We’re almost a year into the spectacle that is Sam Bankman-Fried’s sudden turn from crypto boy genius to (alleged) crypto criminal. And it’s certainly been a story of theatrical proportions, as the media (Fortune included) have cataloged every step in the saga—from the collapse of crypto exchange FTX in November to the revocation of the former CEO’s bail in August for allegedly tampering with witnesses.
As we approach the eve of one of the most high-profile white-collar criminal trials in recent memory, let’s take a look at the main protagonists and antagonists in a sprawling case that’s captivated countless eyeballs in the cryptoverse—and beyond.
Bankman-Fried’s story—like that of Elizabeth Holmes, the latest tech icon turned inmate to capture the public’s ire and imagination—begins at Stanford University.
The future (and now former) CEO of FTX was born to two Stanford law professors in Palo Alto. He was a classic quant, who rode his talents first to a degree at MIT and then to a lucrative job at Jane Street, the high-frequency trading firm that relies not on one gutsy bet but on millions of calculated, risk-averse trades.
Bankman-Fried, who subscribes to the philosophy of effective altruism, a belief in using limited resources to do the most good, had an appetite for risk, and in 2017 he left Jane Street to found Alameda Research, a hedge fund that used a similar quantitative-first approach—but for crypto.
Alameda’s tenure was rocky, but it cashed in on the crypto frenzy, including arbitrage opportunities in the price of Bitcoin between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. In 2019, Bankman-Fried used that momentum to launch FTX. The crypto exchange grew exponentially, becoming one of the largest in the world and worth $32 billion as of its last funding round.
But in 2022, as the broader crypto market crashed, so did Alameda and FTX. In November, CoinDesk cast doubt on the health of Alameda’s crypto holdings, and after Binance’s CEO, Changpeng Zhao, said he was skeptical of FTX’s solvency, there was a bank run that FTX couldn’t withstand. On Nov. 11, the exchange declared bankruptcy, and a month later the Justice Department charged Bankman-Fried with fraud.
Sam Bankman-Fried’s defense lawyers: Christian Everdell (left) and Mark Cohen.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Eduardo Munoz—Reuters
Representing Bankman-Fried in October against the federal government’s charges are Mark Cohen and Christian Everdell, two lawyers with decades of experience and a roster of well-known former clients.
Cohen and Everdell are both former federal prosecutors. Cohen went to Cornell as an undergraduate and the University of Michigan for law school; he then served as an assistant attorney in the Eastern District of New York from 1990 to 1995. Everdell went to Princeton and then Harvard for law school; he served as an assistant attorney from 2007 to 2016 in the Southern District of New York, the same office now prosecuting SBF.
During his stint as a federal prosecutor, Everdell was part of a team that helped bring down the infamous drug kingpin “El Chapo,” and both he and Cohen were later part of the defense team that represented Ghislaine Maxwell, who was sentenced in 2022 to 20 years in prison for her role in helping Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse children. Cohen, who in 2002 started his eponymous firm, Cohen & Gresser, also represented Goldman Sachs in a lawsuit dismissed in 2012 in regards to a stock-trading dispute as well as an ongoing case filed in 2010 that alleges systemic sexism at the financial giant.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
White-collar criminal cases like Bankman-Fried’s are complicated, interwoven affairs, and teams, not just one attorney, prosecute defendants.
However, the buck stops with the boss, and for the Southern District of New York, which has an extensive track record of successful white-collar criminal prosecutions like those of Bernie Madoff or Trump fixer Michael Cohen, that buck stops with Damian Williams.
When President Joe Biden appointed Williams, 43, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in 2021, he became the first Black attorney to head the office in its more-than-two-centuries-long history. After his confirmation, Williams, who earned degrees from Harvard and then Yale before spending the majority of his career as a prosecutor at the Southern District, soon took on a string of high-profile cases. These include the prosecutions of Ghislaine Maxwell, Bankman-Fried, and now Sen. Robert Menendez, who was recently charged with bribery.
Williams manages a staff of approximately 450 and is likely not mired in the daily minutiae of the prosecution of crypto’s former boy wonder, two former Southern District attorneys told Fortune. His supervision is mediated through a number of middle managers, including Andrea Griswold, his deputy; Daniel Gitner, chief of the criminal division; and Matt Podolsky and Scott Hartman, chiefs of the office’s securities and commodities division. And then there are the line prosecutors, like Danielle Sassoon and Nicolas Roos, who will actually appear in court and argue the case in front of the jury.
That doesn’t mean Williams isn’t keenly aware of the case’s intricacies and what a successful prosecution would mean for his legacy. “Today’s guilty plea,” he said in reference to a recent deal FTX lieutenant Ryan Salame struck with the Southern District, “reflects the commitment I made in December that my office would continue to pursue swift justice against individuals at FTX and its affiliates.”
