The Mystery of the S&M Banker’s Death
Was it a crime of passion or greed? A Swiss court probes the murder that shocked Europe—a prominent French banker shot by his lover while wearing a latex body suit.
At a dinner party in Paris, Cécile Brossard met a veritable prince of the world’s financial centers. He was an elegant, refined Frenchman who was 14 years older than she and exuded self-confidence backed up by the hundreds of millions of dollars he earned in banking. Her prince taught her unimaginable things. On an African safari, he showed her that when you hunt down wounded prey, you often need to fire again at point-blank range, to put an animal out if its misery.
“A million,” he told the woman he had been with for four years, “that’s a lot to pay for a whore.”
Over the next four years, Brossard lived a fairytale—at least some of the time. But the relationship evolved into an all-consuming passion for her and, despite his traditional reserve, for him. The highs seemed to soar, but the lows took her so deep that she might have wondered if her love was the Prince of Darkness. For the thing about all-consuming passion is that it consumes everything, even a man like Edouard Stern, the 38th-wealthiest man in France. Stern’s corpse was found in his luxury apartment on the shores of Geneva’s Lake Léman after the lovers’ last tumultuous encounter on the night of February 28, 2005.
His death, like their relationship, was alternately tragic and perverse, titillating and humiliating. Police found the banker’s corpse tied up, in a pool of blood, dressed in S&M-friendly pink latex, from his feet to the ski mask that covered his head. He had been shot four times, twice in the head, and once at point-blank range.
Two weeks later, Cécile Brossard acknowledged that she had shot her lover. Now a trial in Geneva, which began June 10 and is expected to conclude on the 19th, is exploring every aspect of their twisted love. Because Brossard has already confessed, the aim of the legal proceeding is to determine whether she killed Stern out of greed or love—cold-blooded murder carrying a stiffer sentence than a crime of passion. On the first day, Brossard told the court through tears that she still loves Stern. “I don’t want this trial to dirty my memory,” she said. “Edouard Stern wasn’t an abominable man, but the most marvelous of men.”
Brossard's childhood was like a traffic jam of traumatic events. After her parents divorced when she was 3 years old, her mother battled depression that was so intense that when she attempted suicide (with gas), she tried to kill her two daughters as well. Brossard’s father was the sort of man who left nudie magazines around the house, had sex in front of his children, and molested Brossard. An uncle also raped Brossard when she was a teenager and was never held responsible. It was hardly a surprise when Brossard, a nervous wreck, did a stint in a psychiatric hospital at age 17, or when she failed to graduate from high school.
After working in a boutique and as a waitress at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, Brossard decided at age 24 to focus her attention on older men who were wealthy enough to provide for her. At 32, the attractive blonde found herself at the dinner party with Stern.
Brossard needed Stern to know how deep her love was. She tattooed her wrist with the letter E (for Edouard) by pressing a piece of white-hot metal there. Even after she killed him, and meticulously disposed of all traces of her presence at the murder site, she took the S&M outfit she wore on their last night together with her as she fled to Australia. (When she returned to Europe to face justice, she mailed the souvenir back to herself.) And when police seized an old letter her lover had written promising marriage, Brossard asked them for a copy.
Stern certainly had his charms. Enough so that his ex-wife Béatrice David-Weill, the daughter of banking aristocracy (her father and grandfather were partners in Lazard Frères, one of the world’s largest investment banks) testified on his behalf. “I loved Edouard Stern, and I continue to love him,” she said. She lauded him as a person and as a very-present father to their three children before acknowledging, under questioning, that he was capable of explosive fits of anger. “He was demanding, but he taught [his children] values.”
An ex-girlfriend of Stern’s, also from his high-society circle, testified that Stern was elegant, seductive, and charming in their relationship, and even a bit “prudish.” Their sexual relations were romantic; there were no sex toys, latex, or degradation. Even though they went out for part of the time that Stern was seeing Brossard, this woman said she never heard mention of her. The Stern family lawyers have expressed disbelief at his kinky sex life, although they have offered no convincing refutation of it.
Brossard’s defense paints Stern as a master manipulator and sexual predator who forced her to have sex with someone else in front of him at a party as she wept. A Russian friend of Brossard testified that she took part in a ménage à trois with the couple—Stern had them dress as schoolgirls. Afterward, the banker declined to talk, instead reading a magazine article about the wealthiest people in the world. (Stern was annoyed, the Russian told the court, amid laughter, that he wasn’t in it.)
But the pain and humiliation lost their sting for Brossard when Stern offered her the signs of commitment she so desperately wanted. “It is mad how much you love me,” Stern wrote in a 2004 letter. “I love you hopelessly. Or maybe it is the other way around. We are so good together…I didn’t like your suggestion about having your independence, but it is indispensable. I want to be with you…I want to marry you.”
Brossard’s suggestion about her “independence” was economic. The idea was that Stern would give her $1 million so that she wouldn’t have to rely on him to survive. Financial stability (for the first time in her life) would allow her to choose whether or not she wanted to be with him. It would be a comfort to both of them, assuming she did.
When Stern expressed fears that their whole four-year relationship was a plot to wean a million bucks out of him, Brossard comforted him. “I will do the only thing that I can to show you the extent of my love. It is the meaning of your gesture that has an immense value,” she wrote back. “You will get your million back; the [sign] that you are loved for who you are, and only for who you are.”
Stern’s lawyer arranged a money transfer. But the lovers fought again after she headed to her small home in France and turned off her cellphone, as she often did. He wrote her an email on February 21 to say that she should return the money out of “respect.” On February 26, he took matters back into his own hands, having his lawyer reverse the money transfer.
They began talking—and fighting—again. The last time was in his Geneva apartment on February 28, 2005. Their confrontation shifted into the sort of sado-masochistic sexual games they sometimes played. She wore a black dominatrix outfit and whipped him, but their passion for each other and their fighting merged again, afterward, as the discussion turned back to money, where he was in control.
He had already proved a week earlier that he could undercut her self-esteem on the most sensitive issues, as when he announced—according to what she told court officials—that if no one had seen fit to marry the 36-year-old by then, he wasn’t going to. On his last night, her lawyers said, the latex-clad banker went further. “A million,” he told the woman he had been with for four years, “that’s a lot to pay for a whore.”
Brossard walked over to the dressing room where Stern kept his sex toys—and, as he had shown her, his three pistols. She took a gun, pointed it at his head, and pulled the trigger. In a report to the court, the case psychiatrist explained that Brossard perceived the murder as her “victory” over Stern. A woman traumatized during her childhood and then again as an adult, by a man who manipulated her on the most sensitive of issues, believed she was reclaiming her power. Just as disturbing, by killing him, she made sure that he wouldn’t leave her, as his final words suggested that he would do. She was sacrificing him to keep him forever.
“He took the first bullet in the head, he got up, and then he fell,” Brossard recounted after confessing to the killing. “I remembered the image of the animals that he hunted in Africa. And I thought that he must not suffer.” She closed in to point-blank range, and fired three more times.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris.