mr. Armstrong are working on a deal to offer the coin in specialized A.T.M.s plastered with photos of BitBoy, teeth clenched, raising his fist in defiance.

But even as he talked up his future, Mr. Armstrong couldn’t help lingering on the past. Nearly every conversation in Las Vegas circled back to the same long-winded theories about the manifold ways he was betrayed and the simmering jealousies that might have motivated the scheme to dethrone him.

Mr. Shedd always acted as if his sports car, a Nissan GT-R, was “better than my Lamborghini,” Mr. Armstrong complained. “I didn’t even know what a GT-R was until he bought it.”

A week later, the duke and duchess returned to court. Mr. Armstrong had begun the day with a series of posts accusing another prominent influencer of joining a “pedophile ring” in Thailand. “Ben is on one this morning,” Ms. Wolfe said as she stopped at a Starbucks near the courthouse in Marietta, Ga.

Mr. Armstrong has sued half a dozen of his old colleagues. But the most personal battle involves his Lamborghini — the symbol of his success as a YouTuber and crypto’s potential to generate life-changing riches. In court filings in Georgia, Mr. Armstrong has argued that he was bullied and extorted into transferring the car’s title to Mr. Diaz, the BEN Coin investor.

In September, Mr. Armstrong had driven to Mr. Diaz’s home outside Atlanta, bringing a gun. Looking disheveled in a sleeveless shirt, he stood on the street and started to livestream a rant about the missing vehicle.

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

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

Under cross-examination by Mr. Diaz’s lawyer, Mr. Armstrong answered a series of questions about the Lamborghini. Everyone agreed that the title to the car had been in his name, but Mr. Armstrong wasn’t sure whether the payment for it had come from his personal funds or his company’s accounts. He said he had been frightened of Mr. Diaz, and only reluctantly signed over the title.

Mr. Diaz’s lawyer asked about the livestream incident, which led to Mr. Armstrong’s arrest on still-pending misdemeanor charges.

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

After about two hours, Judge Jana Edmondson-Cooper ruled in favor of Mr. Diaz. An extortion case requires the misappropriation of someone’s property, and the judge concluded that Mr. Armstrong had failed to prove the vehicle was “not a company car.”

The Lamborghini of BitBoy’s dreams had never belonged to him in the first place. Mr. Armstrong slammed his hand on the table. “The judge is corrupt,” he said as he marched onto the elevator. Two members of his legal team exchanged looks; their client had a track record of intemperate posting. “Take his phone,” one of them told Ms. Wolfe.

BitBoy was wounded. He wasn’t getting the car back. Screenshots from the arrest video were providing grist for endless memes. And the new channel was languishing at 90,000 subscribers, a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million who had followed BitBoy at his peak.

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

But the old bravado was back before long. After a few days, BitBoy — like everyone in the crypto world — was looking toward the next big opportunity, the day prices would surge again.

“I’m a very complex, misunderstood person,” he said. “I’m going to be rich again. Everybody kind of sees that. It’s just a matter of how and when.”

Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.