From left: Nishad Singh, Caroline Ellison, Ryan Salame.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Singh: Bob Van Voris—Bloomberg/Getty Images; Ellison: Twitter/@CarolineCapital; Salame: Spencer Platt—Getty Images
Who will testify at trial is still up in the air—the government submitted a list of over 50 potential witnesses, according to a recent filing—but Sam Bankman-Fried’s former lieutenants likely will play key roles.
In December, the government announced that Caroline Ellison, the former CEO of Alameda Research and Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend, as well as Zixiao (Gary) Wang, an FTX cofounder who grew up in Silicon Valley with Bankman-Fried, both agreed to plea deals. Nishad Singh, another cofounder, capitulated two months later in February, and as of September, Salame, co-CEO of FTX’s Bahamas subsidiary, is the latest to fall.
While it’s unclear whether all four will take the witness stand, Ellison, Wang, Singh, and Salame all were high-powered executives in Bankman-Fried’s empire, and their pleas proved coups for prosecutors who’ve continually ratcheted up the pressure on Bankman-Fried and his lawyers.
Ellison, especially, has become a focal point of the case, both because of her centrality to what ultimately felled FTX—Alameda Research used funds from FTX customers to make risky bets—and because she has become one of Bankman-Fried’s scapegoats and is, indirectly, the reason he’s in jail.
In July, the New York Times published an article on private diary entries written by Ellison during her time at Alameda. Prosecutors alleged that Bankman-Fried leaked the writings to the Times in an attempt to “publicly discredit a government witness,” and asked that his bail be revoked. In August, the judge overseeing Bankman-Fried’s trial granted the prosecutors’ motion, and the former FTX CEO has spent the past month and a half in jail.
Barbara Fried (left) and Joseph Bankman
Photo illustration by Fortune; Stephen Yang—Bloomberg/Getty Images; Eduardo Munoz—Reuters
When the U.S. extradited Bankman-Fried in December, his parents attended a hearing at the Magistrates Court of the Bahamas, seated in the third row, according to a recent New Yorker article. Almost one year later, Allan Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried will—odds are—appear in court again to support their son.
But the Bankman-Fried family, which not only includes the former FTX CEO’s parents but also his younger brother, Gabe, were not mere observers of the crypto exchange’s rise and fall. They were active participants in and beneficiaries of Bankman-Fried’s largesse.
Bankman, the father, and Fried, the mother, both taught law at Stanford. (Fried is now retired.) Bankman specialized in tax law; Fried specialized in legal ethics, and discussions of philosophy and politics were common at their dinner table.
As recent features in Bloomberg Businessweek and The New Yorker detail, once Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire grew, FTX became a family business. Bankman became a salaried employee at FTX and went on sabbatical from Stanford to fully support the crypto exchange. And Fried, to a lesser extent, was also involved, appearing at dinners with staff and sometimes mediating between her son and his employees.
In September, in an attempt to claw back funds for the bankruptcy, the FTX estate sued both parents and alleged that they “siphoned millions of dollars” from the exchange for “their own personal benefit.”
Bankman and Fried, though, believe the lawsuit is meritless. “This is a dangerous attempt to intimidate Joe and Barbara and undermine the jury process just days before their child’s trial begins. These claims are completely false,” said Sean Hecker, counsel for Joseph Bankman, and Michael Tremonte, counsel for Barbara Fried, in a statement shared with Fortune.
U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan
Photo illustration by Fortune; John Marshall Mantel—The New York Times/Redux
The adult in the room presiding over the legal back-and-forth among Bankman-Fried, his lawyers, his parents, star witnesses, and the government is the honorable Judge Lewis A. Kaplan.
President Bill Clinton named Kaplan, a Harvard law school graduate who spent most of his career prior to his judgeship in private practice, to federal district court in 1994. Since then, Kaplan, 78, has presided over his fair share of high-profile trials and complex cases.
These include writer E. Jean Carroll’s recent civil suit against former President Donald Trump, where Kaplan repeatedly rebuffed requests from Trump’s defense team to delay trial. Before that, the federal judge presided over a civil trial against actor Kevin Spacey for his alleged sexual abuse of a 14-year-old; another civil case against Prince Andrew for the British royal’s alleged sexual abuse in connection with Jeffrey Epstein; and the prosecution of Ahmed Ghailani, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who was sentenced to life in prison.
Known for not being “moved by public sentiment,” according to an April profile by the New York Times, Kaplan has a no-nonsense reputation. Bankman-Fried’s lawyers have repeatedly pleaded with the judge to grant him temporary release from jail before and during the trial. Kaplan remains unmoved.