Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 8. “Not Our Fault”
THEODORE MAURICE MAHER entered the rarefied universe of the Safras one day in the summer of 1999 as he prepared to begin his shift at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he worked as a nurse. Dressed in surgical scrubs and sneakers, the New England-born Maher made his way through the wide hallways of the hospital towards the neonatal nurses’ station, balancing his clipboard and a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee. Ted, as he was known to his family and colleagues at the hospital, had just driven the seventy-two miles from his home in Stormville, New York—a quaint hamlet in Dutchess County that was about twenty miles from the West Point military academy.
The school’s historic cemetery is the final resting place of great American heroes like Major General George Custer, who famously made his last stand against the Indians in the battle of Little Bighorn. The cemetery also contains the remains of General Lucius Clay, who defied Soviet aggression when he repeatedly pierced through the Communist blockade of Berlin to deliver supplies to the city’s entrapped population.
The tall, lanky nurse with auburn hair and a steady gaze was also a hero, or at least that was what Ted told himself everyday. Ever since he enlisted in the army in the mid-1970s, Ted had considered himself a misunderstood hero. Ultimately, it was this hubris that would ruin his life.
It’s true he had heroic qualities. He was loyal to his wife, Heidi, a fellow nurse he had met in nursing class at Dutchess Community College in 1988 and married five years later. He was a good father to his three children, for whom he happily endured the long commute from Manhattan to Stormville after finishing a grueling twelve-hour shift. He had also gone through a costly and protracted legal battle to gain custody of his eldest son, Christopher, whom he had taken away from his first wife while the boy was still an infant.
He was dedicated to his tiny patients, most of whom were born premature and jaundiced or with other serious problems that threatened their lives. Fellow nurses would marvel at his patience and ability to soothe the screaming babies under his care.
On that breezy morning in the summer of 1999, Ted casually sipped his coffee as he traded notes with Cathy, the night nurse, who briefed him on the condition of the premature infants on the ward. It was after she left that he noticed the camera, next to a set of keys and Cathy’s plastic-coated nametag, at the neonatal nursing station. Ted made some inquiries, but nobody on the ward seemed to know who owned it. Which is why Ted put the camera in the pocket of his scrubs and decided to find out for himself. When he returned home to Stormville, he had the film developed at the local WalMart in order to track down the owner through the photographs. There were about five photographs on the camera, and, ever practical so as not to waste the remaining film, Maher took photos of his own children before dropping it off to be developed.
Ted immediately recognized the woman in the photographs—her fraternal twins had been recent patients of the ward—and obtained her address from the hospital’s finance department. Ted wrote a note to the new mother and returned the camera to her Manhattan address. Laura and Harry Slatkin, the new parents of twins Alexandra and David, were deeply touched by Maher’s gesture. Harry, a New York society figure and designer of bath products and perfumed candles, was completely surprised that Ted would return a camera that was worth well over $400. Shortly after receiving it, he called Ted to offer him a reward. In testimony at his trial in Monaco, Ted says he refused any compensation. “I said it’s the right thing to do.” If Harry really wanted to show his gratitude, he could make a donation to the hospital, Ted told him.
But Harry Slatkin seems to have had an even better idea, and during that first telephone conversation he made Ted an offer that the neonatal nurse would find hard to refuse. The Slatkins were good friends of Adriana Elia, Edmond Safra’s stepdaughter, and knew that Edmond needed to find a responsible nurse to join his team in Monaco. Harry asked Ted if he had ever heard of the Republic National Bank (he hadn’t) and whether he would consider working for one of its senior executives who lived in Europe and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The job paid extremely well and would give Ted the opportunity to live in Europe for a while, said Harry, although he did not offer any specifics. He did offer to set up a job interview for him right away.
At first, Ted didn’t know what to think. The legal battle with his first wife over the custody of his eldest son had left him extremely short of cash. There were also rumors of a looming strike at New York Presbyterian, and Ted was worried about providing for his family since both he and Heidi worked there as nurses. It took Ted a week to decide to make the call to set up a meeting with one of Edmond’s most trusted aides.
The interview took place at the Fifth Avenue offices of the Republic National Bank. Ted brought along Heidi, who spoke about moving the entire Maher clan to Monaco if Ted was successful. She also wanted to be considered for a nursing position.
On the surface, Ted seemed ideal. Here was a nurse with military training—a former Green Beret who had worked for four years with U.S. Army Special Forces on classified missions. He was also a highly respected and dedicated nurse. George Morelli, who knew Ted in New York, recalled that when an ambulance arrived with a sick infant, Ted was often the first to rush over to the child. “He was a great nurse,” said Morelli.
