The Norwegian press has been obsessively dealing with a kidnapping case for around a year and a half. Anne-Elisabeth Hagen, the wife of one of the richest Norwegians, was kidnapped in late 2018. The kidnappers demanded a high ransom from the multi-millionaire – in the cryptocurrency Monero. The drama has not stopped since then and has led to unexpected suspicions. Was it kidnapping – or even a planned murder?
It is said that Scandinavians love crime novels, and I like to imagine a tall, pale Norwegian with white hair sitting in front of the fireplace in his wooden house by the fjord and reading his crime story.
The current top thriller of the Norwegians was not released as a book. Instead, the newspapers report on it. After a long time, there was another spectacular crime in Norway, and the whole country is closely following all the news. For the media, that’s almost as good as Corona.
The case is the kidnapping of Anne-Elisabeth Hagen. This is the wife of Tom Hagen, the country’s 172-th richest individual. In Norwegian krone, the entrepreneur is a billionaire; if you translate it into euros, he is a three-digit millionaire.
Anne-Elisabeth was kidnapped on October 31, 2018, in her house in Lørenskog, a small community near Oslo. The kidnappers left a letter in broken Norwegian consisting of five A4 pages. Tom Hagen read in him that he would not go to the police or the press if he wanted to see his wife again and that he had to pay nine million euros in the cryptocurrency Monero.
Two days later, Hagen informed the police in Lillestrøm, also near Oslo. Since then, there has been a criminal case that has given the Monero currency an unsightly fame in Norway, and in which the press has eagerly tried to uncover all the details. There is still no trace of Hagen’s wife Anne-Elisabeth.
The Bitcoin Morse Code
The kidnappers know pretty well about cryptocurrencies. As is well known, kidnappings often fail when the money is handed over. Bank transfers are out of the question, and cash must be deposited in some physical location where the police can often arrest the perpetrators. Cryptocurrencies are a “good” tool here, because they can be received anonymously and without contact. For this reason, it has been feared for around eight years that virtual currencies are making a comeback of kidnapping.
Bitcoin, however, leaves a clear transaction trail that has often led to arrests. The tools to disguise bitcoins may be sufficient for minor crimes. However, in the event of a capital crime such as a kidnapping, the police could investigate long enough to break the mixing of coins. That’s why Anne-Elisabeth Hagen’s kidnappers chose Monero, a cryptocurrency that uses various cryptographic methods to achieve the highest possible level of anonymity.
This was confusing for Tom Hagen. He told the police that while he had “some knowledge” about cryptocurrencies, he was generally “technically backward”. He wondered if the kidnappers had deliberately given him an almost impossible task. Because it is not easy to change nine million euros in Monero. This was also clear to the kidnappers. You probably know the markets and know that the stock exchanges do not have enough liquidity to buy so many Monero in one go. So they advised Hagen in the letter not to change more than a million crowns a day in Monero.
The kidnappers also invented an interesting system for communicating with Hagen. The Norwegian press calls it a “Bitcoin Morse Code”, which they explain in the extortion letter. They gave a bitcoin address, and Hagen should send them messages by sending certain amounts to them. They gave him twelve amounts that represent different messages: “I confirm that I will pay”, “I am currently exchanging money for Monero”, “I will send the Monero in seven days”, “I need more time”, “I sent the Monero” and so on.
In the same way, the kidnappers can send messages to Hagen. Amounts that you send to this – or to another – address represent different messages, such as “too late, she is dead”, “quickly, or she dies”, “the police are involved, she is dead”, ” The Monero went to the wrong address ”or“ Thank you, Anne Elisabeth will be released in the next 24 hours. ”
Over the course of November, the two sides exchanged several messages using this Bitcoin morse code. However, the method was too clumsy to actually negotiate. Apparently, the kidnappers’ knowledge of Bitcoin has limits, because otherwise they might have suggested OP_Return outputs, through which you can insert up to 140 bytes of free text in a transaction.
The police advised Hagen to ask for evidence that his wife was still alive. But there was no code for it, and there was no other option to contact them. So what to do?
