Rise and fall of America’s biggest Ponzi conman Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff, the man behind the biggest and most devastating Ponzi scheme in history that robbed tens of thousands of victims worldwide of $65 billion, went from a high-flying Wall Street financier to living out his dying days in a North Carolina prison.

For decades, Madoff – a former chairman of the Nasdaq stock market – enjoyed an image as a self-made financial guru whose good fortune defied market fluctuations. He attracted a devoted legion of investment clients from Florida retirees to the rich and famous including director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and former New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. 

But it all came crashing down in 2008 after his investment advisory business was exposed as a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that eradicated people’s fortunes – both rich and poor – and destroyed charities and foundations worldwide.

Madoff became so hated he had to wear a bulletproof vest to court after admitting to his crimes. 

His death on Wednesday, while serving a 150 year prison sentence at Butner Federal Correctional Complex, brings an end to his scandal-plagued life that saw a very steep rise and tragic fall. 

The epic downfall from his financial fraud not only destroyed the lives of his 37,000 victims but also that of his own family, including his two sons who ended up turning their father over to the authorities. 

For decades, Bernie Madoff – a former chairman of the Nasdaq stock market – enjoyed an image as a self-made financial guru whose good fortune defied market fluctuations. But it all came crashing down in 2008 after his investment advisory business was exposed as a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that eradicated people’s fortunes – both rich and poor

One of his sons, Mark, killed himself on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest in 2010. Madoff’s other son, Andrew, died from cancer at age 48. His wife Ruth is still alive and has since vanished to Greenwich, Connecticut.

Madoff, who was born in 1938 in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Queens, New York, became a legend in the financial world regarding the story of his rise to prominence. 

His father, Ralph, was a stockbroker and plumber and his grandparents had emigrated to the US from Eastern Europe. 

He and his brother Peter set off for Wall Street in 1960 with a few thousand dollars saved from working as a lifeguard and installing sprinklers.  

Madoff studied political science and then law before starting Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. By 1980, his firm occupied three floors of a midtown Manhattan high-rise. 

Initially, he – along with his brother – ran a business as middlemen between the buyers and sellers of penny stocks. His wife Ruth ran the books and his sons, once adults, went on to become executives. 

Madoff raised his profile by using the expertise to help launch Nasdaq, the first electronic stock exchange, and became so respected that he advised the Securities and Exchange Commission on the system. 

But what the SEC never found out was that behind the scenes, in a separate office kept under lock and key, Madoff was secretly spinning a web of phantom wealth by using cash from new investors to pay returns to old ones. 

Authorities say that over the years, at least $13 billion was invested with Madoff. An old IBM computer cranked out monthly statements showing steady double-digit returns, even during market downturns. 

As of late 2008, before his arrest, the statements claimed investor accounts totaled $65 billion. 

The ugly truth: No securities were ever bought or sold. 

VICTIM: Kevin BaconVICTIM: Steven Spielberg

He attracted a devoted legion of investment clients from Florida retirees to the rich and famous including director Steven Spielberg (right), actor Kevin Bacon (left) and former New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon

VICTIM: Former New York Mets owner Fred WilponVICTIM: Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

Among his victims was Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (right) and former New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon (left)

His clients, who included celebrities like famed film director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, said they had no idea.

Among them was Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who recalled meeting Madoff years earlier at a dinner where they talked about history, education and Jewish philosophy – not money.

Madoff ‘made a very good impression,’ Wiesel said during a 2009 panel discussion on the scandal. Wiesel admitted that he bought into ‘a myth that he created around him that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret.’ 

Like many of his clients, Madoff and his wife enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. 

They had a $7 million Manhattan apartment, an $11 million estate in Palm Beach, Florida and a $4 million home on the tip of Long Island. They also had another home in the south of France, private jets and a yacht.

But it all came crashing down in the winter of 2008 with a dramatic confession at Madoff’s 12th-floor apartment on the Upper East Side. 

In a meeting with his sons, he confided that his business was ‘all just one big lie’. 

They turned him in the following day. 

A lawyer for the family contacted regulators, who alerted the federal prosecutors and the FBI. 

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