But the great appeal of Ted Maher to someone as security-conscious as Edmond Safra was that he knew how to use a weapon and could easily double as a bodyguard. Ted had a sterling record in the military, graduating third in his class in Special Forces.
For anyone reading his impressive resumé, Ted Maher seemed the kind of man Edmond could respect. His diligence and honesty had already been established when he went out of his way to return the Slatkins’ camera. But Edmond’s team had serious doubts about the tall, lanky stranger with the piercing blue eyes. Did he seem too eager, too aggressive? Why did he speak so loudly? In the end, Edmond’s team was not impressed. Shortly after the interview, one of Edmond’s secretaries called Lily to inform her of his decision.
Ted Maher was a man with skeletons in his closet. Did Edmond’s team know about the history of schizophrenia in Ted’s family? That his biological father had been institutionalized for the disorder when his son was barely two years old, and spent his life in the hospital? Or how about Ted’s conviction in Nevada in June 1985? A year earlier, Ted had been arrested for burglary when he removed objects from a home he had helped build in Nevada after the builder refused to pay him. Ted was eventually sentenced to seventy-five hours of community service for what amounted to a misdemeanor offence. Could this man really be trusted with one of the wealthiest bankers in the world?
Edmond’s team rejected Ted, yet they were overruled. Ted was interviewed by Bruce Sutton, the psychiatrist who had helped Edmond through his bout with severe depression. After a forty-five minute conversation with Ted, Sutton seems to have pronounced the nurse the perfect candidate for the job, and on August 13, 1999, Ted began a short trial run at La Leopolda, where Sutton had also been invited to spend a holiday.
Lily, who was so careful about everything and everyone who entered her homes, probably assumed that Maher had been thoroughly vetted. After the four-day trial period at La Leopolda, Lily informed the staff that she wanted Ted to start immediately.
The deal with Ted was struck while Edmond’s personal secretaries were on vacation, and by the time they returned, it was a fait accompli. In New York, Ted was given his new responsibilities: His salary would be $600 a day, and he would be required to work only four days a week. Ted balked, and negotiated for six days a week, which was initially refused, although eventually a deal was made that he would be paid for six days and work only five so as not to upset the other nurses, who had different arrangements. Like the other nurses employed by the Safras, Ted would be hired by a corporation—Spotless & Brite Inc.—whose address was the same as the Republic National Bank at 452 Fifth Avenue. The arrangement allowed the nurses to enter Monaco as tourists on vacation, not as professionals, to avoid the strict labor laws in the principality. In addition, Ted would have to sign a confidentiality and “nondisparagement” agreement, promising that he would not “engage in any conduct that is injurious to any Safras [sic] reputation and interest (including, without limitation), publicly disparaging or inducing others to disparage any Safra.”
Under these conditions, and with the promise of medical coverage for himself and his family, Ted began work in Monaco on October 28. Every week, he faxed his hours to a Safra family aide, and within forty-eight hours Heidi received a wire transfer of his salary in Stormville.
By all accounts Ted loved working in the sun-drenched principality. He could walk to work from his lodgings at the Balmoral, a nineteenth-century hotel where the rooms had stunning views of the port. The three-star hotel, where Ted stayed with the other nurses, was on the avenue de la Costa, which was located directly behind the Safra penthouse. On his way to the penthouse, Ted passed expensive boutiques and elegant cafés where impeccably dressed patrons sipped café au lait and munched on croissants. When he wasn’t working, he spent a great deal of his time in nearby Nice, disappearing for days at a time, although no one is quite sure what drew him to the French beachfront city so frequently. Ted says he was simply sightseeing, but others have attached darker motives to his sojourns in Nice.
He was also a regular visitor, with some of his fellow nurses, to the glittering casinos, although he was careful not to gamble too much of his wages, and balked at what he thought were absurd prices for drinks.
On November 20, another one of Edmond’s aides told Ted he had been hired full-time. That was when Ted, who was terribly lonely and homesick, began searching for suitable accommodations for his family in Nice, which was about ten miles away from Monaco and much cheaper to live in. At that first interview, Ted and his wife had also spoken of homeschooling their children on the French Riviera, and perhaps now here was their chance to move to France.
In many ways, Ted had the greatest job of his life. His salary was tax-free, his expenses were paid, and the work was relatively stress-free. But there were problems. From the outset, he didn’t get along with Sonia Casiano Herkrath, the unofficial head nurse who had the greatest seniority of the ten nurses who looked after Edmond. She had started work with the Safras in March 1998 and was now in charge of scheduling and billable hours for the nurses under her watch. It was on her authority that many of Edmond’s previous nurses had been fired. From the outset, Ted complained to her that he didn’t receive enough hours, and later told the other nurses that he hated her. Behind her back, he called her a “scorpion” or “the snake,” and told the others that Sonia was making his life “hell.”
