The creator of the Mutant Ape Planet NFT collection who was arrested in January over a $2.9 million rug pull has pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud. As a result of the plea, Aurelien Michel, who said prior to his arrest that it was really the community's fault he took the money and ran, now faces a $1.4 million fine and up to five years in prison.
The whole Mutant Ape Planet thing was sketchy right from the start, even by NFT standards—for one thing, despite the name and the fact that its pricey JPGs were an obvious knock-off, it was completely unrelated to the Mutant Ape Yacht Club, an spinoff of the popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs. That didn't stop people from pouring millions of dollars into them though, enticed by promises of various rewards and benefits, and of course the prestige and value that comes from owning one of these:
But after the collection sold out, the Mutant Ape Planet creators transferred the $2.9 million people had spent on them to other crypto wallets they controlled, and then took a powder. According to prosecutors, Michel copped to the crime in a chat on social media but offered a novel defense for the theft by blaming the people who bought them, saying, "We never intended to rug [pull] but the community went way too toxic."
That argument doesn't appear to have sold as well as his monkey pictures, though, as the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York has announced that Michel has now pleaded guilty.
"Aurelien Michel enticed investors with promises of capitalizing on the NFT trend, only to abandon the project after amassing nearly $3 million in what’s described as a 'rug-pull scheme'," Ivan J. Arvelo, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigation in New York, said in a statement. "The defendant, accused of misleading the Mutant Ape NFT community, claimed innocence and even labeled victims as 'too toxic.' However, these attempts to evade responsibility came to a conclusion with today’s plea."
The Mutant Ape Planet collection is no longer available on NFT marketplace OpenSea, which says it was "removed based on a claim of intellectual property infringement." You can still see it on Coinbase, however: The page states that "each Mutant Ape Planet allows its owner to be part of an exclusive community giving different perks and experiences to its holders," but the activity log indicates that the images are effectively worthless.
"While Michel purported to sell dream NFTs backed with rewards and benefits, he defrauded investors, turning their dream into a nightmare of deception and losses," special agent in charge of IRS-Criminal Investigations New York Thomas M. Fattorusso said. "There is no excusing this kind of greed, and today’s guilty plea brings Michel one step closer to realizing his own nightmare—behind bars."
That's the kind of statement that's really best made while The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" blares in the background. Yet somehow, I very much suspect that some people will get fooled again—and again, and again, and again.