Friday 5 August 2022 11:19 PM IT expert who threw £153m of Bitcoin away barred from searching Welsh landfill ... trends now
For a man whose wealth has, at times, outstripped that of the Queen, James Howells lives a remarkably modest life, sharing a terrace house on a busy main road in Newport, South Wales, with his labrador Ruby.
Decorated in classic bachelor-pad style — all blacks, whites and greys — the front room is dominated by a large computer monitor and its screen-saver gives a clue as to why James is not enjoying quite the champagne lifestyle you might expect.
It features the logo for Bitcoin, the virtual currency in which James has holdings of 8,000 coins. At their peak in November last year, they were worth £55,000 each, making his hoard worth £440 million.
Bitcoin has since slumped but even at today's lower prices, it's worth almost £153 million.
But there is just one problem: nine years ago he accidentally threw away the 51-digit passcode and without it he will never be able to access any of them.
For a man whose wealth has, at times, outstripped that of the Queen, James Howells lives a remarkably modest life, sharing a terrace house on a busy main road in Newport, South Wales, with his labrador Ruby
Somewhere on this vast site lies a computer hard drive belonging to IT expert James that carries the key code to a staggering Bitcoin fortune. Just one problem: it’s buried with 110,000 tons of stinking rubbish and the council won’t let him look for it!
That digital key is on a laptop hard drive he believes is currently buried somewhere in 110,000 tons of rubbish in a nearby landfill, now grassed over.
Bordered by an ugly industrial estate and an unprepossessing retail park, it is only a five-minute drive away.
But it might as well be on the moon for all the success he's had in persuading Newport City Council to let him excavate the huge mounds beneath to try to retrieve his buried treasure.
'Four times I've been to them and four times I've been ignored,' he says. 'They have not been co-operative at all.'
Now, however, he's launching a new effort to get his hands on that digital key and this time he's backed by £10 million in funding from venture capitalists Hanspeter Jaberg and Karl Wendeborn, based in Switzerland and Germany, who have been offered a cut of the proceeds if the dig is successful.
It has been two years in the planning and Nasa scientists have been among his advisers. James will also make use of cutting-edge technology including 'robot dogs'.
And all to find something not much bigger than a credit card.
'Many people have accidentally thrown away something they didn't mean to,' James, 37, tells me. 'The difference is that I'm the only one where it turned out to be a £400 million mistake.'
That mistake has made him something of a local celebrity but the attention is not always welcome. As the Mail's photographer takes pictures of James outside his house, a speeding passerby shouts: 'You'll never find it!'
But others yell encouragement for the local lad whose fascination with computers began young. James, who has spent all his life in Newport where his dad is a carpenter and his mum worked in a factory making silicon chips, was only ten when he became his primary school's unofficial IT troubleshooter, helping teachers operate laptop computers in class.
Later, working as a systems engineer for organisations including the Welsh Ambulance Service, he spent many nights chatting in early internet forums for gamers and that was where, in 2009, he began to hear talk of Bitcoin, a form of digital money invented by an individual who used the name Satoshi Nakamoto (and whose identity remains a mystery).
James was intrigued by the idea of a currency operating independently of governments and central banks.
Every night, he left his laptop running the software to 'mine' new Bitcoin. ('Mining' is the process of creating new Bitcoins by solving complicated mathematical problems that verify transactions in the currency. When a Bitcoin is successfully mined, the miner receives a predetermined amount of Bitcoin.)
James claims he was one of the first five people in the world to do so.
'There was only one web page devoted to Bitcoin and there were no instructions about how to download the software. You had to work it out by yourself,' he says.
After ten weeks, he had acquired 8,000 coins — which were then virtually valueless — in his digital wallet and could have had thousands more but had to stop mining after complaints from his then partner, Hafina. He kept his laptop in their bedroom and, when it was running, the noise of its fan stopped her sleeping.
'I know I could have just moved it to another room but Bitcoin was only an experiment at the time,' he says. 'The coins were worth nothing so I just stopped.'
Soon afterwards James knocked a glass of lemonade over his laptop and despite efforts to clean it, it never worked properly again.
He sold the components for parts, keeping the hard drive and transferring all the photos and music on it to an Apple computer. The only thing he couldn't copy across was the tiny file containing the passcode to his Bitcoins because it wasn't compatible with Apple's operating system.
He threw the hard drive into the kind of junk drawer most of us have at home and forgot about it for the next three years, concentrating on work and family life — by then he and Hafina had two young sons.
Then, in the summer of 2013, he had a clear-out.
'There were two hard drives in the drawer,' he explains. 'One was empty, the other had the [Bitcoin] file on it and I threw the wrong one away. It's as simple as that.'
In bed that night he had a nagging feeling that he should double-check which drive he'd discarded. But he woke in the morning to find Hafina had taken the bin-bag to the tip.
Again, it didn't seem important but that October James saw a TV news report about a Norwegian man who had forgotten about £20 worth of Bitcoins he'd acquired in 2009, the same year as James mined his. Now they were worth around £700,000.
'The minute I saw it, I thought, 'Oh s**t.' I went straight