Financier Bernard Madoff leaves Manhattan Federal court March 10, 2009 in New York City. Madoff attended a court hearing regarding the conflicting status of his legal representation in his multi-billion dollar fraud allegations. (Getty Images)
His victims included the famous – film director Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel – as well as ordinary investors.
Madoff said he started the fraud, in which he appeared to deliver steady returns to clients, but was actually using money from new investors to pay off existing shareholders, in the 1990s because he felt "compelled" to give investors solid returns despite the recession and weak stock market.
"When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients," Madoff told the judge at his plea hearing. "However, this proved difficult, and ultimately impossible, and as the years went by, I realized that my arrest and this day would inevitably come."
Prior to his downfall, Madoff was viewed as a self-made and respected figure among financial professionals as the head of the seemingly successful Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities firm. He also served as the chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market in 1990, 1991 and 1993.
In addition to being sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison, Madoff and his family took a major financial hit: A judge issued a $171 billion forfeiture order in June 2009 requiring the disgraced financier to give up his interests in all property, including real estate, investments, car and boats. Under the arrangement, the government also obtained his wife's interest in all property, including $80 million that she claimed belonged to her, leaving Ruth Maddoff with $2.5 million in assets.
The decline and fall of Madoff also took a toll on his family.
The oldest of his two sons, Mark Madoff, died by suicide on the second anniversary of his father's arrest in 2010. His other son, Andrew, died from cancer at age 48 in 2014.
Mark Madoff's suicide prompted his mother, Ruth Madoff, to cut off all communications with her husband.
Meanwhile, Madoff's younger brother, who helped run the business, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of falsifying false records and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He was released from federal custody last year.
"You know there hasn’t been a day in prison that I haven’t felt the guilt for the pain I caused on the victims and for my family," he told The Washington Post in 2020 when his attorney asked for his compassionate release. He said his dying wish was to reconcile with his grandchildren and explain his actions.
"You know I lost both my sons, and my wife is not really well," he said. "So it’s horrible. I was very close with my family. I made a terrible mistake. And you know I suffer with it. I’ll suffer with it when I get out."