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Ruined financiers commit desperate acts in harsh times

Saturday, February 14, 2009 | 4:51 p.m. CST; updated 5:30 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 14, 2009

In the abyss of financial ruin, faced with sure disgrace and possibly prison, some of the newly scandalized rich have taken desperate measures in these despairing times.

The black hole of hopelessness can be overwhelming. A man who lost $1.4 billion to Bernie Madoff sits down in his Manhattan office and carefully writes a series of suicide letters to family and friends, then swallows a fatal dose of pills and conscientiously places a wastebasket under his bleeding arm, after slicing it with a box cutter.

Others are mind-boggling in their brazenness. An Indiana financier accused of stealing from his investors boards his private plane alone, sends a fake distress call over Alabama saying his windshield has shattered and he is bleeding profusely, then parachutes from the still-moving Piper Malibu, which is later found in a Florida swamp with no signs of blood or an imploded windshield.

In the past year, there have been more than 10 such incidents, from points across the country and beyond, executed by men whose finances disintegrated, sometimes into greed and possible thievery — with the same dizzying speed of the roller-coaster global market.

In January alone, three cases surfaced. German billionaire investor Adolf Merckle, who lost a fortune in shorted Volkswagen stock, threw himself under a commuter train. Patrick Rocca, an Irish property investor who lost millions when the real estate market bottomed out, waited until his wife took their children to school before he shot himself in the head. Outside Chicago, real estate mogul Steven L. Good was found dead in his Jaguar, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"Suicide does not discriminate on the basis of social status," said psychologist Alden Cass, who treats financial traders. "The ego of the successful person ... is not used to failure, not used to being wrong. They're perfectionists. They don't allow for the gray in life. They don't allow for second place. When that is taken away, they're stripped of everything they know."

Three days before Christmas, after writing his farewell notes, Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet killed himself in his 22nd-floor office in Midtown. He'd lost his entire savings, and his clients' money, to Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme, which may have swallowed $50 billion from investments made by the very rich and the pension plans of everyday people.

The 65-year-old Frenchman, an aristocrat and professional investor, was deeply shamed and depressed, friends and family said. He felt he had ruined the lives of his clients, many of whom were friends. His brother, Bertrand, called his brother's suicide an honorable act. "At first he thought he'd be able to get the money back," Bertrand said in a Paris phone interview with The Associated Press after his brother's death. "Gradually he realized he wouldn't be able to. He trusted Madoff completely."

The black dog of depression gnaws at these men. "They see no answers," said Cass. "There is no hope. There is no way out."

Running and hiding is an entirely different reaction. Those who fake their deaths are "people with sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies," Cass says. "They believe they're smarter than everyone else. They think they're untouchable. They don't believe they have to abide by the rules."

In hindsight, Marcus Schrenker's plan to disappear doesn't appear particularly smart. The 38-year-old Indianapolis-area businessman, accused of betraying investors by not telling them about hundreds of thousands in fund fees — and facing a $533,000 legal judgment — bailed out of his plane, authorities say, two days after losing his court case.

Military jets were scrambled in response to his mayday call on Jan. 11. Pilots saw a dark cockpit and an open door before the small aircraft crashed near a residential area in Florida. The next day, Schrenker sent an e-mail to a friend, apologizing for the trouble he'd caused and saying he would be gone by the time the note was read.

But the only place Schrenker went was to jail. U.S. Marshals found him holed up in a Florida campground the following night. This time he was bleeding profusely; he'd slashed his wrist and was muttering the word "die." His financial travails now include charges of deliberately crashing an aircraft and making a false distress call.

Convicted hedge fund scammer Sam Israel III, 49, lasted a month on the lam in an RV complete with motor scooter before surrendering to authorities.

Sentenced to 20 years in prison for defrauding investors of $450 million, Israel was supposedly driving himself to jail when he disappeared last June.

On the dusty hood of his SUV, which he parked on an upstate New York bridge 150 feet above the Hudson River, Israel had finger-painted "suicide is painless," the title of television's "M-A-S-H" theme song.

He didn't jump. He got into a recreational vehicle driven by his girlfriend, who later admitted she trailed Israel on his aborted trip to prison and picked him up. He dropped her off at their home in Armonk, N.Y.