“Ted was strange in some ways,” said Sonia at his trial. “He had the tendency to be aggressive. He was so overeager to help Mr. Safra he pushed himself to be the first to him, and even pushed me aside.”
Sonia also criticized him for being greedy and extremely jealous, especially of her. For his part, Ted says he was just trying to please his employers.
“I considered it the best job,” said Ted. “I had a lot of respect for Mr. Safra. I went out of my way to make his life as comfortable as possible.”
In the weeks that he worked for Edmond, Ted massaged his legs when he was struck with paralyzing cramps, helped him go to the bathroom, and administered medications, especially to help him sleep at night. Edmond was in the advanced stages of the disease and suffered a great deal from muscle cramps and vertigo. At least one nurse needed to be present when he went to the bathroom so that he wouldn’t fall. Edmond’s pain was worse at night and he often needed to take a great deal of medication to help him sleep.
“In the day he [Edmond] moved fairly well,” said Lily in her testimony at Ted’s trial. “We went out every day walking, sometimes we even went to the swimming pool so he could swim. His life in the day was almost normal. But in the evenings, when he had the strong medication for Parkinson’s, he could have some ‘off’ moments. These were terrible moments, very painful especially in the legs, which became rigid with cramps.”
The medication caused him to go to the bathroom frequently. “Two or three times a night, he had to go to the toilet and it was difficult to move around,” said Lily. “That is why we had two nurses. When he went to the bathroom, one was always in front of him and he would hold on to that person.”
According to the nightly schedule, Edmond’s night nurses often had their hands full. “He was heavily medicated,” recalled Ted. “He was so screwed up.” Safra would have vivid dreams and he hallucinated frequently, said Ted.
In addition to massaging his feet to relieve tremors and accompanying him on frequent trips to the bathroom, nurses had to document what were described as “active vivid dreams” that could be “troublesome.” Nurses were repeatedly told to “always be alert during the night so as to respond quickly to Mr. S’s needs.”
As the nurse’s schedule clearly notes, Edmond was an invalid unable to function without the round-the-clock care of a team of professionals who administered everything from laxatives and daily vitamin injections to the Parkinson’s and antipsychotic medications that fueled hallucinations and the “troublesome” dreams.
But just before he died, Edmond’s health had improved. He had been working out with Ted in his private gym, and getting stronger. “Ironically, he was doing so much better the weeks prior to his death,” recalled Sonia. “We were so outraged that this had happened. He could have lived longer.”
THE EVENTS OF the early morning of December 3, 1999, still remain confusing more than a decade after they took place. Initially, Ted admitted that he had started the fire in order to alert authorities to the presence of two masked intruders who had entered through a window that had been mysteriously left open in the apartment. The fire was meant to trigger the alarms in the apartment and get immediate help for his boss, he said.
This at any rate was the first version of the story that Ted told the authorities. The second was far more sinister and warped, and it’s the one that Monegasque authorities decided to stick with at all costs. In this version of events, an eager Ted set the fire to impress his boss—to create a situation where he would be seen as a savior, like the heroic American military men and women buried at West Point. If the loyal nurse came to his rescue, Edmond would reward him handsomely and elevate him to his rightful place—as the head of the billionaire’s nursing detail. Ted was a quick judge of character, and in the few short weeks that he worked in Monaco, he observed Edmond’s weakness: He knew that Edmond was obsessed with security and terrified of an attack. So he played on Edmond’s fears to get what he wanted. It would be a harmless little charade, and it couldn’t help but yield large returns. But in the early hours of December 3, 1999, things went badly awry.
Still, no one in the Safra household could have imagined what Ted had in store. Perhaps Ted himself didn’t quite know. In any case, no one seems to have suspected that anything was amiss. On December 2, Lily returned from a trip to London, where she had gone for the opening of the Royal Opera House. Edmond had paid to restore it, and Lily attended the lavish party on December 1 with Adriana and her granddaughter Lily. She returned to Monte Carlo the following evening in time to have dinner with her husband, who eagerly awaited her arrival. “We kissed each other,” recalled Lily of the last time she saw her husband alive. “We said a prayer together, as we did every evening, and I went to my apartment.”
On the way back to Lily’s suite of rooms, which comprised a separate wing in the apartment, Lily nearly collided with Ted in the hallway outside her husband’s room. “This evening,” he told her, “you are going to sleep very well.” If the comment disturbed her, she decided not to say. She just chalked it up to Ted’s strange sense of humor and wasn’t to remember it again until hours later, as she sat shivering in the lobby of the building, waiting for her daughter and son-in-law to arrive.
