About two weeks before his grisly death, there was a change in Dave Kleiman. The formerly generous and lively computer forensics expert became confrontational and bitter. Around that time, Kleiman left the Veteran’s Affairs hospital where he’d been a patient, and called his close friend and business partner Patrick Paige to let him know. “They’ve decided to release you? That’s great,” Paige remembers asking.
“No,” Kleiman responded. “I told the doctors to go fuck themselves.”
Dave Kleiman was an Army veteran, a paraplegic, and a computing wizard occasionally consulted by national TV networks for his expertise in computer forensics and security. According to a monthlong Gizmodo investigation published yesterday, Kleiman may also have been deeply involved with Bitcoin. Documents and on-the-record interviews obtained by Gizmodo and Wired in separate investigations show that Craig Wright, an Australian CEO whose home and office were raided hours after the stories were published, repeatedly claimed in private that he and Kleiman were part of Bitcoin’s creation.
If that’s true, Kleiman seems to have refrained from accessing the very large sum that he would have presumably been entitled to as one of the currency’s architects. When he died, his Palm Beach County home was in foreclosure, and he never moved from the Miami VA Medical Center to a cushier hospital. Who was Dave Kleiman, and why in the world didn’t he cash out?
Kleiman was born in 1967, and, according to an obituary, was adopted by Louis and Regina Kleiman of Palm Beach Gardens sometime after that. (Regina Kleiman is deceased, and Louis, now 94, did not respond to repeated contact attempts.) He told friends that he’d been interested in computers and technology as a child. But even to Paige, who calls Kleiman his best friend, his early life was something of a mystery.
In 1986, Kleiman began serving in the US Army as a helicopter technician. He returned home from service in 1990 and began working for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office several years later. His training officer was Patrick Paige, with whom he later founded a business called Computer Forensics, LLC, in 2012. The men were fast friends. Kleiman gave Paige his first computer, a DOS machine that required command-line input to operate, and would visit Paige at his home to help his daughter access games with it before the two went out on patrol.
“Why the fuck do you do this job, with the knowledge you have?” Paige remembers asking of Kleiman while they worked. It was the early 1990s; the personal computer revolution was underway, and Kleiman’s talent could have yielded a much larger paycheck than what the sheriff’s office was offering. Kleiman always responded that it was his dream to work in law enforcement.
Then there was the 1995 accident, which left Kleiman physically handicapped and wheelchair-bound, and seemed to intensify his interest in computing. (It also didn’t seem to temper his joie de vivre: photos from after his paralysis show Kleiman skydiving with a wild grin on his face and two thumbs pointed defiantly into the air.) He briefly stayed on with the sheriff’s office, working in computer forensics, before leaving to pursue similar work as a freelancer in the private sector.
Over the years, Kleiman’s reputation as a specialist grew. When he attended conferences, said Carter Conrad, the third partner in Computer Forensics, LLC, he was known as “Dave Mississippi” for the seemingly endless string of three-letter certifications that appeared after his name, which recall the singsong mnemonic device for spelling the state’s name. He appeared on CNN and ABC News and co-authored books about perfect passwords, security threats to businesses, and software arcana. As far as security went, Kleiman practised what he preached: Paige and Conrad recall watching him type in 40- and 50-character passphrases to access his devices and files, and his home wireless network was so secure that Paige found it difficult to get work done while there. “Dude, I can’t load the page,” he said at his office this month, imitating his conversations with Kleiman. “I can’t run this script!”
In the early 2000s, Kleiman began contributing to computer security mailing lists such as those maintained by securityfocus.com and metzdowd.com, the latter of which was also used by Satoshi Nakamoto in the early days of Bitcoin.
In late 2010, a friend went to Kleiman’s home to check on him, and found that Kleiman had fallen in the shower and was unable to get up. That friend called fire rescue, and Kleiman was taken to a nearby hospital. For the rest of his life, because of sores that had become infected with MRSA, Kleiman would leave medical treatment centres only occasionally, usually to assist Conrad and Paige on a job. Otherwise, the pair would bring disks for examination on their regular visits to their friend, and he would plug away at them when he could. After surgeries, of which he had several, Kleiman was known to return to his computer immediately and begin working.
Satoshi Nakamoto presented the framework behind Bitcoin in a paper submitted to the Metzdowd list in 2008, and the first iteration of its software in 2009. If Dave Kleiman truly helped create it, the work would have happened before his hospitalisation and the creation of Computer Forensics, LLC, when he was working as an independent contractor. An email provided to Gizmodo seems to show Wright asking Kleiman for help with the paper just months before it was published. “I need your help editing a paper I am going to release later this year. I have been working on a new form of electronic money. Bit cash, Bitcoin...” it reads. “You are always there for me Dave. I want you to be a part of it all.”
Conrad is more sceptical than Paige that their partner was one of the minds behind one of the internet’s greatest mysteries, but both men are adamant that he had the skills to pull it off and the discretion that would have been needed to keep it a secret. The descriptor that Conrad used most frequently in our conversations about Kleiman was “compartmentalised”: he kept the separate parts of his life separate, and if you weren’t already in on his business, he wouldn’t be likely to tell you about it. The descriptor that Paige used most frequently was “genius”.
Kleiman’s exit from the Miami VA hospital in 2013 marked the beginning of what Paige refers to as his “unabomber period”. He holed up in his home and refused most contact from outsiders, including formerly close friends. He was profoundly physically unwell. At one point, he told Paige that he was shivering, fighting off a fever, but would continue to work through it. On another occasion, he said he would call the police if Paige continued calling to check up on him.
Less than a month later, Dave Kleiman was found dead in his home. According to reports provided by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner Office, the scene of Kleiman’s death was gruesome. His body was decomposing, there were wheelchair tracks of blood and faecal matter, open bottles of alcohol, and a loaded handgun next to him. A bullet hole in his mattress would seem to suggest suicide or foul play, but no ammunition casings were found, meaning he might have fired his gun and cleaned up sometime before dying. The official cause of death is listed as natural, and Conrad remembers hearing that the MRSA had stopped Kleiman’s heart.
The squalor surrounding their partner’s death and final days is the biggest sticking point for both Paige and Conrad about the idea that Kleiman was involved with Bitcoin. Though he never asked for money, both men regularly wrote Kleiman checks in hopes of keeping him afloat after his conditioned worsened.
The documents provided to Gizmodo include what appears to be an unfinished draft of a trust contract showing Wright entrusting Kleiman with 1.1 million bitcoins in 2011. It’s a sum worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but according to the contract, the money was to be returned to Wright down the road. Kleiman’s sense of honour may have kept him from accessing money that he didn’t believe was truly his, even in the direst of circumstances, Conrad said.
While he was alive, Kleiman kept a heavy-duty USB drive on his person at all times. Paige believes it might have been made by the brand Corsair — which boasts that its products are encased in “an anodized aircraft-grade aluminum housing”. If he really did possess a Satoshi Nakamoto-level fortune, it may have been sitting on that drive.
According to Paige, that drive was passed to Kleiman’s brother Ira, who declined to speak on the record about whether he possessed it. But even if the bitcoins were there, recovering them wouldn’t be nearly as simple as pulling files from an ordinary USB drive. Kleiman, the consummate security buff, locked down everything he owned with encryption strong enough that even his security-savvy partners doubt they’d be able to crack it. “If you told me there was a million dollars on Dave’s computer in this room, I wouldn’t even bother trying to look for it,” Paige said. “It would be a waste of time.”
Photo provided by Patrick Paige.