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Billionaire’s Death Blamed on Employee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the wealthiest men in the world, billionaire banker Edmond Safra, lived like a man under siege in his Monaco penthouse with a Mediterranean view, protected by ultrasophisticated alarm systems and indoor and outdoor security cameras.

In the end, those high-tech precautions weren’t enough to save the international financier from an unhappy American employee who, ironically, seemed only to want to be a hero in his boss’ eyes, Monaco authorities said Monday.

When the 67-year-old Safra, founder of Republic National Bank of New York, died of suffocation in a fire that gutted his sprawling two-floor apartment Friday, speculation mounted that the apparent attack on the tycoon-philanthropist was the work of hit men from the Russian mafia or another criminal gang.

The sole witness, one of Safra’s male nurses, told a horrific tale of being stabbed in the stomach and thigh by a pair of hooded assailants who broke in shortly before 5 a.m. and started the fire that destroyed the 10,000-square-foot rooftop residence.

The penthouse invasion sent a frisson of fear through the tiny seaside principality, haunt of many of the world’s wealthiest and most famous, a place so safe that the last crime with a firearm reportedly took place in 1986.

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The Riviera mystery initially puzzled Monaco authorities, but on Monday, they announced that they had found the key to unlock it--not outside Safra’s household, but inside. They said the global banker and businessman died because the American nurse, Ted Maher, 41, a former Green Beret from Auburn, Maine, who later lived in Stormville, N.Y., had a dispute with Safra’s head nurse and set fire to a pile of trash.

“He admitted to having set fire to a wastepaper bin to set off an alarm and then to having gone downstairs to raise an alert,” Daniel Serdet, Monaco’s chief prosecutor, told a news conference.

“He did not intend to threaten Edmond Safra’s life. He simply wanted to draw attention to himself in order to settle his differences with an employee of Mr. Safra’s,” Serdet said.

A bloodied 3-inch switchblade found in the apartment belonged to Maher, and his wounds were self-inflicted, authorities said.

Maher, who reportedly had worked for Safra only five months, will be formally arrested and charged with fatal arson, Serdet said.

Viviane Torrente, 52, an American nurse of Philippine origin, was killed in the blaze along with the financier, who had been under medical care for Parkinson’s disease.

In his original story, Maher said that after being stabbed, he told Torrente to hide Safra in a bathroom and said he would go downstairs to sound the alarm.

Safra then apparently panicked and, according to officials in Monaco, refused to leave his refuge even when his wife, Lily, implored him on his mobile phone to open the bathroom’s bulletproof door. He apparently thought that arriving firefighters were the supposed assassins.

As flames engulfed the apartment, Safra also refused to allow Torrente to leave, Serdet said.

By the time firefighters broke into the bathroom, Safra and Torrente had died from breathing toxic fumes. Safra’s wife, a Brazilian-born heiress, had hidden briefly in another bathroom after an alarm went off. She was unharmed.

Safra, heir to a line of Jewish Levantine traders and financiers, moved from Lebanon to Brazil as a young man. He made the bulk of his fortune in Brazil, where he set up a trading company in the early 1950s before moving into banking. He was a generous donor to Jewish and Israeli causes, underwriting schools in Israel and an extension to the synagogue in Cannes, France, among other projects. In Monaco, he sponsored the open tennis tournament and a host of charities and medical research organizations.

Forbes magazine this year listed Safra as one of the world’s top billionaires, at No. 199. He was believed to control more than $2.5 billion.

More than 700 mourners from the worlds of business, diplomacy and society gathered for an Orthodox Jewish funeral service in Geneva’s main Hekhal Haness synagogue Monday. Among those attending were Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

“Each of us are dealing with his own memories of you, his own questions about what happened last Friday,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel said at the service. Swiss police with machine guns stood guard outside. Afterward, Safra was buried in a cemetery near Geneva.

In the early phase of their investigation, Monaco officials were faced with a conundrum: How had anyone managed to enter a building that was as heavily guarded as a bank? In fact, the Belle Epoque structure, which Safra owned, also houses the Monte Carlo branch of Republic National Bank and offices of two European banks.

Suspicions about Maher intensified after security-camera videotapes failed to show any sign of intruders inside or outside the building. Authorities said that if there had been assailants, they would have had to possess detailed knowledge of the building’s state-of-the-art security systems along with a key.

Investigators also were skeptical that members of an organized crime gang would carry nothing more than knives. Torrente, who managed to make half a dozen calls on her cellular telephone from the bathroom to co-workers before being overcome by smoke, reported only one intruder.

Maher was placed in custody Sunday night at the Monaco hospital where he was being treated for his stab wounds, which officials said were not life-threatening. He was questioned three times, reportedly giving contradictory versions of what happened Friday. Quickly, he moved in authorities’ eyes from witness to suspect.

Eventually, Maher told investigators that he had had a falling-out with the head of Safra’s eight-member nursing team, whom he identified as Sonya, Serdet said. The prosecutor said Maher had become so obsessed with the quarrel that he was taking medication.

At first, suspicions of a Russian link in the reputed attack on Safra’s penthouse seemed credible because Republic National Bank had provided assistance to U.S. authorities in monitoring Russian money-laundering operations.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve Board on Monday approved the $9.85-billion takeover of Republic New York Corp., parent of Republic National Bank, by a British holding company, removing the final obstacle to a transaction now expected to close by the end of the year. Safra stood to make about $2.8 billion from the deal.


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