Where Has Wirecard Billionaire Fugitive Jan Marsalek Disappeared To?
Jan Marsalek, the former COO of Wirecard, which collapsed in June amid allegations of a $2.3 billion fraud, is now thought to be living under a false identity in the former USSR.
For your average Chief Operating Officer, a lifetime spent living in the shadows on assumed identities and looking over one’s shoulder might seem a fate considerably worse than a spell in a German jail.
But Jan Marsalek, 40, was never an average COO. The high-living former COO of Wirecard, a German payments processing behemoth that collapsed in June amidst allegations of a staggering $2.25 billion fraud, is now thought to be living under a false identity in the former USSR.
Interpol say Marsalek, who is Austrian by birth, is wanted for violation of German securities trading acts, criminal breach of trust, and an “especially serious case of fraud.” Three of his erstwhile executive colleagues are languishing in German jails accused of fraud, embezzlement, and market manipulation, while a fourth was released on bail this week.
But the authorities just can't seem to catch up with Marsalek.
He joined Wirecard in 2010, as the protégé of the company’s swashbuckling CEO Markus Braun, who was regularly hailed by analysts and the German financial press as a “visionary” and “mastermind,” as Wirecard’s star rose.
Working with Braun, Marsalek hopscotched around the world by private jet, putting together a series of deals that helped transform a rather boring payments company into one of Germany’s hottest and most glamorous fintech stocks, which aimed at nothing less than making cash obsolete.
By 2018, the company had a valuation of €21 billion ($24.85 billion)— overtaking Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest conventional bank—and became a major component of Germany’s prestigious Dax 30 index.
That Braun and Marsalek had been supremely successful at building Wirecard into a stock market juggernaut was not in doubt, but nor was Marsalek’s unconventionality, including his frequent hints that he was connected to a variety of international intelligence agencies.
For example, at a February 2018 meeting at his palatial Berlin home, ostensibly called to discuss humanitarian reconstruction in Libya, attendees were startled when Marsalek started watching “extremely violent” body camera footage, it was reported in the Financial Times. It appeared to show unknown groups of gunmen engaged in action in the troubled African country. As he watched the footage, Marsalek conducted a conversation about getting “equipment” to Libya, the FT reported.
Even more extraordinary than the body cam footage were the documents in his possession when Marsalek hopped off his private jet in London a few months later.
He was in the British capital on a mission to talk down speculators who were short-selling the company’s stock, after a series of articles by the FT’s investigation team, spearheaded by journalist Dan McCrum, questioned the company’s financial bona fides.
Along with the dry spreadsheets of figures, profit and loss and turnover, he also produced four highly sensitive, classified reports from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. They contained the precise formula for Novichok, the Russian nerve agent used in March of that year to poison a GRU defector, Sergei Skripal, in the English city of Salisbury.
What was the COO of a financial payments company doing getting mixed up in Libya’s civil war and walking around with formula for nerve agents in his brief case?
Just last week, German authorities said the fugitive executive could be an informer for Austria’s BVT intelligence agency (he is Austrian by birth). It has also emerged that he held a diplomatic passport.
The Daily Beast asked McCrum if he thought Marsalek was a spy.
“The challenge with Marsalek is that it’s hard to know where his claims of contacts began and the truth finishes,” McCrum told The Daily Beast. “He clearly has some sort of secret service connections, possibly more than one, but the extent to which he was a source or a contact or actively involved in that world is still hard to say. He very clearly had his hands on some highly classified documents. The nerve gas-related things that we reported on. If you are bandying that around then you clearly have some interesting contacts, but at the same time, would a spy really do that?”
Wirecard went to great lengths to try and silence McCrum, who had been investigating the company at the FT since 2014. He endured years of intimidation, surveillance, and threats by Marsalak’s network of goons, spies, and “risk management agencies.”
Wirecard even managed to convince the German authorities that McCrum was a bad actor: the German financial regulator, BaFin, filed a criminal complaint against McCrum, accusing him of planting fake stories in the FT as part of a strategy to enrich short traders. His colleagues would welcome him to the newsroom each day with a cheery greeting of, “Have you been arrested yet?”
However, by mid-2018, the journalist was on the point of revealing definitive evidence that half of Wirecard’s claimed business simply didn’t exist.
Did McCrum ever feel personally threatened? “There were some parts of it that were deeply intimidating,” he said. “We knew there was a lot of surveillance going on. And when we began to report on Marsalek’s adventures in Libya and Russian nerve gas…” His voice trailed off.
“You never expect anything to happen, and you tell yourself that something happening to a journalist in London will get way more attention than esoteric financial fraud, so you take comfort in that. But at the same time, we also knew we were dealing with this character who had all of these resources and moved in these circles, so, yes, that makes it slightly nerve-racking.”
The paper finally published, on Oct. 14 2019, a bombshell story complete with evidence showing that around half of Wirecard’s claimed business didn’t exist.
Wirecard said cash was sitting in third-party trustee bank accounts in East Asia, but it just wasn’t there. Marsalek had been the man in charge of the company’s Asian operations.
Wirecard blustered on for eight more months, but on June 18 this year, the company finally admitted that €1.9 billion ($2.25 billion) was “missing.”
It was Germany’s biggest financial fraud since World War II. Wirecard immediately collapsed into insolvency. Braun and other senior executives were arrested and thrown in jail, but Marsalek, as usual, was one step ahead of the game.
He reportedly told his colleagues that he was going to the Philippines to chase and find the missing billions, in order to prove his innocence. Airline bookings and immigration records duly showed he had arrived in Manila on June 23 and headed from there to China, but this was later discovered to be an elaborate red herring. Incredibly, immigration records had been forged on his behalf.
He went nowhere near Manila—the investigative journalism site Bellingcat established that Marsalek actually fled to the capital of Belarus, Minsk. He was registered as having entered Belarus via a private jet on 19 June 2020.
After that the trail goes cold, but given that border records show he never left the country, it is widely assumed he headed to Russia. There is no hard border to cross when traveling from Belarus to Russia, and Marsalek had been a frequent visitor to Russia, making over 60 trips to the country in the last 10 years, Bellingcat says. In 2016 he visited Russia 16 times using chartered business jets flying into St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan.
Does McCrum think he is in Russia?
“If you’re Marsalek and you are anticipating being on the run for the next 20 years, you need somewhere to hole up in the near term where you have friends who will not betray you, and then you need a long-term plan, and you need to change your appearance,” McCrum said.
“It’s hard to think of places where he can do all of that and still be safe given that he appears to have stolen a very large amount of money and anyone who harbors him will know that.”
For the other Wirecard executives, life has been less exciting.
Wirecard’s former CFO Burkhard Ley was released on bail this week, but three other suspects—Braun, Stephan von Erffa, and Oliver Bellenhaus—remain in jail. The prosecutors have accused all four of fraud, embezzlement and market manipulation.
Bellenhaus has reportedly turned into a chief witness and is co-operating with the prosecutors. The other three deny wrongdoing. Nobody has been yet been charged as the criminal investigation is ongoing.
Whether prosecutors will ever catch up with Jan Marsalek, and Wirecard’s missing billions, is an altogether different question.