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Sex.com thief released from prison

And his Mexican lawyer shot the same day

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In yet another twist in the extraordinary tale of Sex.com, the con-man who stole the world's most valuable domain has been released from jail - in order to locate the millions of dollars he owes the original owner.

Stephen Michael Cohen has been ordered to hand Gary Kremen $65m by a US court but despite years of intense fighting has yet to hand over one cent. On Tuesday morning, after 14 months in jail for civil contempt, Cohen was released by Judge James Ware, because Kremen's lawyers had been unable to chase down his offshore bank accounts.

Cohen claims he is only able to get the details of his various accounts - held in Lithuania, Liechtenstein and the Isle of Man - in person and outside jail, and is due back in court in San Jose on 26 February to tell the judge how that search has gone.

But in a chilling turn of events, one of the few people with access to Cohen's estimated countless millions, Mexican lawyer Gustavo Cortés Carvajal, known locally as El Sapo or "The Toad", was the target of an assassination attempt in Tijuana at 5pm on the day of Cohen's release.

Cortes was in a Mercedes van being driven by fellow lawyer Jose Luis Alamillo, when it was blocked in by two trucks in central Tijuana. Alamillo managed to break free and, chased by the trucks, get to the local police station but had been shot several times in his left flank during the attack. A four-year-old boy in a car at the scene when the shooting broke out was shot in the head and is an unknown state, while Cortes himself escaped unharmed.

There is nothing to link Cohen to Cortes' attempted murder.

Follow the money

The shooting is the latest twist in an extraordinary case that started on 17 October 1995 when Stephen Cohen hacked the computer system used to store all dotcom registrant details and change ownership of Sex.com into his name. Cohen later covered his tracks by forging a letter, purportedly from Kremen's company, handing over the domain in recognition of non-existent trademark rights Cohen had in the name "sex.com".

That theft was the start of an epic legal battle that finally ended in April 2001 with Kremen was handed back the domain and awarded $65m: $40m covering the money Cohen had made from the prestigious domain in the intervening six years, and $25m as punitive damages.

But rather than pay, Cohen fled across the Mexican border and remained a fugitive from justice for four years until he was finally arrested on 27 October 2005 in Tijuana and transported the short distance across the border. Despite dozens of hours of subsequent interviews in jail, Cohen has failed to provide a single piece of information that has led to the discovery of any of his money.

Following a long series of court appearances, Judge Ware felt his hands were tied by the civil contempt laws and said he had no option but to release Cohen. "Cohen has been incarcerated for more than one year," read Ware's ruling, "during which time Kremen has failed to locate evidence of hidden bank accounts or other assets. Under these circumstances, the only purpose of Cohen's continued incarceration would be punitive - an impermissible purpose for civil contempt sanctions."

Kremen and his lawyers are uncertain if Cohen will turn up at all on 26 February. If he doesn't he will be held in contempt of court and another order for his arrest will be issued. But Cohen has adequately demonstrated he is more than capable of staying out of the law's clutches. But it is very possible that Cohen will make the date because if he turns up and persuades Judge Ware he is unable to find any information on his bank accounts, Ware would have little choice but to free him from his contempt order, leaving Cohen free to do as he wishes.

That possibility is very likely to appeal to Cohen, thanks to the extraordinarily personal battle between himself and Kremen (Kremen currently lives in Cohen's old mansion in the exclusive San Diego neighbourhood of Rancho Santa Fe). If Cohen has the contempt lifted, he will have succeeded in thwarting Kremen and his army of lawyers and investigators.

But at the same time, Kremen remains determined to extract some form of concession out of his nemesis. His lawyers are already working on a range of tactics to have Cohen re-arrested in February if he doesn't supply real details of existing bank accounts. The extraordinary battle of wills and the game of gambles that the two men have been playing for over a decade may well be on its final hand. ®

Kieren McCarthy has written a book about the brutal battle for Sex.com, to be published in May 2007. More information can be found at www.sexdotcom.info.

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