According to the original indictment, Ted waited until he was well into his night shift before putting his bizarre plan in motion. He took a knife he had brought with him and stabbed himself in the abdomen after applying a local anesthetic. He then alerted Edmond and the Filipino night nurse Vivian Torrente that there were hooded intruders in the penthouse, and that they needed to barricade themselves in Edmond’s room. No doubt, Vivian and Edmond saw the frantic nurse bleeding from his self-inflicted wound and were terrified. Vivian urged him to sound the alarm, but Ted claimed he didn’t know how the elaborate security system worked. In an effort to summon the authorities and increase the air of danger, Ted lit a fire in a Lucite wastebasket at the nursing station next to Edmond’s bedroom, and Vivian tried to calm a groggy Edmond, who had been so medicated before he fell asleep that he had trouble waking up.
It’s unclear whether Ted was aware of the irony of using one of Harry Slatkin’s perfumed candles to light the fire. After all, it was Slatkin’s camera that had resulted in the best job in his life. Perhaps now it would be the dripping wax from Slatkin’s candle that would seal his success. Or his doom.
It’s also not clear what went through his head as he raced towards the fifth-floor service elevator and down to the lobby of the building, where he dripped blood on the marble floor and alerted the night watchman Patrick Picquenot that the Safras were in grave danger. Upstairs, a terrified Edmond and Vivian locked themselves into Edmond’s bathroom bunker to wait for help, which would come too late.
But while Ted may have put the tragic events in motion, it was the bungling of the Monaco police and fire departments that would seal Edmond and Vivian’s fates. Police and firefighters acted like a bunch of Keystone cops in a silent film comedy. Before heading to the penthouse where a fire was raging, authorities dispatched emergency workers to comb the several floors of parking that lay under the beaux-arts building to make sure the suspects were not waiting to attack again. The fire department, which sent fifty-five men to contain the blaze, did not communicate with the police department; each spoke on different radio channels, and there was little effort to coordinate their activities. At one point, a group of firefighters were ordered to tackle the fire from the nearby Hermitage, a luxury five-star hotel. They dragged their dusty hoses through the lobby and one of the restaurants of the magnificent hotel, startling a group of late-night revelers as they returned to their rooms. Later, when a different group of firefighters finally arrived in Edmond’s bedroom, they couldn’t find Edmond and Vivian because the bathroom door was invisible, designed to be part of the decoration of the room. One of the firefighters refused to help extinguish the blaze when he was ordered to the roof of the Hermitage: “I’m not going over there,” he said. “I have a fear of heights.”
Ironically, Monaco’s reputation for safety ended up killing one of its most security-obsessed residents. Unaccustomed to dealing with a violent emergency, the authorities stumbled through a bizarre real-life farce that in the end proved deadly serious.
The moment they received the emergency call at 4:50 a.m., the concern of law enforcement officials became the safety of their own members, not saving those trapped inside the penthouse. As Maurice Albertin, Monaco’s chief of police, noted, “It must be kept in mind that Ted Maher had specified to the first police officer on the scene that there were masked men,” he said. “With this description, we knew we were confronted with an aggression. We can understand why they [the police] had to make the apartment secure before enabling the firemen to tackle the fire.”
Jean-Yves Gambarini, another officer on the scene, remarked that his men had to bar the exits and “collect as much information as possible” before intervening. “I think the operation was carried out correctly in the circumstances,” he said. “Unfortunately, what happened happened, but that’s not our fault.” Another police officer noted that it was the first time in his career that he had arrived on a job armed with three weapons, ammunition, and a bulletproof vest. “It was the first time in my life I’ve come so heavily armed. I thought there was an aggression.”
On the surface, everything appeared to be stacked up against the would-be saviors of Edmond Safra and Vivian Torrente, including the elaborate interior design of the apartment. “Aesthetics were more important than safety arrangements,” said Henri Viellard, a fire safety expert who testified at Ted’s trial. “Once the fire got going it was totally impossible to operate the blinds.” Moreover, fire alarms were not working, emergency doors were locked tight, and the apartment had no emergency sprinklers. In the end, it took security forces three hours to cover the thirty-foot distance between the fire and the bodies.
“The duration of the intervention of the emergency services was abnormally long for a limited-scale fire,” noted Viellard and fellow expert Ghislaine Reiss. “The police and fire brigade had delayed taking into account the information provided by the two fire protection services, the police having favored the implausible scenario of attack.”
The apartment had been clearly designed to keep people out, but not for escape. Authorities sent to save one of the world’s most important bankers were confronted with a double bunker outfitted with bulletproof doors and state-of-the-art locks.
Strangely, none of the Safra bodyguards were on duty in Monaco. Lily testified that she had dispensed with the bodyguards in September, almost immediately after construction was completed on the apartment’s new security system. The improved security measures were based on Edmond’s system in Geneva, and installed under consultation with HSBC’s security experts. “The Safras felt very secure in Monaco,” said Samuel Cohen. “They often said, ‘What can happen here? It’s the most secure place in the world.’”
