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(photo credit: AP)
A federal judge rejected Bernard Madoff's plea for leniency Monday, sentencing the 71-year-old swindler to spend the rest of his life in jail for an "extraordinarily evil" fraud that took a staggering toll on thousands of victims.
US District Judge Denny Chin cited the unprecedented nature of the multibillion-dollar fraud as he sentenced Madoff to the maximum of 150 years in prison, a term comparable only to those given in the past to terrorists, traitors and the most violent criminals. There is no parole in federal prison so Madoff will most likely die there.
"Here, the message must be sent that Mr. Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil and that this kind of irresponsible manipulation of the system is not merely a bloodless financial crime that takes place just on paper, but it is instead ... one that takes a staggering human toll," Chin said.
The massive pyramid scheme run by Madoff since at least the early 1990s demolished the life savings of thousands of people, wrecked charities and shook confidence in the US financial system.
Jewish charities and organizations, including Hadassah, were among those hit by the Madoff scheme.
Only Madoff and an accountant accused of failing to make basic auditing checks have faced criminal charges. But a person familiar with the investigation said Monday that at least 10 more people are likely to face federal charges by the time the probe is complete. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, wouldn't detail the likely charges against the others or say whether they would include Madoff's family or former employees.
Madoff's 150-year sentence reflected a growing tendency over the last decade to give white-collar criminals lengthy prison terms - although a handful of cases have received even longer terms.
The outcome prompted scattered applause and whoops from a group of burned former clients in a packed Manhattan courtroom.
The judge noted that not one of the more than 100 letters he received supported Madoff or described any good deeds he had done.
"The absence of such support is telling," Chin said.
Chin announced the sentence with Madoff standing at the defense table, wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie and looking thinner than he did at his last court appearance in March. He gave no noticeable reaction when the sentence was announced.
He also showed no emotion though he looked down earlier in the hearing as he listened to nine victims spend nearly an hour venting their despair and anger. Some openly wept or raised their voices, labeling Madoff a "monster," ''a true beast" and an "evil low-life."
"Life has been a living hell. It feels like the nightmare we can't wake from," said Carla Hirshhorn.
"He stole from the rich. He stole from the poor. He stole from the in between. He had no values," said Tom Fitzmaurice. "He cheated his victims out of their money so he and his wife, Ruth, could live a life of luxury beyond belief."
Dominic Ambrosino called it an "indescribably heinous crime" and urged a long prison sentence so he "will know he is imprisoned in much the same way he imprisoned us and others."
He added: "In a sense, I would like somebody in the court today to tell me how long is my sentence."
Sheryl Weinstein, a certified accountant, said Madoff was effective because he seemed normal.
"But underneath the facade is a true beast," she said. "He should not be given the opportunity to blend so seamlessly into our society again."
When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say, Madoff slowly stood, leaned forward on the defense table and spoke in a monotone for about 10 minutes. At various times, he referred to his monumental fraud as a "problem," ''an error of judgment" and "a tragic mistake."
He claimed he and his wife were tormented, saying she "cries herself to sleep every night, knowing all the pain and suffering I have caused," he said. "That's something I live with, as well."
He then finally looked at the victims lining the first row of the gallery.
"I will turn and face you," he said mechanically. "I'm sorry. I know that doesn't help you."
His immediately family did not attend the sentencing. But Ruth Madoff - often a target of victims' scorn since her husband's arrest - broke her silence afterward by issuing a statement through her lawyer. She said she, too, had been misled.
"I am embarrassed and ashamed," she said. "Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused. The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years."
Prosecutor Lisa Baroni said Madoff deserved a life sentence because he "stole ruthlessly and without remorse."
Outside court, some victims said it was time to move on.
"He stole my money. He didn't steal my life," said Ron Weinstein, whose wife spoke in court. "I'm not going to sit around and mope about it."
Madoff, who has been jailed since March, already has taken a severe financial hit: Last week, a judge issued a preliminary $171 billion forfeiture order stripping Madoff of all his personal property, including real estate, investments, and $80 million in assets his wife Ruth had claimed were hers. The order left her with $2.5 million that couldn't be tied to the fraud.
The terms require the Madoffs to sell a $7 million Manhattan apartment where Ruth Madoff still lives.
An $11 million estate in Palm Beach, Florida, a $4 million home in Montauk and a $2.2 million boat will be put on the market as well.
Before Madoff became a symbol of Wall Street greed, he earned a reputation as a trusted money manager with a Midas touch. Even as the market fluctuated, clients of his secretive investment advisory business - from Florida retirees to celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax - for decades enjoyed steady double-digit returns.
But late last year, Madoff made a dramatic confession: Authorities say he pulled his sons aside and told them it was "all just one big lie."
Madoff pleaded guilty in March to securities fraud and other charges, saying he was "deeply sorry and ashamed." He insisted that he acted alone, describing a separate wholesale stock-trading firm run by his sons and brother as honest and legitimate.
But the family, including his wife, and brokerage firms who recruited investors have come under intense scrutiny by the FBI, regulators and a court-appointed trustee overseeing the liquidation of Madoff's assets.
The trustee and prosecutors have sought to go after assets to compensate thousands of victims who have filed claims against Madoff. How much is available to pay them remains unknown, though it's expected to be only a fraction of the astronomical losses associated with the fraud.
The $171 billion forfeiture figure used by prosecutors merely mirrors the amount they estimate that, over decades, flowed in and out of the principal account to perpetrate the pyramid scheme. The statements sent to investors showing their accounts were worth as much as $65 billion were fiction.
The investigation has found that in reality Madoff never made any investments, instead using the money from new investors to pay returns to existing clients - and to finance a lavish lifestyle for his family.
Madoff's sentence was not the longest for a white-collar criminal. New York businessman Sholam Weiss, 55, was sentenced in February 2000 to 845 years in prison for his role in a plot that skimmed $400 million from an insurance company, costing many of its 25,000 customers their life savings. The government lists his release date as Nov. 23, 2754.
And Norman Schmidt, 73, was sentenced in Denver last year to 330 years in prison for his role in a multimillion-dollar investment scam. He's scheduled for release in September 2291.