Andrew Aguirre, Andrew Halayko, Ann Hagner, Bitconned, Bryan Storkel, documentaries, Jacob Rensel, Kerri Hagner, Martin Pejkov, movies, Nathaniel Popper, Paul Petruzzi, Ray Trapani, reviews, true crime, TV
January 1, 2024
by Carla Hay
Directed by Bryan Storkel
Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bitconned” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Latin person) talking about their connection to Centra Tech, a Miami-based cryptocurrency company that turned out to be a scam that swindled millions of dollars out of its victims.
Culture Clash: The Centra Tech leaders took advantage of an unregulated cryptocurrency industry to commit widespread fraud.
Culture Audience: “Bitconned” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that explore the dark sides of technology and finance.
The documentary “Bitconned” takes a riveting look at the cryptocurrency con artists behind the scam company Centra Tech. The story will leave many viewers feeling repulsed by the outcomes of these crimes. The film editing heightens the absorbing narrative.
Directed by Bryan Storkel, “Bitconned” is the type of documentary that—thanks to some clever editing—leads viewers on a seemingly straightforward path that doesn’t reveal its first big twist surprise until the movie is about halfway over. For people who don’t know all the details before seeing “Bitconned,” it will feel like one outrageous reveal after another by the second half of the movie. “Bitconned” has some re-enactments, but the vast majority of the story is told through interviews given exclusively for the documentary.
“Bitconned” begins by showing the most controversial person interviewed for the documentary: Raymond “Ray” Trapani, one of the co-founders of Centra Tech. He’s seen getting fitted for a designer suit by two tailors while surrounded by mirrors and answering interview questions. It’s quite apt that Trapani is surrounded by mirrors in the movie’s very first scene, because the documentary shows him to be (by his own admission) an unapologetic narcissist.
Trapani and people who know him well repeatedly say in the documentary that ever since he was a kid, he wanted to be a millionaire criminal. He says in the opening scene: “I don’t mind being looked at as a criminal, really. It’s tough. I was doing crimes my whole life—scamming, shit like that.”
He adds, “Times have changed. It’s not that easy to work hard and buy a house. Nowadays, you’ve got to figure out some sort of way to finesse the system. That’s the modern-day American Dream.”
Of course, anyone with common sense can see that housing affordability is a very fake excuse to go into a life of crime. Trapani makes it clear that he decided from a very young age that he wanted to get rich quick through illegal ways. He can’t blame it on things like a housing market being less affordable than it was in previous decades.
When he’s asked how much money Centra Tech scammed, Trapani smirks when replying, “On paper: $32 million. But in reality, we made a few hundred million.” And this is what Trapani says when he’s asked if he would do the same thing all over again: “I would take the risk.”
Trapani (who grew up in Atlantic Beach, New York) first got into major trouble with the law as a teenager in the late 2000s/early 2010s, when he and a close friend named Andrew Aguirre sold prescription painkillers that they got through fake prescriptions. Aguirre, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that he and Trapani were full-blown drug addicts (OxyContin was their drug of choice) during their crime spree. Aguirre describes how Trapani was in their teenage years: “He was trying to be someone from the streets, but he’s not from the streets.”
Trapani actually grew up in a middle-class household, where he and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Trapani describes his absentee father, who left the family, as “a fucking loser.” The names of Trapani’s father and brothers are not mentioned in the documentary, nor are these three men interviewed.
However, Trapani’s mother Kerri Hagner and her mother Ann Hagner are interviewed. (They are his only family members to be interviewed for the documentary.) Kerri is more willing than Ann to admit knowledge of Trapani’s criminal ways, but Kerri is fiercely protective of him. Kerri is seen on camera essentially threatening the filmmakers that there will be “trouble” if the documentary makes her son look bad. Anyone who sees how Trapani brags about his crimes will know that he’s the one who makes himself look the worst.
Trapani and other people interviewed say that Kerri’s father William “Pop” Hagner (who died of cancer in 2018, at the age of 79) had a tremendous influence on Trapani, who relocated to Miami as a young adult. This grandfather was not only like a father figure to Trapani, but he was also the first investor (reportedly investing $500,000 as seed money) in Trapani’s company Miami Exotics, which was a business that rented luxury cars. Trapani liked to give people the impression that his grandfather was a mafia boss, but Kerri says her father was actually a hard-working man in the elevator-making business.
