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Why Bernie Did It

An ex-con who served five prison sentences on Madoff's delusions—and why his victims didn't want him to get caught.

12.22.08 11:12 AM ET

What, if anything, do the recent mind-boggling revelations about Bernard Madoff say about the rest of us? What makes us so prone to flim-flamming our fellow beings?

As a self-made expert in the art of cheating—I’m an ex-con who made an excellent living out of manufacturing credit cards and served five prison sentences for my pains—I know something about the matter.

Bear in mind that the most heinous people in history—Jack the Ripper, Hitler, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer, not to speak of Blago and “Uncle Bernie”—never see themselves as monsters. If the human mind allowed that self-assessment, the villain would be thwarted by madness, locked into an eternal game of mental handball with his own shit. Spend some time behind bars and you’ll soon realize that every form of human behavior, no matter how far beyond the pale, can be rationalized as “normal.”

Take it from one knows: Over time Madoff began to believe in his own bullshit. The mind—especially the criminal mind—works that way.

If I dwell on my years as a grifter, it’s only to prepare you for how Bernie Madoff will behave in the dock. It was only during my last stint in a Federal pen that I was able to admit to myself that I’d devoted a tremendous worth ethic—I rarely took days off even when rolling in filthy lucre—to pursuing a life of crime. But if the Feds do put Madoff away, I bet he’ll still see himself as only a gambler who had a run of bad luck, albeit with other folks’ money.

To be frank, I seriously doubt if Madoff set out, with malice aforethought, to defraud anyone. Further, like all gamblers, he felt that his luck would one day turn around and he’d be able to cover all his bets, as well as his own ass. I know that the folks he scammed don’t want to hear this, but Madoff probably thought, right up to the end, that he was going to be able to pull everyone’s chestnuts out of the fire, that everything was going to be fine and dandy.

Take it from one knows: Over time Madoff became delusional; he began to believe in his own bullshit. The mind—especially the criminal mind—works that way. You’ve seen the sweatshirts: “I’ve given up on reality …” Well, Madoff moved into a fabulous reality all his own—a dream castle that didn’t cost him a dime.

As with most criminals, his wrongdoing was rooted in hubris: he was the Money Magician who couldn’t bring himself to be the bearer of the bad news that he was wiping out his clients’ investments, charitable contributions and life-savings. After all, many of those he was scamming were “friends.” He was an emotional cripple who pleased people to gain their adulation. His victims were the enablers of his self-importance.

As for his vaunted excursions into philanthropy, that too was a prop—a benevolent beard in his elaborate disguise. Hell, the women on my counterfeiting crew, after spending a hard day going from casino to casino obtaining fraudulent $5,000 cash advances with the manufactured plastic (traffic on the Vegas Strip can really be brutal), would spend their evenings channel-surfing for charitable telethons. More than once, they put Jerry’s Kids over the top with their late-night “dialing for dollars,” as they came to call it. It made them feel so damn good about themselves—a washing away of the day’s sins.

If Madoff is ultimately sentenced to prison, he will no doubt go quietly off to the oblivion that Federal pens provide for celebrity wizards like him.Yet we are not likely to have learned any lessons from his rise and fall.

Why? Because Americans worship—we just flat-out love—larger-than-life criminals. We love them like old folks love soft footwear—like Madoff’s clients loved cushy, hand-sewn shoes. It’s only the run-of-the-mill, garden-variety criminal that we loathe—the purse snatcher, the crack addict. We don’t make movies about them. Whenever I tell someone about my criminal background, the question is never “Why?” but “How?” How did I get that magnetic strip to actually work? I’m still not telling. But a couple of folks did try to get me to write a screenplay about my exploits. One of the best-selling video games instructs players in the skills of car jacking. As you read this, somebody is undoubtedly pitching a movie called “Madoff;” somebody is working up a video game called “Bernie’s Billions.”

It takes two to make a crime. Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, one of the most successful swindlers of all time—he once talked the detective who was escorting him to prison into buying $30,000 in phony stock—observed: “Each of my victims had larceny in his heart. The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men. But I have found that this is the way it works. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine percent animal and one percent human. The ninety-nine percent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one percent that is human causes all our woes."

Despite all the red flags waved about the Madoff scam, I’m not surprised that apparently none of his investors wised up, or that even those who might have suspected what he was up to called for an investigation. The only thing they would have said to their patron was: “Don’t get caught.” They were like the casino tellers, the diamond merchants, the maitre d’s who couldn’t contain their glee when I walked into their establishment at the height of my criminal career. Nobody raised an eyebrow at the frequency of my visits to the casino’s cash window. As the teller counted out the maximum cash advance of five-grand, I’d say, “Oh, you miscounted,” and slip a hundred-dollar bill back into the waiting hand. After that, I owned him.

So what should we do about Bernard Madoff? Don’t send Madoff off to some cushy Federal pen, where he’ll find a way to make himself the big man on that campus. Instead, keep him confined in his Manhattan apartment all alone—no telephone, no TV, no computer showing dizzying stock prices to make him nostalgic for his days of glory. Brick every window up. Let him stare at his own walls for the rest of his life.

I know: it won’t get anyone’s money back. The only consolation for the thousands of his gullible victims is to remember what the carnival barker barks: “You place your bets, and you take your chances.” After all, Madoff didn’t pull a gun on anyone—now did he?

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. A published author, he served as a contributing editor of the Cleveland Tab Newsmagazine, the editor of the Cleveland Call & Post, and managing editor of CityNews, and urban-focused weekly, before changing over to Internet journalism. His regular column can currently be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.