Then Israel grew a beard, and apparently rambled around a Massachusetts campground while police — who didn't buy his vehicular postscript and arrested Ryan on charges of aiding and abetting — searched for him. His mother begged him to surrender.

On July 2, he puttered up to a Massachusetts police station on his scooter and gave himself up. Returned to New York, he stood before a furious judge, complaining of his bad back.

The judge ordered his $500,000 bail forfeited. He faces up to 10 additional years in prison for running.

"In their minds, all they have to do is erase the stigma and start over," said M. Harvey Brenner, a public health professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "It's not easy to do. You have to have the constitution of a spy and live a double life."

Brenner, who is more empathetic than psychologist Cass, says people like Israel "believe they can regain their reputation with new people. Then they can put the bad stuff behind them."

Others might call them delusional. And there is little sympathy for those caught stealing from others in this nightmare recession, where already dismal unemployment rates jumped last week to 7.6 percent, reflecting the biggest loss of jobs since December 1974.

Web sites are rife with disdain. "These guys do not deserve any sympathy. Instead of taking their punches like a man they wimped out and took the easy way out. Some of them lost their money out of simple greed and did not want to face the consequences," reads one of the printable Internet comments, this one posted at Conde Nast's Portfolio.com.

"Most people don't earn anywhere near what these people earn," said Brenner. And it goes against the basis of the American work ethic. "You work hard, with the same principles and ethics your parents did. You try to lead an honorable life."

Disgraced or desperate fatcats have a long history in this country. Public lore had stockbrokers falling like rain after the 1929 stock market crash — though the prevalence of such suicides has long been argued.

But Winston Churchill, visiting New York City at the time, wrote of awakening the day after Black Tuesday to a noisy crowd outside the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. "Under my very window a gentleman cast himself down fifteen stories and was dashed to pieces, causing a wild commotion and the arrival of the fire brigade."

In 1933, as the Great Depression peaked, and 25 percent of the work force had no jobs, the suicide rate of Americans rose from 14 to 17 per 100,000 — the highest in history.

Wall Street trader Jesse Livermore was nicknamed "Boy Wonder" for his outrageous market antics. In 1907, he made $3 million by short-selling the market as it crashed. In 1929, he made $100 million doing the same thing. He owned a series of mansions around the world– each with a full, permanent staff– and possessed a steel-hulled ship for overseas trips.

Livermore told anyone who would listen to follow his Wall Street strategy: increase your position as the market moves in your direction, and quickly cut your losses. But he often failed to heed his own advice. He lost two fortunes, accumulated a third, and lost that, too. In 1940, in the bar of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York City, he shot himself to death, leaving $365,000 in debts and a rambling, eight-page suicide note to his second wife. "I am a failure. I am a failure. I am a failure," it said.

But it's not just reckless speculators who may be left feeling emotionally bankrupted.

Robert Chew, a writer and consultant, invested $1.2 million with Stanley Chais, a longtime Beverly Hills, Calif., philanthropist. Chais, in turn, invested with Madoff.

But Chew and wife Sarah had never heard of Madoff until a call came to their Colorado home in December, telling them they had lost all their invested money.

Looking back, Chew says he knew it should have been too good to be true — high returns on secretive funds that continually did well. But he and his wife had watched her family members do well for decades with Chais. "We thought this guy was a genius," he said.

Chais has said he, too, was duped.

With no retirement money, the Chews struggle to find a reason to believe life will get better.

"You look around and you wonder what more is there to my life? My life is over," Robert Chew says. "I'm 56. Will I be able to find another job? Or will we be out in the street?"

For now, Chew is writing columns about the financial crisis for Time magazine. His first, titled "How I Got Screwed by Bernie Madoff," ran in December.

"We all knew it was a risk, we were told to make sure we were diversified, blah blah, but my God, it had been going strong for so long and with such fantastic returns, we had to get in," he wrote. "We deluded ourselves into thinking we were smarter than the others."

Now, he knows very little about today or the future.

"We don't know what we're going to do," he said. "We find ourselves at night, with the lights out, crying, asking, 'What are we going to do?'"

 

 


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