Bert Feldman, a former friend of Trapani’s, co-founded Miami Exotics and gives details in the documentary about what it was like to work with Trapani and what ruined their friendship. One of the less scathing remarks that Feldman has to say about Trapani is: “He’s always been fascinated with money. He’s obsessed with it. It’s his one true love.”
Another business partner in Miami Exotics was Sam “Shorbee” Sharma, who was an enemy of Trapani’s when they were high school. However, Sharma and Trapani ended up working together as adults because they both shared an obsession with getting rick quick, and they needed each other’s different skills in this partnership. Trapani says that Sharma was good at working on technical details, while Trapani says his own skills were about coming up with business concepts and networking with business colleagues. And although Sharma is not interviewed in “Bitconned,” it’s obvious that their real skills were in being con artists.
Miami Exotics ended up being a disastrously failed business, where Feldman was ousted before things were at their worst with Miami Exotics. Trapani says in the documentary that many of his family members invested in the business, so the success or failure of the business was very personal to him. It’s easy to know why Miami Exotics flamed out, even before the details are talked about in the documentary. Various people blame each other for the demise of Miami Exotics, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t the fault of just one person.
Trapani says it was Sharma’s idea to start a cryptocurrency company in 2017, due to Bitcoin being a hot commodity at the time. And that’s how Centra Tech was born, with Trapani as chief operating officer and Sharma as chief technology officer. Centra Tech claimed to be a company that made bank-affiliated debit cards for cryptocurrency, but it was all a scam.
One of the many lies that Centra Tech told to lure investors was that it was working with Visa on these debit cards. Centra Tech also had LinkedIn accounts with fake work experiences and fabricated academic credentials for Trapani, Sharma and other company executives who went along with the lies.
As an example of Centra Tech’s “fake it ’til you make” it way of doing business, the company’s chief financial officer was hired not because he had a background in finance but because he was the brother of Sharma’s girlfriend. (The girlfriend is not interviewed in the documentary.) Centra Tech’s CFO was Robert Farkas, who describes Sharma as a “genius.”
By contrast, Farkas has almost nothing good to say about Trapani, whom he describes as a mostly incompetent drug addict who spent more time partying, gambling and spending money than doing work. “I don’t remember Ray contributing much of anything,” Farkas says in the documentary. “He had a little mafioso vibe. He loved gambling, and he loved money. And the whole time, he was medicated.”
New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper, who wrote a pivotal article in 2017 on Centra Tech, says he was intrigued by the cryptocurrency industry because it was filled with “get rich quick” stories, but the truth was much different. “There were scams and frauds everywhere … Centra Tech was the archetype of what went wrong with cryptocurrency.”
Other people interviewed in “Bitconned” include former Centra Tech Jacob Rensel; former Centra Tech developers Martin Pejkov and Filip Burcevek; University of Manitoba professor Andrew Halayko, who has a bizarre connection to the story; a man with the name Jonny B Good, who describes himself as Tapani’s best friend; Securites and Exchange Commission investigator Robert Cohen; federal prosecutor Samson “Sam” Enzer; and attorney Paul Petruzzi.
Although there are obvious villains in “Bitconned,” the documentary also puts a lot of blame on “get rich quick” greed that lures gullible investors into these scams. Rensel admits that he had this type of greed when he decided to invest in Centra Trech, and ths greed blnded him to some warning signs that eventually became too big to ignore. The movie also shows fake images on the Internet and celebrity endorsements can also play a role in getting people to think a scam is legitimate.
Some viewers of “Bitconned” won’t like that two of the former Centra Tech leaders are given so much screen time in this documentary. Farkas tries to portray himself as a victim of Trapani, who openly gloats about the crimes he committed. And the documentary could have used more perspectives from people who survived Centra Tech scams. However, “Bitconned” does not glorify the criminals and exposes them for what they are and how they were able to commit these crimes. It’s the best type of cautionary tale that can help educate people on how not to get fooled by these types of con artists.
Netflix premiered “Bitconned” on January 1, 2024.