Madoff victims cheer finale, still feel poor
"How much did you lose? " "How long will he get? " "Will he be handcuffed? " Swarms of reporters, cameramen, victims and gawkers began gathering...
The New York Times
NEW YORK — "How much did you lose?"
"How long will he get?"
"Will he be handcuffed?"
Swarms of reporters, cameramen, victims and gawkers began gathering outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan early Monday to catch one last glimpse of the man who seemed to define an era of unprecedented greed and fraud on Wall Street.
In reality, they had been waiting since March, when Bernard Madoff admitted he had run a vast Ponzi scheme that robbed thousands of people of their life savings.
"We're hoping for a big sentence only as a deterrent," Cynthia Friedman, a victim of Madoff's fraud, said before his sentence was handed down. Friedman and her husband, Richard, who lost their life savings with Madoff, spent more than an hour doing interviews.
But if this was a media circus, a Wall Street version of the O.J. Simpson case, its center-ring star was nowhere in sight. Madoff was in court, having been whisked through an underground passageway. The throng was left without even a glimpse of Madoff, whose fate was sealed at 11:32 a.m. with a prison sentence of 150 years for defrauding thousands of investors out of more than $13 billion.
Madoff, 71, told the court he left a "legacy of shame" and had deceived his wife, two sons and brothers.
U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said the disgraced former Nasdaq chairman had received "not a single letter ... attesting to Mr. Madoff's good deeds. The absence of such support is telling."
At the end of his statement, Madoff turned and faced investors. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know that doesn't help you."
Norma Hill, a victim, said she felt no closure.
"It's very easy to say something like that after the fact," Hill said of Madoff's apology.
"The man sitting in this courtroom robbed me," said Miriam Siegman, who spoke at the hearing. "... He discarded me like road kill."
The frenzy on the street outside U.S. District Court surged anew as the judge's order flashed across the world — in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and more.
It spread just as quickly among those in front of the courthouse.
"I was introduced to Bernard Madoff 21 years ago at a business meeting," said accountant Sheryl Weinstein. "... I now view that day as perhaps the unluckiest day of my life. ... This beast who I call Madoff. He walks among us. He dresses like us ... but underneath the facade is a true beast. ... He is an equal-opportunity destroyer."
Former Fort Lee, N.J., Mayor Burt Ross, who lost $5 million, used equally harsh words: "I told the judge that when Bernard Madoff leaves prison, which means after his death, that he will then go down to the depths of hell where he'll join those other people who are in the mouths of Satan."
Amid the whirl, tourists snapped photos with cellphones. Police tried to corral people who had spilled onto the street. A man with a statue of a caged bear and a name tag reading "Bernard Madoff" hanging from its neck sat on a cart outside the courthouse. Several sketch artists sold paintings and drawings of Madoff in court.
There was no sign of the very wealthy and/or famous investors — including director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax — who lost billions of dollars.
"It was surprising how few victims were standing outside the courthouse; it was all press," said Jennifer Rhodes, who lives nearby. "There is a great deal of shame felt when one is a victim of a crime."
In her first public comments since her husband's arrest in December, Ruth Madoff seemed to seek solidarity with victims.
"Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused," her statement said. "The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years."
While pleased with the verdict, most victims at the scene turned their attention to how much could be recovered from what remained of Madoff's assets.
Several broke away to start their own rally a few blocks from the courthouse at Foley Square, against the backdrop of a 60-foot sculpture called "Triumph of the Human Spirit" by Lorenzo Price.
Gathering in front of about 100 reporters who trailed them, their anger had shifted from Madoff's actions to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which they criticized for missing warning signs of the fraud.
The crush of TV cameras and reporters spilled out into the street in front of oncoming traffic as police tried to hem in the crowd.
Siegman, surrounded by cameras, said she lost 40 years of savings and now scavenges for food. Appearing frail and supporting herself on a walker, she began to feel unwell while speaking to reporters. The questions kept coming as she ate a cookie to raise her blood sugar.
Siegman said she lives on an $800 monthly Social Security check.
She acknowledged she sometimes finds herself standing in supermarket aisles looking at cases of food.
"It crosses my mind how people can shoplift," she said. "I scavenge in Dumpsters. Eventually, I'll be unable to provide for myself."
Dominic Ambrosino, the first victim to testify Monday, said outside that Madoff looked him in the eye when he turned around to apologize.
"I was very surprised," Ambrosino said. "It felt good. It felt right."
But, like others who spoke, he had less forgiveness for government regulators.
"The government let us down," Ambrosino said. "They were supposed to watch him, and they didn't."
The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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