By EGILL BJARNASON
REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — A prisoner in Iceland suspected of masterminding the theft of about 600 computers that were being used to mine bitcoin and other virtual currencies escaped custody and fled Tuesday on a passenger plane that a witness said also carried the remote North Atlantic nation’s prime minister. Police said surveillance footage showed a suspect they identified as Sindri Thor Stefansson boarding a flight to Sweden at Iceland’s international airport in Keflavik. They said he traveled under a passport in someone else’s name. “He had an accomplice,” Police Chief Gunnar Schram told Visir, an online news outlet in Iceland. “We are sure of that.”
Investigators think Stefansson left the low-security prison where he recently had been transferred through a window early Tuesday. Guards did not report him missing until after the flight to Sweden had taken off.. Stefansson was among 11 people arrested earlier this year for allegedly stealing the powerful computer in Iceland’s biggest thefts. The stolen equipment, which still is missing, has been valued at almost $2 million. Icelandic media have called the case the “Big Bitcoin Heist.” If the stolen equipment is used for its original purpose — to create new bitcoins — the thieves could turn a massive profit in an untraceable currency without ever selling the items.
The escaped prisoner was being held at the Sogn prison in rural southern Iceland, located some 95 kilometers (59 miles) from the airport. The prison is unfenced and inmates there have telephone and internet access. Stefansson had been in custody since February. He was moved to the open prison 10 days ago, police said. A passenger on the flight that the escaped inmate allegedly caught to Sweden told national broadcaster RUV that Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, was also on the plane. Jakobsdottir was among five Nordic prime ministers who met with India’s prime minister Tuesday in Stockholm,
The prime minister’s presence, the witness said, was the only unusual thing about that flight. The escape is yet another twist in a criminal case without parallel on the peaceful island nation with a population of 340,000 and one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Police commissioner Olafur Helgi Kjartansson told The Associated Press in March it was “a grand theft on a scale unseen before.” Police have arrested 22 people altogether, including a security guard, without solving the burglaries. Blessed with an abundance of renewable energy, Iceland has emerged as a popular base for large virtual currency companies that use massive amounts of electricity running the computers that create bitcoins.
Owners of the stolen computers have, in a rare public outreach, promised a $60,000 reward to anyone who can lead detectives to the stolen computers. Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, said keeping a high-profile prisoner in such low-security surroundings was unusual — but more so was his organized escape. “Prison breaks in Iceland usually mean someone just fled to get drunk,” he said. “The underworlds are tiny and it is extremely difficult to hide, let alone flee the country.”