NEW YORK, Jul 2 – In a city famous for money and theatre, Wall Street doyen Bernard Madoff was a master of both, using his charm to weedle billions from his clients who little suspected he was a master con artist.
With little more than his wit and the implicit trust of his elite followers culled mainly from the Jewish community, the silver-haired money manager pulled off a fraud of gargantuan proportions, tricking thousands of savvy investors.
Now the 71-year-old looks set to spend the rest of his life in prison as he faces his sentencing on Monday after admitting 11 charges of fraud and theft, for which he faces a maximum 150 years in jail.
In March when he first spoke publicly about how he lured clients into giving him their money, he confessed he was "deeply sorry and ashamed."
"I believed it would end quickly and I would extricate myself and my clients," he said. "This proved difficult and, in the end, impossible."
He was led away in handcuffs, an ignominious downfall for the man who once seemed to bathe in success as he climbed from lowly beginnings to the top of the Wall Street tree.
The man friends once knew as Bernie started as a Long Island lifeguard before entering the stock market, eventually becoming chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange.
There, he was credited with helping revolutionize the shift in trading from face-to-face deals, from telephones to computers, with trades made in seconds not minutes, and ushering in an era of ever greater stakes and profits.
But it was as a private money manager that he won a reputation as a financial guru.
Returns of around 10 percent, with occasional surges a great deal higher, came in so regularly that rich individuals, endowments, and supposedly expert banks lined up to give him money.
When a handful of alarmed journalists and investigators raised concerns, they were ignored.
Madoff himself had several luxury homes, a motor yacht and private airplane, but this was to be expected for a big shot on Wall Street — anything less might have been suspicious.
And he lived in the lap of luxury. Newspapers have been raiding their archives for pictures of the flamboyant life style he led with his wife, Ruth.
There have been pictures of him puffing on a cigar, baseball cap on his head, or lounging on one of the couple’s yachts "Bull", "Little Bull" and "Sitting Bull."
And the list of investors was Madoff’s best advertisement: if so many VIPs were on it, what could there be to fear?
Behind this shiny surface, prosecutors say there was little more than a shell game, a Ponzi scheme where new clients’ capital was stolen to pay off existing clients and create the illusion of returns.
Prosecutors have detailed how even the Manhattan offices were phony, with unqualified workers churning out fake statements and other paperwork.
Just two weeks before Madoff’s arrest, his company claimed to be managing 64.8 billion dollars, when in reality, the prosecution said, there was only "a small fraction of that."
A columnist for The Wall Street Journal says Madoff lured his victims with a "mysterious allure and sense of exclusivity."
Initially Madoff would rely on a "macher," the Yiddish term for a big shot, who would go to the country club and "brag, ‘I’ve got my money invested with Madoff and he’s doing really well,’" the Journal wrote.
"When his listener expressed interest, the macher would reply, ‘You can’t get in unless you’re invited … but I can probably get you in.’"