Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison on Monday for perpetrating Wall Street's biggest and most brazen investment fraud, the maximum punishment for what the judge called an extraordinarily evil crime.
Cheers and applause came from the courtroom -- filled with his fleeced investors -- as the judge handed down the penalty.
Madoff, 71, stood passively with his hands clasped at his waist, showing no reaction when he heard the sentence that will send him to prison for the rest of his life.
He was escorted out of the courtroom by federal marshals but not handcuffed. It was not yet known where Madoff will serve his sentence. He has been held in a small Manhattan jail cell for the past three months.
U.S. District Judge Denny Chin in Manhattan said the symbolism of a 150-year prison sentence was important, given the magnitude of the breach of trust over decades. He pronounced the punishment after hearing emotional statements from nine victims, some of whom said they had lost their life savings, were forced to sell their homes and feared an old age in poverty.
The fraud here was staggering, Chin said before imposing a sentence equal to the maximum allowed for each of 11 crimes to which Madoff pleaded guilty in March.
Madoff sat passively throughout the hour-and-a-half hearing as his victims called him a beast, an animal and a lowlife. He wore his signature dark gray suit and black tie instead of the jail uniform he has worn since being taken into custody in March.
The confessed swindler apologized to his victims, at one point briefly turning in their direction while he spoke.
I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life, he said in calm, measured tones. I live in a tormented state knowing the pain and suffering I have created.
Victims detailed their losses, many imploring Judge Chin to impose the maximum sentence in a maximum security prison. Chin said he cannot decide where the sentence will be served; that determination is left to the federal prisons bureau.
I only hope that his prison sentence is long enough so that his jail cell will become his coffin, said Michael Schwartz, 33, who said his family had been robbed of savings that were to be used to care for his mentally disabled brother.
FALL FROM GRACE
The courtroom drama capped a six-month saga that gripped Wall Street just it suffered the worst financial crisis since the 1930s Great Depression.
Madoff, a once respected money manager and a former chairman of the Nasdaq, was arrested in December after his two sons told authorities he had confessed his massive scam to them. The case has triggered widespread criticism of U.S. securities regulators accused of missing numerous red flags.
Madoff confessed to running a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme in which investors were paid returns from money paid by later investors. His victims included individuals, charities and for-profit institutions.
Madoff has said he committed the fraud on his own. He has not named any accomplices. The only other person charged is his outside accountant.
Madoff's brother, Peter, and his sons, Mark and Andrew, held executive positions in the brokerage unit of Madoff's firm. Their lawyers say they were not aware of or involved in the crooked asset management side.
Madoff's wife Ruth, 68, was not in court for the sentencing. She has not been charged with any crimes but has been vilified by defrauded investors, shunned by people she once knew well, and pursued by the New York press.
Investigators do not know how much was stolen, according to court papers. Prosecutors say $170 billion flowed through the principal Madoff account over decades, and that weeks before the financier's December arrest the firm's statements showed a total of $65 billion in accounts.
The trustee winding down the Madoff firm has so far collected $1.2 billion to return to investors. Swindled investors fear they may never recover the millions some of them have lost.
I cannot offer you an excuse for my behavior, Madoff told the court. How do you excuse betraying thousands of investors who entrusted me with their life savings?
He said he tried to undo his crimes but the harder I tried, the deeper a hole I dug for myself.
Investors in the courtroom said Madoff's apologies left them cold.
How can he look people in the eye, said George Nierenberg, 57. There's something very pathological. He is still making excuses for himself.
Madoff's lawyer, Ira Lee Sorkin, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the sentence. He had asked the judge for a 12-year prison sentence, arguing that even with that, Madoff would likely spend all or most of the rest of his life in prison.
Madoff and his wife have agreed to the sale of three of their luxury properties and other assets and valuables, according to court documents filed on Friday. Proceeds from asset sales will be distributed to defrauded investors.
Ruth Madoff will be left with $2.5 million and have to look for a new home as she forfeits claim to some $80 million in assets.
(Reporting by Grant McCool and Martha Graybow; editing by John Wallace)