Assassination of millionaire banker leaves police baffled

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The Independent Online

The few sketchy details to have emerged on the death this week of the French banker Edouard Stern read like the first chapter of a thriller.

Rich and handsome, the only son of a celebrated Jewish banking family, M. Stern, 50, was a man whose eventful career had made him many enemies.

Swiss authorities confirmed yesterday that the millionaire was shot dead in his bedroom in his fifth-storey penthouse apartment in a wealthy area near the old town of Geneva. No trace was found of a struggle or break-in. Authorities were treating the death as murder, or possibly an assassinat - a premeditated killing.

At first the Geneva public prosecutor's office refused to confirm that the dead man found in the flat was M. Stern, one of the most respected, and loathed, financiers in the world.

Yesterday, Michel Graber, an investigating magistrate, said it was thought that M. Stern may have opened the door to his attacker at his high-security home, which is situated above a police station.

"The body of Edouard Stern was found by third parties in his residence in the afternoon of Tuesday, 1 March," he said. "The police were immediately advised and the inspectors of the criminal division and the forensic unit went to the location to begin their investigation. M. Stern was killed with a firearm."

He later added: "There is no doubt that there was a crime due to the dozen circumstances that we observed at the scene of the crime, but at this point in time we have not observed any signs of a break-in."

M. Stern's estranged wife, Béatrice, an art historian living in New York, was reported to be flying to Switzerland last night with their three children.

Béatrice Stern, née David-Weill, is the daughter of Michel David-Weill, owner of Lazard, the prestigious French merchant bank. M. Stern had been thought of as a likely future head of Lazard but fell out with his father-in-law.

After a business career punctuated by many arguments, coups and changes of direction, M. Stern had recently created an investment fund and consultancy of his own. Among his recent coups was the negotiation of the sale of the French bank CCF to the British banking giant HSBC. He was also chairman and a leading shareholder of the British engineering company Delta plc.

M. Stern, an expert in off-shore tax avoidance, was also said to have a network of more submerged investments in places such as Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands.

He was rumoured in Geneva to have recently lost a lot of money through unwise investments in eastern Europe or Russia. He was said to be furious at his losses - but also to feel under threat.

The banker - a black belt at karate, a collector of weapons, and an expert in gambling card games - is also said to have had a "complicated" private life.

According to the local press, two business colleagues found M. Stern's body in his flat in the Rue Adrien-Lachenal on Tuesday after he failed to turn up for meetings. They contacted his Portuguese cleaner, who opened up his apartment.

She told the Tribune de Genève newspaper that his business colleagues had pushed past her into M. Stern's bedroom and then restrained her from following them. "They told me, 'You had better not look,' " she said.

"He was a charming man, very generous towards me and my husband," she said. "I did his washing and his cleaning. I knew which yoghurts he liked best, but of his private life I know nothing. He never spoke to me about that."

M. Stern was born in October 1954 into a Jewish banking family installed in France since the early 19th century. After a restless youth, in which he often quarrelled with his father, Antoine Stern, he was taken into the family business at the age of 22.

One of his first acts was to push his father out, with the help of his two uncles. His usurping of his father's job has been portrayed as selfish and aggressive, but his father's management of the Stern bank had been disastrous. Father and son were finally reconciled 15 years later, just before the father's death.

Edouard rebuilt the family firm's reputation and sold it to Lebanese bankers. He then built another bank called Stern and sold that for a handsome profit in 1988.

After marrying the daughter of the owner of Lazard, M. Stern was brought into the company and groomed as a future head of the business.

In 1997, M. Stern left Lazard and - with a pay-off acquired after the threat of legal action - started an investment fund of his own, Investments Real Returns SA.

Accounts differ as to what went wrong at Lazard. Some say that Michel David-Weill gave M. Stern little responsibility and he became bored.

M. Stern also quarrelled with a then Lazard executive, Jean-Marie Messier, who was later to build Vivendi Universal into an international media giant before crashing to earth in 2002.

M. David-Weill's version of events at Lazard is rather different. He was once quoted as saying of M. Stern: "I treated him as a son and he tried to treat me like he treated his father."