The police suggested a bold approach: On January 24, police officer Sven Holden would like to hold a press conference to inform the public about the kidnapping and the progress of the investigation. Hagen and his family agree, the kidnappers react promptly. A few days later, they write an encrypted email to Holden, in which they contact Hagen. Linguists compare the email to the original ransom note and confirm that they are the same person.
In the email, the kidnappers are ready to provide evidence that Anne-Elisabeth is still alive – when Hagen pays a quarter of the money, i.e. pays them 2.25 million euros or 24 million crowns in Monero. Hagen bought Monero for 30 million crowns on an exchange shortly thereafter. However, the deadline set by the kidnappers lapses without payment.
Over the course of April, the police proposed that Hagen send an email to the kidnappers and then explain at a press conference that the money would be sent. Hagen is dissatisfied with the idea. He wanted to negotiate in peace and not endanger his wife’s life through press conferences. Therefore the idea is not implemented. In May, Hagen made independent contact with the kidnappers without consulting the police. He offers them to pay the subtotal if they give him proof within a certain period that his wife is still alive. These negotiations drag on until the police are turned on again in July. The kidnappers are now threatened more violently. Anne-Elisabeth was sick and they could not provide the necessary health care. They offer proof of life for 1.35 million euros in Monero.
Hagen agrees to pay the full amount – if he only receives proof of his life. But this also seems to be drying up, so that the year passes. Hagen may have paid part of the money, but still no proof that his wife is still alive. In February 2020, the businessman continues to try to contact the kidnappers.
In the meantime, the relationship between Hagen and the police has cooled down. Both sides often disagree on how to proceed, and just as Hagen acts independently, the police also sent a message to the kidnappers without his consent using the Bitcoin code.
An enormous suspicion
At this point, the police’s investigation is already moving in a different direction: against Tom Hagen himself. He is now considered the main suspect. The charge is no longer kidnapping but murder. The police arrested and interrogated Hagen on April 28, 2020. Hagen vehemently denies the allegations and has since been released.
Tom Hagen is suspected of an almost classic motif: Things weren’t going well in marriage. Anne-Elisabeth has already asked how she can end the partnership without risking too negative financial consequences. Because between the two there is a somewhat idiosyncratic marriage contract, which says that in the event of a divorce she gets next to nothing. However, Anne-Elisabeth had a lawyer check whether the contract did not violate Norwegian law. In this case, she would have received half of the now common property in the event of a divorce.
Is this enough evidence to suspect Hagen of murdering his wife? The police may have found this because the negotiations were so slow. Perhaps it seemed to her that Hagen was deliberately hesitating to put stones in the way of the police. However, the Hagen family seems to blame the police for putting Anne-Elisabeth at risk through the aggressive negotiation.
The Hagens’ children deny the suspicion of their father. They think the couple’s marriage went well. Other family members confirm this. In addition, the police also find swords that confirm that the marriage was about to end.
The police are currently trying to enforce the search of Hagen’s houses. However, the process still depends. The competent court in Oslo also believes that there is insufficient evidence against Hagen to detain him.
Is a crypto consultant involved?
The case changes with another arrest on May 7. The police arrest a man in his thirties. She suspects that he murdered Anne-Elisabeth or that she was partly responsible for the murder.
The man had met Tom Hagen repeatedly in the past, even in his house, perhaps even exactly in the one where Ms. Hagen was kidnapped. It was about a business collaboration in the recovery of cryptocurrencies. After at least ten meetings there was no further collaboration; the meetings ended in autumn 2018 – shortly before Ms. Hagen’s kidnapping.
That is already suspicious. Did Hagen inquire with the man about how he uses cryptocurrencies for a kidnapping? Or did he take advantage of the moment to kidnap Hagen’s wife after gaining access to his property as a consultant? The profound knowledge that the kidnappers have about cryptocurrencies and the markets could speak for this. But it remains, like the suspicion against Hagen, pure speculation.
Therefore, this crime thriller will continue to occupy the Norwegian police and public for a while. Anne-Elisabeth Hagen is probably already dead.