But sources close to Edmond dispute this version of events. They say that guards continued to be posted at the apartment despite the enhanced security system. On the morning of the fire all the guards were at La Leopolda.
At Ted’s trial, Cohen complained about interference with his security arrangements. “Any system of security cannot defend or protect from an inside problem,” he said. “If there was a guard in the apartment, Ted Maher would not have had the courage to do what he did.”
Perhaps the Safras regretted their decision to rely solely on their state-of-the-art electronic security system. Did this decision cross her mind when she was startled awake by the ringing telephone just before 5:00 a.m.? “Chérie, there are aggressors in the house,” said Edmond, in a state of panic. “They have injured Ted. Close yourself in and call the police.”
Lily immediately dialed Cohen, who had been stationed at La Leopolda since September, and who was already speeding towards Monaco after receiving an earlier call from the police. It was when she got out of bed and rushed to her dressing room that she noticed the smoke under the lampshades for the first time. “Then suddenly, the blinds opened by themselves but only to the level of the railing,” she said. Lily tried to pry the shutters upward but it was of little use; they were stuck. The phone rang again. “Have you closed yourself in?” asked Edmond. “Have you called the police and Cohen?”
In the pitch darkness before dawn, Lily peered through the opening of the blinds and noticed the policeman on the roof of the Hermitage across the way. “Get out, Madame, get out straight away,” he shouted. Lily struggled to open the shutters wider, but eventually ended up crawling through the small opening to reach the balcony outside her room.
“I don’t know how I got out but I did it,” she said. “I walked a bit and found myself on a large terrace which was part of the apartment.” Lily gingerly made her way along the balcony and hurried down the back stairs of the apartment. “Flames were coming out of the window of the nurses’ station,” she said. “Police told me go down please. I was taken to the service staircase. They said ‘hurry up’ but nobody came with me.”
Moments after Edmond called Lily on the phone Ted had left with him, Vivian called her boss Sonia. She told her that Ted was bleeding and there were intruders in the apartment. Sonia immediately called the police. Jean-Marc Farca, brigadier chief of police in Monaco, spoke to Edmond forty minutes later. “He was in quite a panicky state,” the police chief recalled. “He said someone had been attacked with an axe and they were in trouble. I told him the police were there. I asked him to go out on to the staircase, that there were police there. He wanted to go out but he was very frightened. Then he spoke to me about the smoke.”
The smoke seeped through under the bathroom door. Edmond, shaking uncontrollably from the effects of his disease and utter fear, urged Vivian to continue calling for help, but he refused to leave the bathroom, still fearing the shadowy intruders—sinister men he imagined to be Muslim terrorists or Russian mobsters bent on revenge after Edmond had given evidence about Russian money laundering. Farca again spoke to Edmond to convince him to open the door, but “Mr. Safra’s fear was obvious and took away part of his reasoning.”
Vivian repeatedly called Sonia, who at one point instructed her to place wet towels on the ground to absorb the smoke. In the background, Sonia could hear Edmond coughing incessantly, and worried they were near the end. “Sonia, it’s so dark in here,” said Vivian. “I’m feeling dizzy.”
In the lobby, where dozens of police and firemen were milling about, waiting for orders, the Safras’ butler, Raul Manjate, rushed into the melee waving a set of keys to the apartment. He rushed up and down the stairs several times offering authorities his keys, but no one paid attention to him. At one point, police detained him. “I kept asking if I could go in,” he said. “I had the keys. I knew exactly where he was. I said I was willing to die for my boss. They said I wasn’t there to die and that there were two armed people in there who could come out and shoot.”
Cohen instinctively felt there were no intruders in the apartment when he received the frantic call from Monaco police. But it was enough that his boss was in danger, and he rushed over from La Leopolda to help the authorities. But as soon as he arrived, he was detained by police. It would take him a desperate twenty minutes to explain himself to the authorities, who did not want to let him upstairs.
“Before I showed them my passport, rien à faire, I’m sitting on the floor, handcuffed,” recalled Cohen. “Nothing happened. Nothing moved.”
Police officer Bruno Bouery was the gatekeeper, and he had orders to prevent anyone from going into the apartment until police were certain it was safe. Which is why he later admitted that he detained Cohen and refused to listen to what he was saying.
“I just asked him to raise his arms,” said Bouery, referring to Cohen. “We were in a situation of believing there were intruders. I wanted to make sure who he was. I asked him to lie down. He refused. He just put his hand in his pocket. It was a very risky gesture.”
