Sympathetic judge gives Germany's most costly fraudster a present for Christmas

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The Independent Online
Jurgen Schneider, the property tycoon who perpetrated the costliest fraud in post-war German history, was sentenced yesterday to six years and nine months in jail. However, this being the season of goodwill, the judge promptly lifted the arrest warrant, allowing the convict to spend Christmas with his family.

Until the collapse of his empire in April 1994 with debts of DM5bn (pounds 1.7bn), Schneider was feted as the developer with a Midas touch. Derelict urban landscapes turned at the wave of his wand into luxury shopping arcades. At the peak of his career, he controlled prime sites in Frankfurt and Leipzig, and lived in a gilded Schloss in the German financial capital's stock-broker belt.

As creditors caught scent of the scale of his fraud, Schneider fled with his wife Claudia abroad. They were tracked down in Miami in May 1995 and brought back to Germany in February 1996.

During his trial in Frankfurt, Schneider's defence rested on allegations that the creditors bankrolling him had known they were being hoodwinked. He did not dispute charges that he had overstated the value of his holdings in order to obtain loans.

Heinrich Gehrke, the judge sentencing him yesterday, felt sympathetic to Schneider's position. "The banks knocked his doors down with almost unbelievable recklessness," he said. "They didn't check asset valuations, and if there were shortcomings in his loan applications, they simply accepted them."

Among the creditors were Germany's biggest financial institutes, including Deutsche Bank, which lost DM470m.

"Schneider was neither a professional fraudster nor a Robin Hood of the property world," said the judge.

Once Christmas is out of the way, Schneider will take up residence in a low-security prison. Having served 32 months already, he will shortly be entitled to home leaves at weekends. After 20 months, he will be up for parole.