- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 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. A 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, 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 Manhattan. He’d lost his entire savings, and his clients’ money, to Mr. Madoff’s purported 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 Mr. Cass. “There is no hope. There is no way out.”

Running and hiding is a different reaction. Those who fake their deaths are “people with sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies,” Mr. Cass said. “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 Indiana 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 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 had 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 in 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, Debra Ryan, whom authorities say later admitted trailing Israel on his aborted trip to prison and picking 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 Miss Ryan on charges of aiding and abetting - searched for him.

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.”

There is little sympathy for those caught stealing from others in this recession, where unemployment rates have reached 7.6 percent and expected to go higher. 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 comments, posted at Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com.

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

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. Mr. Chais, in turn, invested with Mr. Madoff.

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

“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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