Cohen seems to have been too aggressive for his own good. “In front of us there was a man, tall, Mediterranean, he spoke good French,” recalled Jean-Luc Belny, another officer who refused to admit Cohen to the apartment. “He kept saying, ‘I’m head of Safra’s security.’ As far as I’m concerned I don’t know this person. We therefore took necessary precautions to get this person out. We put handcuffs on him.”
When he finally convinced the police to let him go, Cohen rushed up towards the top floor, where he found Lily making her way down the stairs. “The firemen arrived and I told them exactly how and where they needed to go—do ten steps to the right, they find a staircase, go up two flights and they find a door,” recalled Cohen. “After fifteen minutes they came back and said they didn’t find it. I asked for a mask. The second time they said I had no authority. There was total chaos. People were going up and down the stairs. I saw firemen with a ladder. I shouted which window to go to. They looked at me with the same arrogance. I ran up. I asked them to follow me. I ran up and down—that’s what we did. Nobody listened to what I said and they all refused my help.”
Lily, who was growing increasingly desperate, used the phone in the lobby to call her daughter, Adriana, and son-in-law, Michel, who lived nearby. But she did not call her frightened husband to urge him to leave the bathroom.
“My mother woke me up shortly before six a.m.,” said Adriana. “I could see the fire from avenue des Beaux Arts. My mother was desperate. I saw Cohen, I asked him to do something. He said he had tried but nobody wanted to listen to him.”
Adriana, blonde and petite, decided to take charge, and promptly informed the several police officers assembled in the lobby that Cohen was the only person who could save Edmond. “That was his role, to die if necessary,” she said. “They didn’t understand. It was like an oath.”
She also begged police to allow her mother to call Edmond, to try to convince him to open the door of the bathroom. “It was awful that the police didn’t give the telephone to my mother so she could speak to him,” recalled Adriana years later. “It was important for him to know she was outside. He was always anxious.” It’s not clear why Lily did not seek out another telephone to communicate with her husband once she was safely out of danger.
By the time Cohen was finally allowed to climb the back stairs to the apartment where Edmond and Vivian were trapped it was too late. They had already succumbed to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and died at approximately 6:00 a.m., fifteen minutes before firefighters made their way into the bedroom.
When they extinguished the raging fire in the nurses’ station, firefighters made their way to the bathroom where they found the bodies of the petite Filipino nurse and the corpulent banker. Edmond was slumped in an armchair facing the window, his silk pajamas streaked with black, his body covered with soot, his eyes bulging out of his face.
Vivian, neatly dressed in a gray sweater, blouse, and black trousers, was lying on the floor behind the chair. An autopsy would later find “smoke exposure affecting all of the uncovered parts of the body, particularly the face, with soot marks on the lips and mouth. Significant soot deposits around the nasal apertures of the orbital regions.” The cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, although medical examiners were puzzled by Vivian’s autopsy. In their report, they noted the recent bruises on Vivian’s stomach and thigh. On dissecting her neck, medical examiners found that the thyroid gland was full of blood which resembled “a moderate blow” like those given in a combat sport, the autopsy concluded.
Later, the question of whether Edmond came to blows with Vivian, perhaps in an effort to prevent her from leaving the bathroom, became the subject of much legal debate as the nurse’s surviving family filed a wrongful death suit against the Safras. Lily would later comment that this was absurd: “He was incapable of killing a fly. It hurt me a lot to hear such terrible things, written by journalists who have nothing better to do.”
Shortly after finding the bodies, firefighters summoned Lily, who had just become a widow for the second time in her life. “I went up the stairs to where my husband’s office was, on the same floor as the apartments,” she recalled. “I was told that he was dead and Vivian Torrente, and you can imagine what state I was in at that time.”
Rescuers hauled Edmond’s heavy lifeless body from the bathroom where the smoke had streaked the leopard-skin rug, the wood-paneled walls, and the metal handrails on either side of the toilet Edmond used to help him sit up. A group of firefighters gently placed his body on the bed. Although most of his corpse was covered in soot, strangely there was none on the necklace that medical examiners later found around his neck. The amulets that he wore as protection against the evil eye emerged intact and gleaming from the fire that killed their owner. They were supposed to ward against the envy and greed that superstitious Jews and Muslims believe to be at the root of evil. But in the end, they proved ineffective.
As she cleaned the soot from his face with the help of her daughter, Lily may have recalled a similar scene thirty years earlier, as she confronted another husband lying on their bed, his blood staining the satin bedspread. But if she remembered Alfredo Monteverde in those terrible moments, she said nothing to anyone.
“He was covered in soot but very calm, his face looked as if he was sleeping. I touched his hand and it was still warm,” said Lily, describing Edmond’s lifeless body. “I started to clean his face and my daughter helped me. It was horrible. Then I think I was taken to my daughter’s home.”
