America wants to see Ruth Madoff behind bars

The jets and boats have been seized, her jewels may be next and she is ostracised by her high-society friends. But America wants more: to see Ruth Madoff behind bars

For once, there is no one camped on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 64th Street. No television camera crew. No breathless newspaper reporters. Not even a lone paparazzo. For more than three months, 64th and Lex were the co-ordinates for an extraordinary media scrum, and even for some public protests, while a certain Bernard and Ruth Madoff looked down from their penthouse above.

But Bernard Madoff is in jail now, guilty pleas entered to all 11 of the fraud and perjury charges laid on him. His wife and companion of 50 years? She still has the $7m (£4.8m) apartment – for now – and the services of the security guards she hired to protect it after she and her husband shot to infamy.

Her world, though, once so privileged and glamorous, is closing in. Homes in two countries are under threat of seizure; boats, jets and bank accounts have been confiscated or frozen; the government is even coming after her jewels.

Ruth Madoff was at the side of history's biggest swindler for the duration of his extraordinary fraud and – from talk show hosts to tabloid readers, from Madoff's victims to FBI officers – it seems the whole of the US is speculating how much she knew, how much responsibility might be hers, and how much she should pay.

The place you are most likely to catch a glimpse of Mrs Madoff now is further downtown, outside the Metropolitan Correctional Centre, in the financial district of Manhattan where Madoff used to be one of the most powerful men on Wall Street – before his business was revealed to be a $65bn Ponzi scheme.

Mrs Madoff made her first visit to see him on Monday, igniting another storm of flashbulbs but staying silent under a barrage of questions. Photographers thought they caught her in a fleeting smile. When she had previously emerged from the apartment, a week after her husband was jailed, her trip to the supermarket ended in chaos as paparazzi descended.

"Oh, this is crazy, forget this," she had exclaimed, shoving her trolley into the shelves and storming out. "Oh, very exciting, I went to the grocery store." The tabloids did indeed find it exciting. The New York Post screamed: "She was shopping for detergent – but will she come clean?"

The people now on the trail of Mrs Madoff are the FBI, the state prosecutors and the Serious Fraud Office in the UK, who are painstakingly piecing together her involvement in her husband's business and her own personal finances. They are testing Madoff's claim, repeated from the day of his confession in December to his appearance in court last month, that he acted alone. Mrs Madoff has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and her lawyers deny any.

For the time being, the 67-year-old lives in a kind of limbo, flitting unhappily between New York and Palm Beach, the Florida playground of the uber-rich, where she and her husband had the mansion and the boat and the club memberships required of that rarified place – and where Madoff's friends solicited for him some of his wealthiest victims.

If in New York Mrs Madoff is hounded, in Palm Beach she is largely ostracised. In a community where it is vital to be seen in the right company, and in the right outfits, she is decidedly out of fashion, and there has been an explosion of sniping about her. The journalist Lucinda Franks, brunching at the Palm Beach Country Club, reported back that members and other locals are damning Mrs Madoff as "a mousy little woman" or "antisocial" and that "everyone down here thinks she was involved in the Ponzi scheme".

According to Franks, when Mrs Madoff turned up in Palm Beach just before her husband was jailed, news of her shopping trip swept the area, with gossips commenting on the $7,500 Birkin bag she carried with her and even wondering where exactly she found her four female companions, since she had rarely previously been seen out of the company of her husband.

The cattiness is the least of it. In the weeks since that visit, the Palm Beach mansion has been seized by the US government, the first round in its attempts to confiscate as much of the Madoffs' wealth as possible before parcelling out what they can to the Ponzi scheme's thousands of victims. They have identified $100m in personal assets they claim can be confiscated as the proceeds of fraud.

That list of the couple's assets was made public by Madoff's defence team last month. Their four homes are worth about $22m, all but one of them in Mrs Madoff's name alone. Their four boats add up to $9.3m. The penthouse apartment in Manhattan contains $104,000 of silverware and other items, including a $39,000 Steinway piano. Mrs Madoff's jewellery is worth $2.6m.

But having lost the Palm Beach home already, she is not going to give up the penthouse without a ferocious fight. Her lawyers say that the apartment, plus about $62m in cash and bonds, are hers alone and are unrelated to her husband's finances. She says these sums come from investing a multi-million dollar inheritance from her father, Sol Alpern.

Mr Alpern had been one of Madoff's earliest cheerleaders, recommending to friends that they invest with his new son-in-law as he began building his business on Wall Street in the Sixties.

Madoff himself gave his wife a helping hand in her legal fight when he claimed in court that "to the best of my recollection" he began his scam in the early Nineties. That could mean that the apartment, purchased in her name in the Eighties, may be saved for her – but prosecutors say his scheme began much earlier than he is letting on.

"It's an absolutely crucial point," says Daniel Ruzumna, a New York attorney who has defended the spouses of other alleged fraudsters against similar forfeiture actions.

"If the fraud does go back to the eighties, from that point on, anything she purchased with any of his money will be traceable to the proceeds of fraud."

He thinks her bid to hold on to the apartment will ultimately fail and that Mrs Madoff – like so many of her husband's victims – faces a future of homelessness and penury.

"Most people in relationships tend to commingle their assets, at least to some extent. I think Ruth Madoff is going to struggle to hold on to her assets, now that the government is taking affirmative action. This fraud is so much greater in scale, has gone on so long without being detected and caused losses that are so staggeringly high, I think the government can go after almost any assets at all as they try to pay back victims."

The victims of Madoff's fraud who showed up in court to see him plead guilty last month certainly don't believe his wife should be shielded. There were hoots of derision from their benches when a defence lawyer talked about Mrs Madoff paying for the penthouse security guards "out of her own pocket". They believe her money is his money, and therefore theirs. More to the point, many victims simply don't believe that Mrs Madoff is an innocent dupe, but rather that she too knew that Madoff Investment Securities was a giant pyramid scheme.

Two years her future husband's junior at Far Rockaway high school in the New York borough of Queens, Ruth Alpern had been Bernard Madoff's childhood sweetheart, and their partnership has been a long and intimate one. In New York and Palm Beach, observers have noted the pair would appear deep in conversation when dining together but that Mrs Madoff would fall silent and let her husband do the talking in public.

Every bit the supportive society wife, she busied herself with philanthropy, particularly the couple's charitable foundation, set up in 1998 to aid cancer causes and the arts. In 1996, she executive-edited a cook book, Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher, a vanity project.

However, it is clear that she also involved herself in her husband's business. Since Madoff's confession, almost every week has brought new questions for his wife to answer. Investigators immediately found Mrs Madoff's name on transactions within the firm. She sometimes kept an office there. Acquaintances have come forward to say that she acted as a go-between for them as they sought to become investors in her husband's miracle-grow funds.

Finally, it has been revealed that she made a number of large withdrawals from brokerage accounts in the UK and in the US in the weeks before her husband's scheme collapsed, including a $10m withdrawal on the day he confessed to their sons.

This week, Mrs Madoff has been in front of the cameras in her role as the fraudster's spouse. While investigators unravel Madoff's scheme, it remains an open question whether his wife will emerge with an even more central part.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015