AS THE DRAMA was unfolding at the Belle Epoque, across town at the Princess Grace Hospital a young police captain named Olivier Jude, the only member of the Monaco police force who could speak fluent English and had undergone training with the FBI, was sent to interview the first “victim” of the morning’s bizarre events. Ted Maher lay in a hospital bed, recovering from his wounds. One of them took one hundred staples to close.
Ted told Jude what he thought he wanted to hear—that two intruders had entered looking for the billionaire banker. In trying to defend himself, Ted had been wounded. But Jude didn’t believe the story, especially as it kept changing with each telling. At first, he spoke about two intruders, and then in a subsequent interview he spoke of only one, and then in another interview returned to two. Moreover, during the first interview with Jude, “he seemed too sure of what he was saying,” said Jude, who would take five different statements from Maher in the course of the next few days. Jude also suspected that there was something not quite right about Ted’s wounds. “The wounds seemed strange and superficial and done with a knife that was the sort of knife used to do odd jobs, not an attack weapon.” Still, Ted needed one hundred staples to close the wounds.
It was during Jude’s fourth interrogation of Ted, which took place at the police station after Ted was released from the hospital, that Ted finally admitted that he had lied about what had really taken place at the Belle Epoque on December 3. During the four-hour interview, which was duly translated into French by another officer taking notes on a laptop, Ted learned that Edmond and Vivian had died in the fire. At his fifth and final interrogation, Ted signed a long confession in French, a language he barely understood. He claims now that police told him that his wife was in custody and would not be allowed to return to the United States if he did not confess. They also said that Vivian had likely been strangled in the bathroom, and that he was going to be charged with her death unless he signed. Ted signed on the dotted line. Among other things, he confessed to starting the fire, lying about the intruders, and stabbing himself.
Ted later claimed his confession came under duress, after police showed him his wife’s passport and threatened him.
After the events of December 3, one of the Safras’ staff had contacted Heidi Maher in Stormville and offered to fly her to Monaco to see her husband, who at that time was still considered the glorious hero.
“Upon hearing of the frightening news in Monaco, I called Michelle St. Bernard, Lily Safra’s personal secretary, in New York,” said Heidi. “She told me that Ted ‘was a hero’ for trying to save Mr. Safra. However, the suspects in the crime were still at large. I was very concerned about my husband.”
St. Bernard made the arrangements for Heidi to travel to Monaco to visit her husband in the hospital. Heidi boarded a Delta Air Lines flight with her brother Todd Wustrau, bound for Nice where they were met at the airport by one of the Safra drivers, a member of the support staff, and head nurse Sonia. Heidi and Todd believed they were on their way to the hospital to visit Ted. While they were in the car, the driver abruptly changed plans and drove them at breakneck speed to the Hotel Balmoral, where Ted and the other nurses lived.
Later, they were summoned to the police station, where they were questioned by authorities. As they prepared to return to the hotel, Heidi and her brother claim, they were violently abducted.
“I was taken off the streets by three people without any identification,” recalled Heidi. “They were dressed in black. I was taken by two people, my head between my knees. I was taken in a car to the Hotel Balmoral. I pleaded [to know] who they were and where we were going. They pushed me up the stairs to my husband’s room and they were speaking French. They were very upset and went through the luggage and my husband’s things.”
Heidi said that her kidnappers rifled through her husband’s belongings. “They had Ted’s small tape recorder on which he stored one of our children’s ‘I love you Dad’ telephone conversations. They played it for me; the emotion was overwhelming. They also took our passports.”
When the search was over, Heidi and Todd were left at the Balmoral. A rattled Heidi sought out Sonia and Anthony Brittain, the Safra staff member who had picked her up at the airport. They were “apologetic.”
“I learned later that Ted had been shown my passport, which was taken from me during the abduction from the police station, and told that I had been strip-searched and tortured,” she said in court papers filed at a courthouse in Dutchess County, near her home in Stormville. “At the time this all happened, his legs and arms were tied to his hospital bed and he was connected to a urinary catheter. Ted neither reads nor writes French. Nevertheless, he was handed a French confession by the Monaco police. He signed it to spare me from what he thought would be further abuse by the Monaco authorities.”
When she retrieved her passport from police on December 5, Heidi asked the Safra secretaries to make arrangements for her return to the United States. She had had enough of Monaco and decided to return to New York, even though she had not been able to see Ted. When Heidi and her brother arrived at the Nice airport, Delta Air Lines demanded $2,400 for their return tickets. Heidi charged the return portion of her tickets to her credit card, clearly relieved to leave the scene of her surreal adventures, even if it was on her own dime.
Less than twenty-four hours after his wife’s departure, Ted signed a confession. “There was never any pressure on Mr. Maher,” recalled Jude, who denied ever having used Heidi’s passport to put pressure on Ted. “I would never have had such results if I hadn’t established a climate of confidence. I didn’t put any pressure on him at any time. I told him if he didn’t want to sign, he didn’t have to.”
Gerard Tiberti, the officer who assisted Jude with Ted’s interrogation, confirmed that no pressure was put on Ted. “He is someone who can be considered changeable,” said Tiberti, in reference to Ted. “He was extremely nervous. We saw he could change one minute to the next. He could go from extreme kindness to extreme aggression. It was difficult to read him.”
Jude said that Ted showed him a photograph of his wife and children, and at no time did Jude have a copy of Heidi’s passport. “He was showing me a photo of his wife and children,” said Jude.
The official investigation into the death of one of the world’s wealthiest men did not proceed much further than this. The authorities felt that they had captured the culprit—an emotionally unstable American nurse who created an elaborate heroic plot that went badly awry. Monaco authorities breathed a sigh of relief. They could now blame the terrible scandale on a deranged outsider and preserve the veneer of respectability, discretion, and security that was the preserve of the world’s wealthiest. They were determined that l’affaire Safra was not going to affect Monaco’s reputation.
LILY ORGANIZED EDMOND’S funeral in Geneva in the same way she would organize one of her sumptuous parties at La Leopolda. She completely ignored the fact that Edmond’s family had long wished the entire Safra family to be buried at Mount Herzl in Israel and owned a communal plot there. Together with Jeffrey Keil, who had worked so hard on the HSBC deal and was the first of Lily’s friends to fly to Monaco after Edmond’s death, she compiled a list of the couple’s friends. It read like a who’s who of international society and finance. Former UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and his wife were on the list, as was Israel’s foreign minister David Levy, the Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Sir John Bond, the CEO of HSBC, who had agreed to deliver the eulogy. Never mind that Bond had barely known Edmond. What stood out at the funeral was the importance of the multibillion-dollar deal that Edmond had brokered with HSBC. And this was clearly signaled in Lily’s choice of Bond to bid an official farewell to the great banker whose empire he had just acquired.
More than seven hundred guests crowded into the Hekhal Haness, Geneva’s largest synagogue. Edmond’s brothers Moise and Joseph were among them, although they had not been officially invited and indeed had to strong-arm their way into the house of worship. In what would prove one of the most socially difficult moments for Lily, the Safra brothers had to push their way to the front of the synagogue in order to help carry Edmond’s coffin.
“She [Lily] didn’t want anyone from the family at the funeral,” said one Safra family member who did not want to be identified. “But everyone from our family went anyway. We were not going to stay away from Edmond’s funeral because of her.”
Joseph, Moise, and their families returned to Brazil immediately following Edmond’s funeral. It must have been one of the only times in their lives that these deeply religious Jews decided to dispense with their own mourning rituals by not sitting shiva as a family. They would have their own shiva far away from the widow they despised—at their home in São Paulo.
“You have brought together people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and social horizons, just as you always have,” noted Elie Wiesel in his own speech at Edmond’s funeral. “Each of us is dealing with our own memories of you, our own questions of what happened last Friday.”
But in the end, few questions troubled Lily or the Monegasque authorities. On the day of the funeral Daniel Serdet, Monaco’s public prosecutor, announced that Ted had been charged with arson leading to the death of two people. “He [Ted] didn’t intend to kill anyone; he wanted to settle an account with the head of the medical team,” was how the prosecutor explained it all away. Ted was sent to jail in Monaco to await his trial.
But the official version of events left many unanswered questions. Edmond’s faithful aides and his family in São Paulo would wonder for years about the bizarre circumstances surrounding Edmond’s death. Why were the guards absent? Why were Edmond’s most trusted aides away from Monaco at the time of his death? Why was Ted Maher hired against their wishes? Why did Maher fabricate a story about hooded intruders and start a fire, risking his own life in the process? Why had the Monaco police and firefighters taken so long to deal with the emergency? Why was Edmond so afraid to leave the bathroom?
Edmond’s family in New York and São Paulo went as far as to hire their own investigators. But their efforts were met with frustration. Monaco authorities, worried about drawing even more attention to the international scandal that was bringing unwanted media attention to their privileged principality, would quickly decide to close ranks on l’affaire Safra.
The questions lingered, but the big news on December 6, 1999, was not the burial of the legendary banker or the bizarre circumstances of his death. It was the completion of the sale of Republic to HSBC as the Federal Reserve cleared the deal—the final regulatory hurdle to the multibillion-dollar purchase. After the burial of her fourth husband in Geneva, Lily emerged as one of the wealthiest widows in the world.